Tag Archives: Hollywood

PODCAST: HOLLYWOOD’S OBSESSION WITH ARCHITECTS

June 21, 2019

Upper left: Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957); upper right: ) Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996); lower left: Ellen Page in Inception (2010); lower right: Richard Gere in Intersection (1994)

George Smart: Welcome to US Modernist Radio where we talk and laugh with people who enjoy, own, create, dream about, preserve, love, and hate Modernist architecture. Anthony Poon, our next guest, is an architect, concert pianist, artist, and author. His talk at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week was about architects in popular culture. There’s a lot more than you might think.

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991); Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009); Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built (2018)

Anthony Poon: Most people don’t know, until I start pointing out, that architects have been in hundreds of movies. And everyone says, “Oh hey, I saw that movie. I remember that guy.” And then, they start realizing Michelle Pfeiffer was an architect. Tom Hanks was an architect. Wesley Snipes was an architect.

George: Wait a second! Wesley Snipes was an architect?

Anthony: Wesley Snipes was an architect in Jungle Fever. We have Steve Martin playing an architect twice. We have Matt Dillon playing an architect in three separate movies. Hollywood has a love affair with architects as characters, both in film and television. It is the perfect go-to hero and feature character, whether it’s a drama, a romantic comedy, a romance. It just seems to be the perfect character that fits all plots.

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)

George: Well, one movie which started as a drama and kind of viewed as a comedy later was The Fountainhead. It’s really a chuckler.

Anthony: It’s unfortunate. The film took the gravitas of an Ayn Rand book and turned it into a campy cult favorite. The film never quite understood the philosophy that Fountainhead was trying to get across.

George: No. And the lead character?

Anthony: Gary Cooper.

George: Gary Cooper didn’t seem like he was particularly well-suited to be an architect.

Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Anthony: The interesting thing is Cooper was an architect in an architect movie. It was a movie about architecture. For most of the movies you see, it’s not about the architect being in an architect movie. If you think about Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, a classic character in a romantic comedy, it’s a love story between Meg Ryan and him. There’s not much about architecture. It’s not about him building buildings or designing cathedrals, parks and shopping malls. In most movies, the architect as a character is actually superfluous to the arc of the story.

George: How many architecture movies are there that aren’t documentaries?

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974); Helmut Bakaitis in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Anthony: Very few. Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno plays an architect in a movie about architecture, because a building is on fire, burning down. He has to play the role of an architect. In The Matrix, there is “The Architect.” He’s creating worlds, designing them. But, that’s really about it. All the other ones that I’ve presented today, those movies are not about architecture.

One of the things I examined was how if there is a lawyer in the story, it is a movie about law. If there is a cop, it’s movie about crime. If there’s a doctor, it’s a movie about medicine. A banker, it’s a movie about Wall Street. But, an architect in a movie is usually not about architecture.

An architect is a movie character that is romantic. It gives gravitas. It gives a creative person a profession. It’s idealistic. It’s sort of the go-to, good-natured person that represents something that everyone can associate with.

George: Easy to write a script around that.

For this sweet romantic comedy, imagine Meg Ryan falling in love with a cop, Will Smith from Bad Boys (1995)
Or try imagining Meg Ryan falling in love with an investment banker, Michael Douglas from Wall Street (1987)

Anthony: Exactly. When you write a script, you need to choose a profession. If you made that person a Homeland Security officer, it would add a different kind of arc to the story. If it was a romantic comedy and you’re making the person a therapist or an investment banker, I think it would change the course of the movie. An architect stays safe and neutral.

George: But there hasn’t been an action adventure series with an architect yet, I don’t think.

Anthony: The odd one is Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974)

George: Was he an architect in Death Wish?

Anthony: Some people would say this movie doesn’t fit my analysis of the nice, romantic, idealistic, creative professional. But it actually does! It is a movie that is extremely violent. A lot of action, many sequels.

George: He’s seeking revenge for something, right?

