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Architectural character on the big screen

The Professor

Architectural character on the big screen

As revealed in the last edition of The Property Chronicle, it’s pretty clear that in Hollywood movies of the past, architects have traditionally been cast as the Good Guys: creative, socially responsible and full of personal integrity. In contrast, property tycoons, developers and agents have often been portrayed as solely motivated by money and sometimes more than a little dodgy. However, when it comes to the love lives of property professionals, the picture is not quite so black and white. Male architects in movies can be angsty, overly sensitive and prone to meltdown, whereas developers have frequently been roguish, but devilishly attractive.

In literature, the character of the architect tends to be written as complex and conflicted; seeming to occupy the high moral ground but, in reality, deeply flawed (Dickens’ Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844); in affairs of the heart, doomed (Philip Bosinney in Galsworthy’s 1906 novel, The Forsyte Saga); and just plain weird, as in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

In Waugh’s brilliant satire of 1928, Bauhaus educated Otto Silenus displays traits which have fed into a familiar caricature of the modernist architect. He is pretentious, misanthropic and, stemming from his love of machines and an obsession with form and function, has a bizarre view of women: “if you compare her with other women of her age you will see that the particulars in which she differs from them are infinitesimal compared with the points of similarity… it’s Margot’s variations that I dislike so much.”

In the portrayal of architects in films, self-doubt and emotional unpredictability are recurring themes. The architect character (played by Woody Harrelson) in Indecent Proposal (1993) is weak-minded, confused and very unlucky. This is a man who agrees to his wife spending the night with business tycoon and gambler Robert Redford in return for $1m – and then lives to regret it. The film critic Robert Ebert cruelly suggested that if the wife’s choice was between fidelity with Woody or sinning with Robert, then Bob would be the strong favourite with or without the million dollars. Whilst teaching his architecture students, Woody also gets to say one of cinema’s (unintentionally) funniest lines: “even a brick wants to be something… something better than it is.”

In the 1994 movie Intersection, architect Richard Gere can’t decide between two women; his business-partner wife and a travel writer (the ‘money-maker’ versus ‘the creative’?). Just as he finally makes up his mind where his future lies, he dies in a car wreck. Similarly, Kirk Douglas’ architect in Strangers When We Meet (1960) is torn between a practical wife and a sensual mistress, while in The Belly of an Architect (1987), the central character is paranoid, obsessive and going off the rails. Even in the much loved Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Tom Hank’s architect might be the proverbial Nice Guy, but he is also naïve, unworldly and actually quite passive. Meg Ryan’s character is the more proactive of the two.

Now, compare these with one of the most famous romantic leads of all time; Steve McQueen’s property tycoon in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). A risk taker in both business and his personal life – illustrated by his penchant for glamorous sports like high-altitude gliders, high-speed beach buggies and high-stakes bets on the golf course – McQueen’s everyday pursuits are still not enough to feed his appetite. As a result, he takes to robbing banks by applying meticulous project planning techniques and an ice-cool temperament.

In The Devil’s Advocate (1997), New York property developer Alex Cullen (played by Craig Nelson) is a very bad man indeed, but is still shown as being attractive to women. We’re told he’s had three wives already and is shown lining up the next Mrs Cullen after he’s been acquitted of murdering wife number four. In The Descendants (2011), the seemingly unremarkable Brian Speer character (played by Matthew Lillard) is a real estate agent with plans to make serious money once honourable lawyer Matthew King (George Clooney) finally sells the family estate for development. Clooney’s wife is having an affair with (the possibly manipulative) Speer and we are led to assume that he’s more dynamic than her staid, plodding husband. Two Weeks’ Notice (2002) has Hugh Grant playing an arrogant, womanising billionaire developer who, even with all his faults, comes across as incorrigible, charming and rather lovable.

The Professor

About David Shiers

David Shiers

David was formerly Reader in Sustainable Property and is now an Affiliate of the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University. He is co-author (with BRE) of the Green Guide to Specification - an environmental profiling system for construction materials and part of the BREEAM and the Code for Sustainable Homes programmes; helping designers and specifiers to reduce the environmental impacts of their buildings. Globally, there are more than 558,200 BREEAM certified developments and almost 2,260,300 buildings registered for assessment. Green Guide has been the recommended materials specification standard for the UK Government, many Local Authorities and private sector organisations such as the Westfield retail group and was used in the building of the London 2012 Olympics. David was a judge on the Construction News panel for the national UK Building Quality Awards between 2010-2013. David’s research paper, Socially Responsible Property Investment (SRPI) in the Journal of Property Investment & Finance (2007), written with Miles Keeping, Dan Rapson and Claire Roberts, was cited as a key text in United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative report Building Responsible Property Portfolios.

Articles by David Shiers

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