Mies at the Movies

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A conversation between Nazmi Anuar (NA) and Shreyank Khemalapure (SK)

For this issue of RUANG dedicated to the theme of Fiction, we have decided to try and unpack an interesting phenomenon where architecture is appropriated into the realm of fiction through the medium of film. In the best interest of presenting a concise discussion of this topic we have taken the liberty to eschew an exhaustive analysis or a general overview of architecture in films and will focus our discussion on the works of one architect, Mies van der Rohe.

This discussion will be divided into three Acts to explore several appearances of Mies’s work in films, the themes and meaning associated with their presence.  We will begin by discussing Mies’s work when casting as the lair of the villain and the anti-hero, in Act 1. Act 2 will address the contradictions and duality in Mies’s work and their relations to characters inhabiting the buildings in films, while Act 3 will explore how Mies’s architecture disappears into the background.

ACT 1 – WHITE HOUSES

NA: Let’s start with Mies’s houses. In the 2007 film Hannibal Rising, Mies’s Tugendhat House appeared as the house of the villain, which is somehow paradoxical, since modernism was supposed to be the cure for society’s ills.

The Tugendhat House in Hannibal Rising (Source: Momentum Picture 2007)

The Tugendhat House in Hannibal Rising (Source: Momentum Picture 2007)

SK: But why Tugendhat?

NA: Maybe it was used to portray decadence and violence? In the film, it served as the house a former war criminal who escaped justice and is living a comfortable life. During its time, the actual house was an example of luxurious modern living of the bourgeois.

SK: True…Wasn’t it abandoned by the owners?

NA: During the war, the owners had to flee Europe, and the house was subsequently occupied by German officials and then badly damaged by Soviet bombing. It was even used as a stable for horses. So, it was in a way subjected to a lot of violence.

In the film, Hannibal’s family had to leave behind their comfortable bourgeois life and into a life of suffering, strangely mirrored in the fate of the Tugendhat House. It would have been maybe more fitting as Hannibal’s house.

SK: Other Mies’s house that suffers the portrayal of an anti-hero’s lair, was carbon copied version of Farnsworth House as the Wayne Manor in Batman vs. Superman (2016).

NA: But in black, of course.

SK: Batman must have had a great Miesian student to design it.

Wayne Manor - a black Farnsworth House - in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Source: Warner Bros. 2016)

Wayne Manor – a black Farnsworth House – in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Source: Warner Bros. 2016)

NA: Do you think painting black the Farnsworth House was simply an aesthetic choice?

SK: I think so. I think that Farnsworth House should have been, black, thereby truly going into the background.

NA: I think that by being white, it becomes a frame. Farnsworth is probably the only Mies building of that period where the steel elements weren’t painted black, right?

SK: Absolutely! I wonder if it is because of Dr Farnsworth.

NA: Well, there’s that back-story to the whole Farnsworth House affair. Client met architect at a dinner party, requested a house, their relationship bloomed but got complicated during the design and construction, inevitable fallout and lawsuits. I mean, if they made that into a film, it’ll be more interesting than the Batman-Superman bromance.[1]

SK: Totally. In speaking of the two houses, it is interesting to note that the chrome finished columns in the Tugendhat House are on the inside.  It was as if to clear the way to peep into the house as clearly as possible – like into the mind of Hannibal preoccupied with a singular purpose. But it is with the Farnsworth House Mies goes full throttle with his Gothic project and the structure is revealed as if to take a stance. On the one hand, the Tugendhat House could be placed in a context of the discussions of Modern Psychology and on the other Farnsworth House emphasising the Gothic, ethical, side of Modernism.

 ACT 2 – DARK TOWERS

NA: In American Psycho (2000) Mies’s Toronto Dominion Center appeared as the office of the anti-hero Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), a corporate yuppie in the daytime and serial killer at night. What is it about Mies’s architecture that lends itself for these depictions? Its cold perfection and ruthless precision? Mies’s architecture is obviously a rational architecture, devoid of any obvious expressions. A similar depiction of modern architecture as cold and rational was at the center of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).[2]

SK: Wasn’t it Mies’s project in a way to bring into his architecture the will of the epoch?

