Give modernism a beating

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Scene from “Beat Girl” with model of City 2000.

This list of architectural models in movies that look askance at modern architecture through the lens of film was linked from a piece in Architizer warning architects not to go see The Architect, a movie coming out soon. It mentioned The Fountainhead, the Simpsons’ takeoff on Frank Gehry and others, even Beat Girl, a 1960s British film introduced to me by my former editor at the Providence Journal, Ed Achorn, who has written a couple of fine books about old baseball; my favorite is about a miraculous pitcher named Old Hoss Radbourn, the Providence Grays and the first World Series.

In my post earlier today, “Architects and The Architect,” I said I’d repost my column from 2004 on the architecture of Beat Girl, how “City 2000” was loathed by the architect’s daughter and how it baffled his ritzy new wife-to-be. I have quoted at length from those charming passages.

So, without further ado, here is my column on Beat Girls:

***

Give modernism a beating

January 8, 2004

I FELL IN LOVE the other day with Beat Girl, a British film about a teenage girl whose father, an architect, takes a sexy Parisian as his second wife. The pouting beatnik daughter dislikes her immediately, as she has long disliked her father’s life’s work, which he calls “City 2000.”

The dialogue that follows unfolds in the scene pictured above.

Why do I love this film? Read on.

Stepmother: Darling, what is in that huge box over there, a body?

Jennifer: That’s just about it. Only it’s more like a skeleton in the cupboard.

Father: It’s my toy, and Jennifer’s jealous of it.

J: Jealous? Of the stupid city?

S: The city?

J: Superman stuff, and then some.

S: Show me the city, please!

J: You’ll be sorry.

F: [Chuckles] She may be right, you know. If I get the city out, you’ll be up till dawn. It’s my life’s work. It’s meant more to me than anything in the world. Hasn’t it, Jenny?

J: Yes. That’s true.

F: I call it City 2000. Crime, filth, poverty, noise, hustle and bustle – those things will be unknown. An almost silent place, soundproofed with the use of flying bevelled walls of concrete, which also serve to cut wind and rain. Jennifer says it will be like living in a tin can, but I don’t think that’s really true. You know, psychologists think that most human neuroses come from too much contact with other humans. Now, in my city–

S: Darling …

F: –a man can be as alone as if he were 10,000 miles from anywhere in the country.

S: Paul …

F: Hmm?

S: I’d like to see Jennifer to bed.

F: All right, darling. Don’t be long.

[Upstairs, the two women engage in quiet female combat. At last comes Jennifer’s parting shot.]

J: And don’t kid yourself he’s in love with you. He’s in love with City 2000.

“City 2000” resembles what Le Corbusier wanted to do to Paris, but even more it resembles Brasilia, the new modernist capital of Brazil, planned and built in the late 1950s and ’60s. In fact, later in the film, the architect has persuaded a financier from some Latin American country to back its construction, with help from his brother, a corrupt legislator.

The fascinating thing about Beat Girl is that it was made in 1960, when modern architecture was in its heyday. It had achieved by then the status of orthodoxy, a domain of old fogies and therefore a target of youthful rebellion. Little has changed. Take, for example, the newlywed couple on the sitcom Wings, about life at the small airport on Nantucket.

I have tried on and off for years to acquire a script of the one episode I saw of the show. This past week, I put on a full-court press. No luck. But several members of the Tradarch List, a Web group devoted to traditional architecture, knew of the episode and have sent me details. For example, here, courtesy of John Cluver, is the official description of Episode 129, written by Howard Gewirtz. It aired on Nov. 21, 1995, and is called “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wrong”:

“Joe and Helen’s initial fortune at landing famous architect Y. M. Burg to design their new house soon turns sour as he suggests a house shaped like a giant 7.”

Milton Grenfell, of Charlotte, N.C. [now an architect practicing in Washington, D.C.], sent his recollection of a friend’s description:

“The line I still recall was when the wife says to her husband in despair, ‘A number 7? But it won’t blend with anything around it!’ To which her husband replies, ‘Not unless the guy with the vacant lot next to us builds a house shaped like a number 8.'”

Most of the episode revolves around the newlyweds’ efforts to assign each other the task of telling the architect thanks but no thanks, and how to do so without hurting his feelings. (Good luck! Architects have notoriously thin skin.) Maybe it’s a good thing I couldn’t find the script. It would have been painful to decide which gems to cut from a whole episode so others could fit in this column. Parts of the one scene from Beat Girl might also have had to be cut.

In 1943, Ayn Rand – a Beat Girl of a wholly different sort – wrote The Fountainhead, about a modernist architect in a field then dominated by classicists. Today, with modernism now the establishment, her Howard Roark would be a classicist. For, despite public disdain and Hollywood derision, modernism maintains its grip on architecture.

Still, this holiday my favorite card came from my brother Guy: Santa has failed to negotiate the bizarre angles of a modernist house. His sleigh overturns, his reindeer dangle in their traces, and Santa says . . . Well, let’s just say his second and fourth words are “contemporary” and “architecture.”

The beat goes on.

[Click to view full YouTube video of the film Beat Girl.]

Copyright © 2004. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_217668

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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