Donald Albrecht, an architect by profession with an obvious affection for the movies, has combined his two loves to bring us a meticulous examination of the period between 1920 and 1939, in which the glamour industry brought modern architecture to the attention of the world. His scholarly exposition of modern architecture's influence on film design is a book for students of both architecture and film, and for anyone who wonders about the forces that shaped those magical celluloid fantasies.
"Designing Dreams" presents the parallel development of the architectural and cinematic arts during two turbulent decades. It was a time between wars into which were compressed extravagance, sudden poverty, social change, despair and hope. The evolution of modern architecture had reached a high point concurrently with the peaking of motion picture production. Architecture, however, sank with the Depression while movies rose to even greater heights of opulence and unfettered creativity. We are faced with the paradox of a booming film industry sailing over a collapsing economy.
The answer to this puzzle is an important concern of this book. The author gives us a close look at the events and forces that led modern architecture and the movies to march in tandem for a moment in history.
Although most modern architects of that era had hoped to make good design available to everyone, Albrecht points out that motion pictures transformed that ideal to a "fantasy of privilege to be enjoyed only by the celluloid wealthy." In a time of deprivation, the movies offered fantasies of wealth, gracious living and high style. Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, the "Lubitsch touch" were keys for escape from a depressed world. In five intertwining, well-documented and richly illustrated chapters, the author discourses on the what, the how and the why of this occurrence.
The industrial revolution had influenced the art world earlier in the century, but it was not until after World War I that movements like Expressionism and Cubism entered the popular consciousness. The names of Leger, Picasso and Mondrian became known to be sophisticated international world. Expositions and publications revealed the works of architects Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, their colleagues and disciples. There emerged a modern architecture that had few ties with the past and that allowed a new freedom of movement and space. Artists, novelists, playwrights adopted the modern style and reflected it in their works.
Movies were 30 years old in 1925 when innovative technology made it possible for film to assert itself as a force in the arts.
France had leaped to the fore with films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," Abel Gance's "Napoleon" and Rene Claire's "A nous la liberte." Germany kept pace with Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." The impact of these films was not lost on American producers, who began luring Europe's film designers to the United States. Soon, people like Joseph Urban, Paul Aribe, Erte, Natasha Rambova and the followers of Germany's Bauhaus were contributing to Hollywood's domination of film-making in the world.
The chapter titled "The Modern Mystique" stirred my recollections of my beginning years as a film designer in the 1930s and gave form and structure to my own experience. I can certainly attest to the accuracy of the author's description of what went on at Paramount at that time. He projects not only the objective scene, but the ambiance, the flavor infused by the German Hans Dreier and his compatriot film workers--Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich et al.
Albrecht examines each of the eight major studios with the same exemplary thoroughness and fine detail.
As the end of the decade approached, a diminuendo set in. The impact of modern architecture on film waned--but it had left its mark. Who can forget the grand scale and the fabulous structures of the Hollywood musical--the elegant chic of the penthouse apartment?
Finally, Albrecht reprises the major premises of his book, namely, that two art forms, one based in reality, the other based in illusion, bonded together for a while in mutual support and to the advantage of each. Films, using modern architecture to dream up ever more glorious fantasies, made familiar and acceptable to the masses of film-goers the place of modern architecture in their daily lives.
For my part, I am especially grateful to Donald Albrecht for his recognition of the art director's important contribution to the process of film-making--a recognition all too rare.