Anthony: He’s seeking vengeance for being framed for the murder of his wife, and to make his character take the full 180 to the dark side, he starts as the mild-mannered architect. That’s how it works. So, he does represent all the things that Hollywood thinks architects are, and that’s why when he transforms into the vigilante, it’s even more dramatic. It wouldn’t be as dramatic if he was already a police officer or detective.

George: Well, let’s go through some of these other ones here.

Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)

Anthony: Well, there’s Mr. Brady of course from The Brady Bunch, the iconic family architect. The TV series shows him working at the office with drawings, and also in a charming home office. A funny thing though. Hollywood represents architects as being wealthy. But most architects actually aren’t. I think it’s funny that Mr. Brady, as an architect, can somehow support a family of eight. He’s also paying spousal support because he’s divorced. His wife doesn’t work, and they have a housekeeper, a full time live-in named Alice.

One of my favorites is Indecent Proposal with Woody Harrelson. He plays a young, starting out architect.

George: This is the one with Demi Moore and Robert Redford? And, Harrelson was an architect in that? Wow.

Anthony: The movie shows him sitting on the floor, drawing on the wall, that kind of creative passion. But, because Woody Harrelson is a struggling entrepreneur like many young architects, it makes Demi Moore more susceptible to the fact that she can get a million dollars by sleeping with a stranger.

Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993); Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)

George: Yeah. And, Wesley Snipes, tell me about that movie.

Anthony: Jungle Fever. It’s great, because Hollywood in previous decades thought of architects as being your typical white corporate male. So, Wesley Snipes breaks that role, as well as other architects that come shortly after, that are female, are younger, or of different races. For Wesley Snipes, the film uses the architect’s office as a very sexy backdrop. It has the drafting tables, the desk lamps, the great artistic setting. His rows of drawings in the background are such a sexy image, that he actually has sex on a drafting table. So that’s a unique take.

I think that in a lot of these movies, particularly romances, they want the male or female lead to be a creative type, artistic. But the artistic person also has to have a job. I don’t think the movies would work if the lead was a starving poet on the street corner, or a musician playing saxophone in the subway station. Being an architect allows that lead role to be romantic, creative, and still have a job, a respectable profession.

George: Did you see the movie, The Lake House?

Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)

Anthony: Of course, Keanu Reeves. And the brother and dad all play architects. They actually have architectural discussions—the three of them. Keanu Reeves lives in a glass house floating on a lake, and they often show him at his drafting table with his white t-shirt working late hours, drawing away, coming up with some creative vision for the world.

George: How has architecture changed in terms of use in film? Has it changed much at all? Is it heading in the direction where maybe we’ll see more computer screens in the scenes, or do you think movies will still hold on to the old notion?

Anthony: I think they will hold on, because the notion is a trope and a formula that works. I think Hollywood is aware that the industry has changed, but Hollywood is about creating fantasy and images, and that’s still a role that people view architects as. I don’t think it’s always accurate, but it’s consistent in movies. It has been for decades since the first black and white movies in the 30s, all the way up to today. If the field of architecture was gone in stories, I don’t know if Hollywood could find another type of character that is a mix of creativity and professionalism, a mix of nobility and seriousness.

George: I wonder if they’ll remake The Fountainhead again.

Anthony: I actually wish Hollywood would do a dramatic version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. If you think about that, it would be a movie about ego, power, ambition, sex, arrogance. There would be the great buildings as backdrops. And there would be the climactic scene. If you’re familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s extended family, they were all killed by an axe murderer that was one of Wright’s employees at the house. That would be a horrific, but dramatic Hollywood scene. And it’s all true!

Frank Lloyd Wright (photo from scottsdaleindependent.com)

George: I’m wondering if somebody’s working on that.

Anthony: I’ve been thinking I should write a screenplay. The question is who would play Frank Lloyd Wright? There’d be a lot of people that would be great for it, but I don’t know.

George: Benedict Cumberbatch comes to mind. He’s good in most anything. He could probably pull that off.