NA: Detlef Mertins argued that Mies was continuously struggling with the role of architecture in modernity: to make architecture that is the translation of the will of the epoch but also to somehow transcend the idea of modernity. In this sense, his work could be said to embody a set of contradictions.[3]

SK: The thing about Mies was that he was, in many ways, an ascetic being yet one who chose to live and work in the very heart of capitalism.

NA: In the film, Patrick Bateman was trying to transcend the banality of the corporate existence – power lunches, flashy suits, comparing business cards – by addressing his homicidal impulses.

In that sense, Mies’s architecture was perhaps the ideal background for those impulses to unfold?

SK: This form of psychosis is very evident also in the much graphic versions of the DC Comics – which we can address later.  One of the key aspects of the modern metropolis, which most of the fictions are obsessed with, is the process of alienation, a process of disassociation from any and every previous reference or association or influence, a form of tabula rasa of associations.

NA: Yes, and I think that this process of disassociation was amusingly played out towards the end of the film where we find Bateman running lost in the lobbies and plaza of Mies’s Toronto Dominion Center, which somehow also recalled the scene in Playtime where some of the scenes unfolded in the indistinguishable lobbies of modern office buildings.

The lobby of the Toronto Dominion Center in American Psycho (Source: Lionsgate Films 2000)

The lobby of the Toronto Dominion Center in American Psycho (Source: Lionsgate Films 2000)

SK: Is it a sheer coincidence that Christian Bale would play both Bateman and Batman? Both shot in the presence of Mies, both working in the night?

NA: Maybe Mies’s architecture is nocturnal architecture?

SK: Totally!

NA: But even in daylight his buildings are dark buildings, silhouettes almost.

SK: It’s dark in the day and bright in the night as if it awakens in the night.

The plaza of the Toronto Dominion Center in American Psycho (Source: Lionsgate Films 2000)

The plaza of the Toronto Dominion Center in American Psycho (Source: Lionsgate Films 2000)

NA: That’s an interesting take on the duality of his architecture.

SK: Is it possible to say that about the work of any other architect?

NA: Probably not. It is interesting to see how Mies’s presence was all over Dark Knight (2008). The Richard J Daley Center, by Mies’s former student Jacques Brownson acts as the Wayne Enterprise Headquarters. Wayne’s boardroom, as well as the offices of Harvey Dent and the Commissioner, was shot in Mies’s IBM Building, while Wayne’s penthouse was shot in the lobby of Mies’s One Illinois Center. The gridded ceiling of the Batcave meanwhile is almost an exact copy on the interior of Mies’s Federal Center. That’s a lot of Mies in one film.

The Richard J Daley Center - designed by Mies’s former student Jacques Brownson- as the Wayne Tower in Dark Knight (Source: Warner Bros. 2008)

The Richard J Daley Center – designed by Mies’s former student Jacques Brownson- as the Wayne Tower in Dark Knight (Source: Warner Bros. 2008)

The Batcave, influenced by the Chicago Federal Center in Dark Knight (Source: Warner Bros. 2008)

The Batcave, influenced by the Chicago Federal Center in Dark Knight (Source: Warner Bros. 2008)

SK: Nolan’s a big fan of Mies that’s well established.

NA: His production designer Nathan Crowley is a big fan as well. It was specifically mentioned that Crowley referred to Mies’s work when designing the robots in Nolan’s Interstellar (2014)[4]. Do you think that Crowley and Nolan took the Gothic out of Gotham?

SK: I would argue that they precisely got the Gothic back into Gotham. In most Batman movies, and comics, artists go back to Art Deco – which in a way was also a project to revive Gothic practices and sentiment – and it has to be either Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building on their cover pages. But it’s mostly Chrysler in the case of Batman with its Gothic gargoyles and others.

