By Craig Leask
As mentioned in Mid-Century Modern – Part 1, Mid-Century Modern (MCM) is an architectural design and decorating style based upon clean lines, clear expanses of glass, open sight lines, a blurring of interior and exterior spaces and a complete lack of clutter. MCM was in its prime, from the mid-1940’s to the mid -1970’s and was popular all over the world. As the style was popular in culture, so too it was reflected in film.
In this article, I continue with the discussion on Mid Century Architecture in movies.
The Fast and the Furious (2001): The LAPD/FBI Headquarters
In The Fast and the Furious, a spectacular MCM home serves as the undercover headquarters for the LAPD/FBI, which is identified as a home the LAPD had confiscated. This location is where Brian O’Conner (Brian Walker), an undercover police officer, meets his boss, Sgt. Tanner (Ted Levine) for briefings. Interestingly, during the briefing, Sgt. Tanner mentions of the house they are meeting in, “You know, Eddie Fisher built this house for Elizabeth Taylor in the ‘50s.” Although interesting, the line is completely untrue.
The house being featured was known as Ridgetop, the Davis Family residence, designed by architect David Fowler on a 3.04 acre hilltop peninsula in the tony LA neighborhood of Beverly Crest. The home, constructed in 1963 formed a perfect circle of 5,444 square feet of mid-century modern space surrounding an open courtyard sporting a pool, surmounted by a decorative bridge (as shown in the black and white image at the top of the article). Inside, the home contained 4 bedrooms, 6 baths and 180 degree city views from its perch high in the hills. Unfortunately, the uniqueness and size of the property coupled with its location and unparalleled views made Ridgetop a key target for redevelopment. Following the $2.8 million sale of the property in 2000, and despite the attempts of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, a preservation group, the home was demolished and replaced with a 53,000 square foot behemoth of a residence for Anthony Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune.
As a side note, the annual taxes of Mr. Pritzker’s new house are $227,015 (2018).
Ridgetop was also featured in the movie Hanging Up (2000) as Lou Mozell’s (Walter Matthau) dilapidated home. As with The Fast and the Furious, the house features prominently in the movie.
The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate, based on the novel by Charles Webb, was focused upon capturing the attitude of disenchanted upper class youth in 1960’s California. Production Designer Richard Sylbert and Director Mike Nichols in adapting the novel to film understood the importance of the sets and locations as backdrops to support the tension and disillusionment felt by the main characters.
The house used as the Robinson’s home in reality is located at 607 North Palm Drive, between Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The exterior of the home, although not Mid-Century Modern by any stretch of the imagination, in my opinion seems to be relatively style less, but is border line mock Tudor in design if pressed for a descriptor. Although the interiors were studio sets, Sylbert opted towards a severe and impersonal mid-century look in its décor contrasting with the generic brick exterior.
George Nelson provided the set decoration with a focus on giving the viewer an insight into the world these characters inhabit. Rather than the clean lines, low furniture and minimal clutter Mid-Century design is known for, the Robinson’s home displays the cluttered trappings of what a 1960’s upper middle class family may consider taste – a monochromatic room packed with extravagant lamps, white bar stools (Eero Saarinen design perhaps?), black leather arm chairs and an overwhelming number of liquor bottles displayed behind the prominent bar. The end result is a severe, impersonal and unwelcoming space. Interestingly, the Robinson’s daughter Elaine’s room (Katharine Ross) is a study in adolescent femininity, a welcome warmth in complete contrast to the impersonal atmosphere throughout the rest of the Robinson’s house.
Interestingly, the house used as the Braddock home in the movie, is the same house used as the Robinson’s home – 607 North Palm Drive. The Braddock’s house is only ever shown from the back, particularly for parties surrounding the pool.
