Modern architecture: perfect for film villains

Tony Stark’s house in Iron Man. The Frank Lloyd-Wright-inspired house from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) grapples with modernism in Mon Oncle.

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Home is the place where we feel most safe. Consequently it’s an ideal setting for dramatic tension in films. After all, it’s the place we can also be most vulnerable.

Kitchens make paricularly sinister locations. Not only do they tend towards the cramped and claustrophobic, they have knives and boiling water (think Fatal Attraction). The kitchen even has its own subgenre, the kitchen-sink drama. In such quintessentially gritty Brit films as This Sporting Life, an ominous pair of dead man’s shoes warms by the stove.

But anxiety can be created in any room, and horror loves the home: bathrooms where you can drown (Les Diaboliques), the attic where you can go mad, the cellar where Norman Bates’ mother rests in peace (Psycho). Some places even contain aptly named panic rooms.

While film and architecture have been mutually inspirational – indeed cinema and the modern city are almost contemporaneous – it has not always been complementary. Traditionally filmmakers tend to depict modern architecture as sterile and hostile, perfect for hothousing cold villains and corporate drones.

Modernity was mocked by Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime) and Billy Wilder (The Apartment). Hitchcock heightened the unease in Psycho by juxtaposing the Bates motel’s bland modernity against the Bates home’s ‘‘Gothic gingerbread’’, as the director called it. Hitchcock also made modernity the villain’s home in North by Northwest. The Bond films continue that tradition, featuring consummate bachelor pads such as John Lautner’s Elrod house in Diamonds Are Forever.

Decades later, our appreciation for the bad guys’ impeccable taste has shifted. In Iron Man, it’s the superhero who lives in a Lautner-style house, even if Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark is slightly unhinged.

Architects often see buildings in cinematic terms. Among the more famous architects to declare their inspiration from cinema are Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas. ‘‘My reference point has always been filmmaking,’’ Tschumi says. Both architects emphasise montage – the juxtaposition of different sequences – to create the ‘‘story’’. Indeed Tschumi believes ‘‘‘shock’ must be manufactured by the architect if architecture is to communicate”.

The mystery and intrigue that montage creates in architecture seems evident in Sound and Vision, a new short film by Francis Matthews that won this year’s Cinecity competition. In this ‘‘Tropfest for architects’’ the competition brief forbids editing within the one-minute films. Instead Matthews uses the architecture we are watching to create tension.

In Sound and Vision we focus on the room of a modern, glass-boxed, home. Peering into the interior we note the layers or veils of materials that frame it – glass, walls, doors and windows – and the objects within. Eventually a person enters the frame and disappears, then re-enters through a door. We become disoriented, yet we can see that person almost every step of the way. As he opens the glass wall we’ve been looking through, we realise it’s a reflection and he simply walks out. It’s a comparative lesson in how we orient ourselves in both built and cinematic interiors.

The film was selected from 70 international entries and judged by a prestigious panel including Zaha Hadid and Victorian government architect Geoffrey London. While the films don’t offer conventional narratives, this year’s entries took their cues from the National Architecture Conference’s theme of ‘‘making’’. As such, the films explore architectural process in behind-the-scenes locations – studios, construction sites – that attempt to demystify design and building.

For the next competition Cinecity co-curator Louise Mackenzie intends to open it to the general public, and explore the home in relation to Plan Melbourne and the city’s exponential population growth.

‘‘We’ve heard from all the academics and planners, we’d like to see how the people respond,’’ she says. ‘‘What does home mean to them? We may do it by housing typologies, such as terrace houses, living above shops or single dwellings. It would be fascinating to get kids’ responses too.’’

For those wanting cinematic inspiration, Mackenzie also runs a short architectural film program at MADA Gallery. Upcoming films explore the New Wave’s take on Paris and the Melbourne equivalent, the ‘‘Carlton Ripple’’.

Next week two different takes on French cinema screen: Jean Rouch’s  Gare du Nord, which opens with a couple arguing over the construction going on outside their apartment; and Claude Lelouch’s unnerving one-take, full-throttle trip through the streets of Paris with a camera strapped to the front of his Ferrari. Flaneurs beware.

Mon Oncle and Playtime screen at the Astor Theatre, St Kilda, Saturday June 21 at 7.30pm.

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