NA: It was always the more decorative aspects of Gothic that was depicted in those comics weren’t it?

SK: Absolutely. The completion of the Chrysler Building also coincides with the time of the first Batman comics. Coming back to Nolan’s Gotham, it may appear that he is trying to take out the Gothic from Gotham, but in fact, you cannot take the Gothic out of Mies. So in that sense, if most of Chicago is the home for the Miesian school of modernism, then it cannot be anything else but Gothic and hence a perfect home for the Batman of our times[5].

NA: Again, Mies’s architecture was perfectly cast as the representation of an idea although this time in a more hopeful vein. Mertins’s reading of the bound and unresolved dualities in Mies’s work is captured perfectly through its depiction in these films.

SK: The unresolved duality of Batman.

NA: Exactly. As if the filmmakers totally understood the architect’s work and what it was striving to embody.

SK: Yes, It is very touching to see such homage.

NA: I think it is interesting to read the towers through the vein of the duality in Mies’s work and how that is related to the duality of Batman. Especially the earlier point you mentioned about the differences between his architecture at night and day; dark tower during the day and tower of light at night

SK: Interestingly Mertins’s chapter on the Seagram in his book on Mies is titled the Seagram Building – Dark Building. I always wondered would we have ever imagined of all these superheroes without the existence of the skyscraper.

NA: The skyscraper is the epitome of larger than life ambitions as exemplified by superheroes. So no, you can’t have superheroes without skyscrapers.

SK: That means you can’t have a superhero in Russia?

NA: Well, maybe they have supervillains.

  

ACT 3 – BACKGROUND

NA: In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard are shown sitting on the green marble ledge of the Seagram Plaza. Effectively the building is only seen as a background, contrary to the other previous examples where Mies’s architecture was always inhabited. According to Mertins, “the film testifies that it (the building) was widely appreciated as the imminent fulfilment of its context – the most elegant, glamorous and successful of New York’s skyscrapers”[6]. So finally, we get to the idea of glamour, I mean it can’t get any more glamorous than Audrey Hepburn and Mies, can it?

The Seagram Building plaza in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Source: Paramount Picture 1961)

The Seagram Building plaza in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Source: Paramount Picture 1961)

SK: It would be hard to compete.

It brings out the humanistic side of the project. There’s certainly still some confusion of course especially in the scene where the couple is sitting on the bench, facing their back to the Seagram’s. She going to marry someone else; the guy doesn’t know how to deal with it; suddenly you pay attention to the fountain, the bench, the sunshine and the tension between two people who can’t really express their love.

NA: But does this mean that the architecture is somehow generic that it could be a background for anything? Or any meaning ascribed to architecture is fictional?

SK: It is so much in the background, that it also makes a platform to look back at the city and appreciate it. Like Audrey says “I will bring them back alright… because I must see this. Oh! I love New York”. I don’t think you can say the same from the edge of any other building in New York, even the Lever House.

NA: The image of the Miesian public space also came across in the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), although perhaps in less glamorous circumstances.

SK: Yes, but certainly in very festive circumstances. `It is a representative of a very important idea which needs some attention even in our times; the public spaces within public building premises.

NA: You mean private building premises?

SK: Well, of course in the case of Seagram’s, it is private property. But, in the case of Chicago Federal Courts building, it’s a public space anyways.

NA: Perhaps the appearance of the spaces in films, and the way they are celebrated are a testament to their success?

SK: Absolutely. In fact, after the completion of Seagram’s the Building Laws of New York were modified incentivising private developers to provide public space within their property – 1 sqft of public space = 10sqft of more commercial space. It generated some 8 hectares of “the most expensive” open spaces within a decade. Do you think it is a question of ethics?