The bedroom of the Taft Hotel is the setting for Ben’s (Dustin Hoffman) famous line: “Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me” as he watches Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seductively remove her stockings, her outstretched leg tantalizingly raised in the air. The Ambassador Hotel at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard was used as The Taft. Designed by Pasadena architect Myron Hunt, the hotel style was based upon a mix of Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco. The room of the famous seduction was a set, but designed to appear as having received a 1960’s modern update.
The Mid-Century Modern church in the finale of the film where Benjamin disrupts Elaine’s wedding is the United Methodist Church of La Verne, 3205 D Street, La Verne, about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
The Lake House (2006), Cook County, Illinois
The Lake House is an American film, based upon a South Korean motion picture entitled Il Mare (2000). The plot centers around the romance between two people who live in the house, at two different times, but develop a relationship through corresponding via a mysterious mailbox. The title, Il Mare, is Italian for “The Sea” which is the name of the seaside house in which that story is set.
The Lake House, directed by Alejandro Agresti and written by David Auburn, stars Keanu Reeves (Alex) and Sandra Bullock (Kate) as the two distant lovers with ties to the same house. Alex, an Architect is living in 2004, but Kate, a Doctor, lives in 2006. Thanks to the magic mailbox at the lake house, though, they’re able to send and receive letters to each other. It doesn’t entirely make sense, nor is it aptly explained in the film, but as a rom-com, not everything has to make sense so long as the two protagonists end up together at the end.
According to the production notes, location manager James McAllister and Director Alejandro Agresti understood that the house is the integral key to the characters relationship and thus had to be unique and special. Understanding the importance of the house, the production team spent weeks searching for an existing lakefront dwelling that would suit their needs. After visiting waterfront locations throughout Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, the team finally came to the conclusion that they would need to design and construct the signature house themselves.
McAllister then returned to Cook County, Illinois, where he had previously worked on Evil Has a Face (1996) and at the 55 acre Maple Lake within a forest preserve, the team started work on their version of the Lake House. The condition made by the preserve was that when filming was completed, the site needed to be returned to its original condition. This unfortunately meant the iconic house would need to be disassembled when filming wrapped.
British architect Nathan Crowley designed the 2000 square foot dwelling, and once designed, the house took only ten weeks to construct. The building required 35 tons of steel and a 100 man construction crew to complete the house in order to meet the filming schedule. As Crowley stated, “The house was our most important set, the one key piece around which the story revolves. So it made sense for us to create exactly what we wanted. We wanted a mixture of modern and classical, something that Alex’s father might have designed.” In the movie, Alex’s father was a famous architect (played by Christopher Plummer) who had designed and constructed the Lake House.
To be honest, I am not sure if the homes’ design in The Lake House can actually be classified as MCM as Industrial Modern may be more appropriate. To me, it does meet the MCM definition, but others may differ.
Per the conditions, following completion of filming the house was dismantled and replaced by a simple fishing dock.
L.A. Confidential (1997) and Beginners (2010)
The Lovell House was designed in 1929 by architect Richard Neutra for a physician Philip Lovell. Neutra became famous for this “ready-for-anything” plan, based upon open, multifunctional and flexible homes. His design sense focused on adaptability for any style of living while spending a great deal of energy customizing his plans to the real needs of his clients, rather than imposing his own designs on them.
The Lovell House is often acknowledged as the first steel frame house and was designed to reflect Neutra’s interest in industrial production, as evident in the use of use of factory-made window assemblies and details such as the Ford Model-A headlights in the main stairwell. The steel structure mimics those found in skyscraper construction techniques of the time. Because of the topography of the property, the house is suspended on the steep lot by tension cables tethered to the rocky terrain – a design and engineering feat.
The home’s 4500 square foot interior reflects the architect’s interest in Cubism and transparency with open spaces and expanses of glass framing the extensive view. The minimal detailing shows the influence of Irving Gill (April 26, 1870 – October 7, 1936), who is considered a pioneer of the modern movement in architecture.
The iconic home was portrayed in several movies: once as the home of Pierce Morehouse Patchett (David Stratham) in L.A. Confidential (1997); as well as the home of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) in Beginners (2010).