Anthony: He is good. He’s probably too tall, since Frank Lloyd Wright is known to be very short.

George: Oh, that’s right. He was short, wasn’t he?

Anthony: It’s funny. I think a lot of the success of his homes is because he’s short. People would say, “These homes are so comfortable. What a great scale. It’s so intimate feeling.” And, I’m thinking maybe it’s because he’s just so short that these rooms have this proportion.

George: Well, Anthony, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about you in the coming years.

 

(The full podcast is at US Modernist Radio. Interview starts at 25 minutes and 9 seconds. For more on Hollywood and architects, visit my past essay, Celluloid Heroes.)

STICKS & STONES | STEEL & GLASS : ONE ARCHITECT’S JOURNEY

September 16, 2016

First draft of manuscript (photo by Anthony Poon)

Hearing intriguing tales of being an architect, friends conjure up ideas like, “You should have a reality TV series,” “You should go on a talk show,” “You should blog about it,” or “You should write a book.” The first two suggestions are absurd. The third: Done.

Trapped in the Riyadh customs line at the King Khalid International Airport: an eight-hour wait, arms guards, no sitting, no talking, no food, no water, no sleeping, no restroom, no joking (photo by Anthony Poon)
Trapped in the Riyadh customs line at the King Khalid International Airport: an eight-hour wait, armed guards, no sitting, no talking, no food, no water, no sleeping, no restroom, no joking (photo by Anthony Poon)

So I chose the fourth one.

After a construction visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was stranded in the Frankfurt airport for an afternoon. It was here that I started writing down some of my tales. By the end of the flight home, I possessed an overwrought flurry of 25,000 words and twenty chapters. A month later, 50,000 words.

Another month later, I had completed an 80,000-word, 450-page manuscript. I also connected with an editor in Chicago and another in New York, Carl Lennertz, also my book’s marketing director. Not long after came my agent, Bond Literary Agency, and my publisher, Unbridled Books.

Initially inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, I thought: Hey, I could do that—write a tell-all sordid saga about the underbelly of architecture. The audience was there. Architecture was already everywhere . The world was brimming with endless television shows on design, a gazillion style magazines, websites and blogs, design brands and celebrity fans, passion plays like going green and prefab homes, design as lifestyle, “design-thinking” in everything from business school to scientific research, and Hollywood’s infatuation with architects .

My sketches and musings
My sketches and musings

But I realized that though a few outbursts and secrets would be entertaining, my book should not be a career-killer. So enough of that. No outrageous Bourdain “pirate” attitude for me. The noble and artistic side of architecture deserved something else.

Cover-Web

Entitled Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass: One Architect’s Journey, my book is part critique, part behind-the-scenes, and part auto-biographical—examining the role of architecture and its creative process in daily life.

The publisher cites, “In this personal and revealing book, we are taken on a creative journey inside a purposive yet open mind always hoping to ‘design it all,’ to weave together light and material, culture and commerce, music and design, a good meal and the joy of gathering to share it.

“In these pages, we engage the artistic processes of a thoughtful and intense architect whose works—public and private—strive to enhance his clients’ stories and identities. In every building designed by Anthony Poon, art is shelter and architecture is a social good.”

Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, awarded the National Grand Prize from Learning By Design, AIA and National School Boards Association, also received awards from KnowledgeWorks Foundation, DesignShare, IASB, IASA, IASBO, School Planning and Management, and American School & University Magazine (w/ A4E and Cordogan, Clark & Associates, photo by Mark Ballogg)
Greenman Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, by Anthony Poon, awarded the National Grand Prize from Learning By Design, AIA and National School Boards Association, also received awards from KnowledgeWorks Foundation, DesignShare, IASB, IASA, IASBO, School Planning and Management, and American School & University Magazine (w/ A4E and Cordogan, Clark & Associates, photo by Mark Ballogg)

