I’m watching the screen. James Bond, his linen jacket hooked over his shoulder on his finger, walks towards us through a sunken courtyard and then a set of glass doors. It’s Diamonds are Forever and he’s about to have a tustle with the female assassin/acrobat team Bambi and Thumper. Except he’s not. The subtitle Elrod House, Palm Springs, California appears on the screen and we realise that this isn’t about James Bond but about the building he is in. Just at the moment when Sean Connery is about to get into a scrap with two semi-clad would-be assassins we cut to Connery as he is today; balder, still a star. He’s holding the remote control which, we suppose has just curtailed our enjoyment of the fight. This is a documentary about architecture but Hollywood is in contol.
‘Well it’s a funny old world,’ says Connery ‘25-30 years ago and only now I found out who the architect was. John Lautner. But you couldn’t go there and not be impressed’ he says. Then we’re off into Infinite Space: the Architecture of John Lautner; a film directed by Murray Grigor, a Scottish architectural documentary maker who works a great deal in the United States and who just also happens to be Connery’s biographer. A happy coincidence one would think. An unusual case of architecture and film crossing over: architecture supporting the intellectual credentials of film and film giving architecture a bit of pizzazz or star appeal. It’s not an accident at all as it turns out. It shows how architect’s became seduced with an idea of auteurship.
It’s easy to make a bad documentary about good architecture but impossible to make a good documentary about bad architecture. Lautner was not a great architect. Of course, he was talented but prone to the egoism which destroys talented architects more than it does any other talented artists. He said he hated Los Angeles and yet littered its hills with the kind of pad a Hollywood producer would love. The document although serious in intent, and lavishly shot, falls into a pattern of uncriticial consumption quickly. For Lautner’s early work for Frank Lloyd Wright, we have slow tracking shots of Falling Water. What looks very much like steadycam shots of Johnson House. It’s the same for Lautners own work which is filmed as if it was an empty film set. When Grigor shows The Schaeffer House he introduces still photography to show how a set of glazed doors works. It makes the film feel like an animated Homes and Gardens magazine. The film ends up collapsing into architecture – mutely serving its promotional purposes.
It is telling that the only architect that Grigor enlists to promote Lautner is Frank Gehry. ‘He was a maverick a loner, he was out there doing his stuff,’ says Gehry of his hero Lautner. This is the cinematic version of the architect which has yet to be really questioned. It began with Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead and has persisted since then, largely because directors have a vested interest in promoting this idea. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, the screenwriter William Goldman ridicules the auteur theory; the critical idea that films are the expression of a single person’s vision. He believes that it is a co-operative effort, pooling the resources of writers, stars, technicians and directors. Directors are important but they’re not everything.
The same is true of architects. Anyone who actually works as an architect will tell you. They are ostensibly the head of large team. They make great buildings when a great client comes along, a really good construction team not to mention the associated quantity surveyors and engineers. To be fair to Grigor he does question Lautner and Gehry’s idea of the architect as the loan maverick. He interviews one of Lautner’s staff who explains that Lautner would refer to his staff as “draughtsmen” in front of clients and that she had taken him up on this point and asked to be referred to as an architect. Yet this is a rare moment. The female architect is a token-naysayer as much a trope of the Hollywood architect’s self-image as is his own genius.
Of course, Gehry has had his own Hollywood tinged documentary in his honour. Sketches of Frank Gehry. In the first two minutes of that film, the director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, The Interpreter) admits that the documentary was Gehry’s idea. When the architect suggested it to him, Pollack pointed out that he knew nothing about architecture or documentaries. ‘That’s why you’re perfect,’ said the architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Unchecked by an inquiring interviewer, Gehry is allowed to present the idea that the architect like the film director, is an auteur. We see the process by which he screws up bits of paper and cardboard and then it is transformed using the building information modelling system which bares his own name into plans.
At one stage in his overly chummy conversations with the late Pollack, Gehry remembers a remark that the director himself once made about the commercialisation of art. ‘You said you made peace with it, by finding this small percentage of space in that commercial world where you could make a difference. That was amazing to me Sydney,’ says Gehry. The next shot shows Pollack, camera in hand, nodding in agreement. With himself, effectively. Julian Schnabel is the only artist Pollack can find to praise the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Of course, Schnabel after representing all that was truly despicable about the New York art scene in the 1980s, has moved largely into directing films. In a bizarre moment of brain-fried metaphor creation, Dennis Hopper, another occasional director, compares Gehry’s work to a bubble being forced down a drain. It is his worst performance since Waterworld but one which enforces this idea of the architect as an outsider, when in fact, architects given the inumberable contacts he must make (or in Gehry’s case, his staff must make) are the most socialised of all artists.
The reason’s given on the Architect’s Newspaper Blog for Gehry’s lack of involvement in the actual design of the Atlantic Yards site is all too familiar.
Two sources close to the project say now the developer is not planning to use Gehry any more, citing costs, the architect’s lack of interest and the complications of meshing different architectural styles in a small space.
That’s what happens with mavericks. They are all well and good when it comes to creating sculptures but they’re not much use when it comes to creating bits of cities.