The Parr House (AKA Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl)
The feedback from my initial article on Mid-Century Architecture in Film (Part 1) overwhelmingly pointed me towards The Incredibles (2004) and The Incredibles 2 (2018) for their outstanding mid-century styling. I had been impressed by the detail depicted in the architecture and the detail of the furnishings of both films, but initially didn’t think I could include them as they were animation – well, I have been proven wrong and hopefully you agree with my including a section on Animation films, which include a strong Mid-Century Architecture focus.
To start, in both Incredibles movies, the animators at Pixar have been extremely successful in creating ambiguity on the actual time period in which the films are set. The architecture is mid-century modern all the way. In the first movie, the Parr’s live in a classic mid-century home with a butterfly roof reminiscent of the types found in Palm Springs by Architects Palmer and Krisel.
The homes interiors are filled with appropriate interior details and furnishings such as modular open wooden shelving room dividers, stone walls and specific furnishings which are representations of originals: a 1951 Zanuso ‘Lady Chair’; 1963 Wegner Shell Chairs; 1957 Jacobsen Swan chairs and a 1940 Eames Low Lounge Chair. The cars in the film represent everything from the exaggerated chrome styling of Ford Edsel’s (manufactured from 1958 to 1960) to Porsche Speedsters (1958) to what appears to be a classic gull winged Mercedes-Benz (manufactured from 1954 to 1957). The balance of the sets point towards the classic evil lairs lifted out of early science fiction and James Bond movies. Adding to the confusion surrounding the time period is the style and capabilities of the technology (VHS tapes and push button phones) as well as jets, weaponry, transportation networks and computer surveillance systems which actually surpass today’s technological capabilities. According to Producer John Walker of Pixar Animation Studios, the ambiguity of the timeline is precisely what they were hoping to achieve – a 1960’s interpretation of what the future would look like.
The first film is actually set in 1962 – Monday, May 16th, 1962 to be exact. That is the date shown on a newspaper being read by Mr. Incredible in the original film. The second film immediately follows the first even though there is a 14 year gap between the release of the first and second films.
While the Parr residence in the first Incredibles is modeled after a Palmer and Krisel Palm Springs styled house, Ralph Eggleston, a Pixar Animation Studios director and production designer confirmed their home in Incredibles 2 is actually a composite of several houses, namely the James Evans house in New Canaan, Connecticut (constructed in 1963 by Architect John Black Lee) and the fictitious James Mason house in the movie North by Northwest (1959). The interior features of the home, namely the lavish Modernist setting of the living room complete with reflecting pools were inspired by the 1968 Blake Edwards film The Party.
Other Mid-Century styled classic animation shows include: The Jetsons (1962 – 1963); Jonny Quest (1964 -1965) and The Thunderbirds (1965 – 1966). Unlike The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, where animators of today were able to look back and interpret a 1960’s view of the future based upon what is known today, animation of the 1960’s did not have this luxury (or constraint). In the 1960’s the future was an unlimited blank canvas of opportunity and wonder. In most cases, sets and scenery were inspired by the futuristic architecture being constructed around the Los Angeles area, where the studios were located (The Los Angeles Airport central “Theme Building” and the John Lautner designed “Chemosphere” were two whose designs were heavily used as inspiration particularly for The Jetsons.
Jonny Quest, lived on a secluded island in a secret laboratory with his father, fathers assistant, side kick Hadji and dog Bandit, and traveled to exotic places in a space aged, needle nosed jet on Government assignments. The science depicted was far ahead of its time, with sets heavily reliant on mid-century modern design to represent their futuristic and cutting edge existence.
In this article and my preceding article on the same topic, I identify a mere handful of incredible real Mid-Century Modern locations and finely detailed sets used in movies. As you can imagine, there are literally hundreds more MCM locations used in both movies and television programming, produced not only in the US but around the world.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.