And why other property professionals get lumped with the bad guy roles
“I don’t build in order to have clients, I have clients in order to build!” raves Howard Roark, the architect hero of the 1949 film, The Fountainhead, based on the Ayn Rand novel of the same name.
The client’s representatives, facing him across the boardroom table, have just asked him to make “a small compromise” to his austerely Modernist proposals for their new office building. He refuses to budge – and when they remind him that they’re the ones who will be paying for both the building and his professional services, he tells them that (though they may not realise it) they are actually there to serve him.
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get the job.
Although seldom as untamed as Roark (he later blows up one of his own schemes when it is not built to his exacting specifications), in movieland the architect has often been portrayed as the Good Guy – a principled, creative, sensitive type, rarely motivated by money.
Other property professionals have been the Bad Boys – greedy and ruthless (real estate investors, property developers, fund managers and owners) or sad and somewhat desperate (property agents). Even though there is so much more to being an agent than just selling or letting square footage, the clichéd ABC (Always Be Closing) salesman has been a fixture in fiction and therefore in the public consciousness.
Consider the pitiable lives of the real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross(1992) or the uncaring property developers turned vandalisers of architectural heritage played by Hugh Grant and David Haig in Two Weeks’ Notice(2002). In TheDevil’s Advocate (1997), a New-York-based real estate tycoon-developer is actually in league with Satan himself.
Now compare these with the heroic knight errant Roark, or the virtuous liberal architect played by Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men(1957). Even in Towering Inferno (1974), although the architect (played by Paul Newman) gets some flak for poor design, it is the developer who is blamed for the high-rise catastrophe (he has encouraged the electrical engineer to put in low-cost systems in order to save money).
There are, of course, more nuanced versions of these rather one-dimensional characterisations. In the critically acclaimed The Big Short(2015), we admire the intelligence of the insightful but eccentric hedge fund manager played by Christian Bale, but have more mixed feelings at the way in which his prophetic understanding of the unstable US subprime housing market is used for financial gain by Ryan Gosling’s asset trader character and others in the run-up to the 2007–08 economic crisis. The thoughtful, talented, ‘creative’ Bale character is more sympathetically portrayed than those around him, who are solely interested in money.
In that seasonal favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, both the protagonist and antagonist are property owner-developers – but while the community-minded family man hero, George Bailey (played by James Stewart), runs his business helping others, the villainous Mr Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore) is only interested in his own gain.
We also learn that (surprise, surprise) George Bailey wanted to be an architect or engineer growing up. He’s a creative, the film seems to say – a maker not a taker. His would-be profession marks him out as a dreamer. Such people, Hollywood suggests, are most likely to do good in the world. (Coincidentally, Stewart studied architecture at Princeton before becoming an actor.)