My book is not a memoir (too pretentious), although it is somewhat the trace of chapters of my life. This book is not a catalog of my work, not a marketing puff piece, not a Taschen-style glossy coffee table book. I do examine some projects that have most engaged me across my career—schools, a homeless shelter, and even a chocolate factory, and the artistic processes that delivered them.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat Factory, Chicago, Illinois, by Poon Design, Recipient of the 2013 Award of Excellence for the Industrial Redevelopment of the Year, from the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (w/ Ware Malcomb, photo by Anthony Poon)
Vosges Haut-Chocolat Factory, Chicago, Illinois, by Poon Design, Recipient of the 2013 Award of Excellence for the Industrial Redevelopment of the Year, from the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (w/ Ware Malcomb, photo by Anthony Poon)
Pondering my second book (photo by Mikel Healey)
Pondering my second book (photo by Mikel Healey)

As for the title? “Sticks and stones may break my bones . . .” opens the famous childhood rhyme. And despite what the public, media and colleagues say of my work and me, “Names will never hurt me.”

Additionally, just as sticks and stones are primitive building blocks, steel and glass are today’s elements of expression. In designing architecture, I have endeavored to find balance in the rough and the smooth, the solid and the ephemeral. So too with Sticks & Stones | Steel & Glass.

Reserve your copy now at Amazon.

CELLULOID HEROES

May 27, 2016

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949), Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974), Paul Newman in Towering Inferno (1974)

Why are there so many architects in the movies and on TV?

In most cases, the fact that an actor is an architect on the small or big screen is superfluous to the actual plot. Though a popular trope, the role of the architect is no more than a characteristic, a trait assigned to the male lead, and in fewer cases the female lead, only to provide substance and gravitas.

This matter—the truth and accuracy of how architects are portrayed by Hollywood—is frequent coffee room or cocktail hour chatter among practicing architects. We are at turns offended or flattered, but always perplexed.

Here are the basic elements of the architect-in-entertainment mix-and-match dramatis personae toolkit:

 – affluent, but not necessarily rich
 – thoughtful and introspective
 – attractive
 – cultured
 – sensitive
 – artistic-with-a-job
 – highly intelligent
 – coolly professional

Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991), Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)

The writer and director of Sleepless in Seattle needed Tom Hanks to be the reserved, artistic businessman at the center of the story, so they made him an architect, not a poet, cop, or hedge fund manager. They also didn’t want Hanks actually being an architect most of the time. Those paying to watch a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan want to see Hanks as the sensitive, romantic architectural designer with an ideal nature, not Tom Hanks as a real architect trying to restart his laptop because the Revit software has crashed again, and then spending the rest of his day slaving for a client who can’t decide whether the exterior paint should be tan, sand, or beige, or whether the bathroom tile should be ivory, buff, egg shell, or ecru. Also, Hanks can’t spend his time hitting the pavement hoping to find another commission so he can pay his office rent.

Poets, cops, and denizens of Wall Street are equally charged character fodder, but for different purposes. The architect character is altruistic, worldly, cool, but not too cool, well dressed, and established. Architects are also considered not wild, emotional, or too, too sexy. (I would sometimes like to be, or at least thought of as being, one or two of those things.)

In a drama, the architect is the cool center, and often needs the supplement of other traits from the screenwriters’ playbook, such as diplomatic jury member or struggling educator, to beef up the character’s potentially monochromatic dimension. In comedy, the architect’s impartiality allows other cast members to shine uncontested with wit and satire. Architects are safe non-distractions.

Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994), Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996), Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996), Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)

Here’s a partial list of movies featuring architects:

Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934)
Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)
Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (1957)
Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960)
Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973)
Charleton Heston in Earthquake (1974)
Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991)
Steve Martin in HouseSitter (1992)
Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993)
Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection (1994)
Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996)
Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996)
Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree (1998)
Matt Dillon in There’s Something about Mary (1998)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999)
Billy Crudup in World Traveler (2001)
Liam Neeson in Love Actually (2003)
Ashton Kutcher in Butterfly Effect (2004)
Michael Keaton in White Noise (2005)
Adam Sandler in Click (2006)
Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006)
Virginia Madsen in Firewall (2006)
Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Luke Wilson in My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Tom Everett Scott in Because I Said So (2007)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Steve Martin (again) in It’s Complicated (2009)
Ellen Page in Inception (2010)
Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011)

Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)
Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt in Three to Tango (1999), Adam Sandler in Click (2006), Keanu Reeves in The Lake House (2006), Zach Braff in The Last Kiss (2006)

Except for the Gary Cooper role, which came with the heavy expectation associated with Ayn Rand’s bestselling and controversial novel, The Fountainhead, I suspect most do not recall that the actors above portrayed architects. That’s how well the role was written and the stereotype applied. And as to the stereotype syncing with the real world, the roles are mostly male, reflecting an issue in the real architectural world, though that is changing for the better.

Serious movie fans will note some omissions on my list. I did not list the following, for the reasons stated:

Paul Newman in Towering Inferno: He’s really playing an architect in a real design and construction crisis, not playing a stereotype.

“The Architect” in the The Matrix movies: He’s not a builder of buildings per se, but a builder of an entire future world, which I certainly envy, but not quite to that extent, my ego aside.

Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies: As he is a vigilante murderer, I invoke the “exception proves the rule” cliché. Architects can be cool, but not cool killers.

For my full feature essay, go to the Film and Music Issue of the recent LA Home.

Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009), Ellen Page in Inception (2010), Sean Penn in Tree of Life (2011), Josh Radnor in How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)

WHY WRITE ABOUT ARCHITECTURE?

March 24, 2015

Conference room at Poon Design

Since the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood has released a major movie nearly once a year in which the lead actor portrays architects like me.

Architects have been played by Steve Martin, Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Matt Dillon, Matthew Perry, Liam Neeson, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Keaton, Adam Sandler, Keanu Reeves, Zach Braff, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Sean Penn—just to name a few. Perhaps my favorite is Tom Hanks in the 1993 film, Sleepless in Seattle—the endearing, intuitive, charming artist, destined for happiness. Or Keanu Reeves in the 2006 film, The Lake House—same description as above.

Keanu Reeves in The Lake House, 2006

The list as I know it, started way back with Boris Karloff in his 1934 film, The Black Cat. Though most famous for his portrayal of Frankenstein, Karloff began the roll call of architect lead characters that have included classic actors like Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman.

There are as many stories about architecture as actors to depict them. So many tales. So many stereotypes. And, unfortunately, so many myths.

That’s why I have decided to start this web log, this weblog, this blog. For all the famous faces that have played architects like me on the silver screen, for every romanticized myth and stereotype they have perpetuated, I wanted to share what it’s really like to do what I do.

Being an architect is not just something that you do. Being an architect is not just a job and not just a profession.

Being an architect is something that you are and you feel. It is a passion and an opportunity to do something that is great and noble. It is a chance to shape an environment, if not an identity, for a family, a school, a company, a city, a nation. It is also a responsibility and an ambition that contributes to the progress of civilization.

An architect starts with a client, a site and a conversation about desires. The architect then stirs up a tempest of creativity—ideas captured in sketches, paper models, computer renderings, as well as writings, music, debates with colleagues, deep diving research. Then, the ideas are intensely woven together, honed and developed by collaborative teams of other architects and engineers.

Being an architect involves making sketches and models come alive to shape realities. What I have designed will likely last longer than my own life—by 50, 100 years or, if I’m lucky, centuries. A Mesopotamian architect designed pyramids, and these ziggurats have been with us since 2000 BC.

Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, Nasiriyah, Iraq

Being an architect is both inspiring and humbling. We create and contribute with both bravado and meekness, with both ego and honor.

When my first project was completed in 1991, a modest café in West Los Angeles, I was astonished to not just see my drawings come to life, but to witness actual people inhabiting what I had imagined. It was now a vessel for being. From that point on, I was stirred and bound to continue my journey.

Writing about this conviction is what I will do from here on.

© Poon Design Inc.