NA: It’s about social responsibilities I guess, in the sense that your developments give something back to the public. Let’s go now to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), which was in a way John Hughes’s love letter to Chicago. The film also featured the Miesian Ben Rose house, designed by Mies’s former students A. James Speyer and David Haid.

The Chicago Federal Center plaza in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Source: Paramount Picture 1986)

The Chicago Federal Center plaza in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Source: Paramount Picture 1986)

SK: Yes. In fact, there is no point to the movie but to muse with Chicago. There’s also a scene where their expensive car is taken for a drive by the valets – without the knowledge of Ferris and his friends. While on their way back you see them driving at full speed and the car taking flight after a steep climb. I think it was shot just so that you can see the skyline of Chicago. Interestingly, the crime rates went up since Mies started building in Chicago.

NA: The by-product of modernity? John Hughes vision of Chicago is then very different than Christopher Nolan’s.

SK: Totally. Interestingly, in Kenneth Frampton’s book Studies in Tectonic Culture; he was somehow hopeful that by reintroducing the notion of tectonics we could in a way be able to build towards a better society – to put it simplistically.

NA: That somehow what we build reflects what we are as a society?

SK: In many ways, yes. It is no secret that Chicago is the home for the Miesian Modernism

NA: Yes, the so-called Second Chicago School

SK: Yet somehow either there were too many ‘blind-Mies’ or as Corbusier would say it “it is life that’s always right and the architect who is wrong”.

NA: Maybe Hughes’s projection is a city in which modernist architecture is absorbed into the existing fabric whereas in Nolan’s conception modernist architecture is somehow seen as an alienating presence or a rupture in the fabric?

SK: I think in Nolan’s it shows those unfortunate times in which Gothic architecture was present in Europe, the Black Death, corruption, the Dark Ages. In the construction of Cathedrals, you would see a complete resolution of the construction techniques and the hope to make a better society – of course, they were also to assert the presence of the powers of the Church on the other hand.

NA: There you see how the images of architecture can never embody a single meaning, not in real life, nor in fiction. Meanings are in some ways always fictional.

SK: At best, we can only hope to build a fragment of that fiction – a fragment of Utopia.

Endnotes:

[1] At the time of publishing it seems the Farnsworth House affair might turn into a movie after all. See http://archinect.com/news/article/149990523/jeff-bridges-and-maggie-gyllenhaal-to-star-in-a-new-movie-about-mies-van-der-rohe-and-edith-farnsworth

[2] The modern Paris as depicted in Playtime was fictional, a gigantic stage set known as ‘Tativille’ was actually built to act as the background for the film.

[3] “Like this new modernity, Mies has become more complex and contradictory, less black or white; in fact he now appears both black and white, dark and light, complicit and resistant, classical and modern, ordinary and extraordinary.” Detlef Mertins, MIES (London: Phaidon, 2014) p.6.

[4] “Nathan Crowley Constructs a Beautifully Grim Future in Space for Interstellar” by Caroline Chamberlain in KCRW Design and Architecture, accessed January 18, 2016 http://blogs.kcrw.com/dna/nathan-crowley- constructs-a- beautifully-grim- future-in- space-for-interstellar

[5]  For more details refer, Detlef Mertins’s Mies (London: Phaidon, 2014).

[6] Mertins, p.357.

Nazmi Anuar
Nazmi Anuar runs the collaborative research and design office Normal Architecture and teaches at the School of Architecture, Building & Design, Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur. He believes that architecture should not be limited to the job of designing buildings but should be practiced as a discipline of knowledge and a process of cultural production. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from UPM, Kuala Lumpur and a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from The Berlage, Delft.
Shreyank Khemalapure
Shreyank Khemalapure teaches Humanities and History of Architecture at L. S. Raheja School of Architecture, Mumbai since 2015. He also develops projects ranging from architectural research to documentary film making at Room for Architecture - mostly in collaboration. He graduated from The Berlage, Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design in 2014.