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Modernism is drawing more notice in movies

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood has long been a little suspicious of modern architecture. Its most dystopian visions of the future, from “2001" to “Gattaca” to “I, Robot,” have always been as sleek and ornament-free as any building by Mies van der Rohe. And although movie heroes usually return home to the kind of domestic stability symbolized by picket fences and gabled roofs, the characters living in steel-and-glass boxes have tended to be evil, deviant or seriously repressed.

“Look at a movie like ‘The Ice Storm,’ ” says Donald Albrecht, author of the two-volume study “Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies.” “The architecture is cold because the characters are cold.”

But a handful of new films suggests that Hollywood may be warming to Modernism -- or at least acknowledging a more complicated relationship with its landmarks and symbols. In Pixar’s retro-futuristic animated film “The Incredibles” and the marionette satire “Team America: World Police,” it’s the good guys who live in the Modernist or Neo-Modernist digs. Live-action films like the remake of “Alfie,” which is set in contemporary New York but marked by a skinny-tie aesthetic, have joined recent pictures including “Down with Love” and the “Austin Powers” series in sending cinematic valentines to the architects and designers of the 1960s.

As a result, the revival of Modernism in the architecture world, which began several years ago, is now being reflected on screen in all sorts of ways. Surprisingly, this shift in attitude involves conceding what architects have been forced recently to admit as well: that while the forms and styles of Modernism -- from its severe Bauhaus origins to the sunnier, more playful looks of the 1960s -- may have returned to fashion, the socially conscious ethos that drove its original adherents seems to be gone for good.

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Modernism, in other words, is no longer about saving the world. It’s become a mere shorthand for a certain kind of stylishness and an optimistic, if dated, way of looking at the world. And it’s used all the more frequently these days in film because so many Hollywood executives have themselves bought midcentury houses or amassed collections of furniture by George Nelson or Eero Saarinen.

Still, in “The Incredibles” -- which is, of course, precisely about saving the world -- the relationship between the characters and the buildings they live in, chase one another through and blow up is a good deal more sophisticated than you might guess. The creative team, led by production designer Lou Romano and art director Ralph Eggleston, weren’t specific about the film’s era, but for the most part it dates to the early 1960s, by which time architecture had lost some of its prewar leanness.

This is especially true of the house owned by the Parrs, a family headed by two former superheroes who have been forced to give up crime-fighting and take up an anonymous suburban existence. The interior is so stuffed with Eames-style furniture that you begin to suspect a sofa-placement deal with Design Within Reach. Outside, with its light-brick siding, squared-off horizontal profile and butterfly roof, the house borrows elements from the suburban designs that Joseph Eichler built, mostly in Northern California, in the 1960s.

To match a couple of aging superheroes settling unhappily into soft middle age, that is, the design team picked the exact period when Modernist architecture was doing the same. The house symbolizes an up-to-date lifestyle but also an anonymous, mass-produced one -- hardly a small detail in a movie that takes American society to task for promoting a deadening, everyone-is-special brand of mediocrity. Indeed, its obsessive attention to design details is one of the ways in which writer-director Brad Bird tries to make the case that the film itself is uniquely distinguished, to separate his work from the C-average animated-film pack.

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“In the course of our research, we went and visited a lot of real homes,” says Teddy Newton, a designer at Pixar. “And the one we kept coming back to was the Eichler -- first of all because Eichlers tend not to have many windows on the exterior, and we wanted to suggest that the house had a hidden identity the same way the family did.”

Another house in the movie, a hilltop cluster of stacked boxes owned by a pint-sized fashion designer named Edna, reflects none of the conformity of the Parrs’ slice of suburbia. It’s all about cool individuality, with floor-to-ceiling glass and a dramatic cantilevered stair. And it’s hard to miss a connection between Edna’s disdain for frilly superhero costumes (her mantra is “No capes!”) and the spare purity of her house (no drapes!).

For their part, the animators weren’t exactly upset about the prospect of rendering so many midcentury details. “From an animation point of view, our days are filled with messiness,” says Eggleston, the art director. “Our desks are covered with drawings we’ve tried and rejected. That may be why we’re so attracted to architecture with clean lines.”

On top of that, he says, “It’s really hard to do architecture in animation. You can have an establishing shot, but once you get inside, it just becomes background and you lose all the detail. With modern architecture, the clarity of it makes it work. As a viewer you immediately understand what it’s about.”

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To help create a series of puppet-sized backdrops for “Team America,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone tapped David Rockwell, the New York architect best known for his restaurant interiors and for designing the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. He has made the movie, for all its crudeness and scattershot satire, completely mesmerizing as an essay on miniature, handcrafted design -- from the Paris streets paved with croissants to the bedroom lamp with a base made from a Philippe Starck juicer.

“Nobody ever notices that lamp,” Rockwell complains, “because that’s the bedroom where two of the characters have sex, and everybody’s distracted by the naked marionettes.”

Rockwell gave the movie’s heroes a lair tucked away in Mount Rushmore that includes a lounge space inside a glowing all-glass box that juts out from jagged rock. Like other backdrops in the film, the lair takes cues from the British designer Ken Adam’s work on the James Bond movies of the 1960s. And though Rockwell’s overstuffed, high-energy architecture is not likely ever to be called Modernist, he concluded that a sleek, martini-swilling aesthetic was appropriate for these characters.

“There’s a buoyancy and an inherent optimism in this team of five people that led us to Modernism,” Rockwell says. “We were going for a blend of swankiness and world domination.”

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In the end, there’s an irony in these trends that won’t easily go away. Both “The Incredibles” and “Team America” suggest that movies, especially animated ones, are borrowing from architecture in increasingly savvy and impressive ways. But there continues to be plenty of movement in the other direction too, from screen to street. And that traffic is entirely less encouraging. More and more architects seem to think that Americans have been so conditioned by frenetic media imagery that we prefer buildings that are mere back drop, made up of quickly grasped visual references and little else. And sadly enough, they are probably right.

The process that leads to what we might call soundstage urbanism usually goes like this: Hollywood makes an architectural element like a portico or a Mission-style roof -- or, as we’re starting to see now, a Mies-ian box -- universally recognizable. Then architects or developers, looking for ways to lure and comfort the public at the same time, borrow back that element some years later, though the trip through a celluloid or pixilated universe usually leaves it slightly flattened and oddly hollow. This is how we’ve built most of our cities and suburbs for more than a decade now.

A good way to understand these odd architectural realities is to visit any newly built strip mall or open-air shopping center where “The Incredibles” is playing. After you see the movie and walk back outside, past the faux-tile roofs of the El Torito and the false-fronted steakhouse chain, it’ll hit you: the on-screen architecture you’ve just seen is richer and more inventive -- and perhaps more vital -- than what has been waiting for you in what we continue to insist on calling the real world.


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