Why villains love modernism

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Cary Grant approaches Van Damm house in North by Northwest. (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer)

The title of the CNN website’s feature article is actually “Why movie villains love modern architecture,” but my headline asks a more pertinent question. It’s not just movie villains but actual villains whose architectural taste flies in the face of the taste of their victims.

But the issue of movie villains and their apparent preference for modern architecture is not the least inappropriate. That is because movie directors’ ideas for cinematic villainy arise, at least partly, from their conscious or unconscious ideas of the character of actual villainy today and in history.

CNN’s article by Jacqui Palumbo is about the newly published book Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains, by Chad Oppenheim, who inhabits the architectural rather than the cinematic realm of his book’s duality. He likes the modernist Van Damm house in North by Northwest. Of the fictional villains’ lairs in Oppenheim’s book, Palumbo writes:

[T]hey are pristine, awe-inspiring, high-tech, otherworldly, often impractical, and draw heavily on the tenets of modernism. The book poses the question: Why do bad guys live in good houses?

Permitting Oppenheim’s premise to go unchallenged would be to promote the basic confusion that characterizes what I imagine (not having read it) is an otherwise fascinating book. Why do bad guys live in good houses? Well, they don’t. For most people (that is, most victims of the villainy of most villains, real or fictional) they are bad houses, not good ones.

That mistake is the book’s primary confusion, but it portends a darker thematic confusion.

Around the world and throughout history (at least since the Bauhaus), the public has been broadly skeptical of modern architecture. An instinctive wisdom inhabits this skepticism. Director George Lucas felt some of that.

The villains’ lairs and the victims’ homes in the Star Wars series suggest that Lucas channeled this dichotemy, consciously or subconsciously. So many of his cinematic settings bear out that modern architecture and traditional architecture are associated, respectively, with bad guys and good guys: the Death Star versus Theed, the capital of Naboo, designed in a sort of rotund vernacular classicism. (See my 2016 post “Lucas, return to the Light Side“)

On some level, Oppenheim seems to understand that there is a perverse relationship between modern architecture and evil. CNN’s Palumbo writes:

Lair examines how modernist, futuristic, and utopian architecture has long been associated with amorality. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, sleek homes, equally minimal and extravagant, made of glass, steel, and concrete, have become the archetypal home for the idealistic recluse with dastardly ambition.

Palumbo quotes an essay selected by Oppenheim to be included in Lair:

“Modern domestic architecture has become identified almost exclusively with characters who are evil, unstable, selfish, obsessive, and driven by pleasure of the flesh,” Joseph Rosa writes in an essay in the book. “Were they still alive, this might thoroughly shock the pioneers of modernism, who envisioned their movement facilitating a healthy, honest, and moral way of life.”

Would they be shocked? To be sure, this reflects conventional wisdom about the beginnings of modern architecture in prewar Germany’s Bauhaus school, supposedly shut down by the Nazis in 1933. Still, it may be more accurate to detect more than a hint of the sinister in the vision of Bauhauslers such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Swiss-French Le Corbusier. Corb hated streets and, like his compatriots, foresaw a very spare and regimented life for the inhabitants of the cities they planned. Socialism was their lodestar, but authoritarianism was often the mechanism. People were cogs in their visions of a machine architecture for the Machine Age. Happy faces were scrawled upon the planners’ sleek advertisements for a future much too far realized for comfort. The founding modernists’ vision comports poorly with the freedom and privacy that are lodestars of the society we exalt in the United States.

Oppenheim’s book reflects the insular attitudes of the 1 percent, in their silos, who hire amoral starchitects to build lairs for authoritarians and even totalitarians around the world. A good example is Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing, a modernist behemoth that seems to be stomping upon the Chinese public. But it is real, so it is not in Lair. It is not likely that its readers will understand the danger posed by its supposedly lighthearted subject. Lair is a confusing book that reflects a confused mind, which itself reflects a confused culture here and around the globe.

Sorry, but bad guys live in bad houses because they are bad guys.

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Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing. (skyscrapercenter.com)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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7 Responses to Why villains love modernism

  1. John says:

    On an additional note on the subject of villainy.., living here in Belgium since a while, I observed that in the area of residential homes there is a special style here which is quite popular. The style is characterized by usage of industrial colours, very dark grey-blue walls (almost black), iron front and back doors (grey or almost black, often without windows), weird shapes of windows in the walls, and lots of garage doors (and new big shiny cars), the garage doors are also in the most cold colours (meaning grey towards black). This type of residential architecture actually looks like something between a fortress, an office, or something used for storage.

    On passing by one of these houses where the back of a traditional house was restyled according to the above style, a friend of mine visiting Belgium spontaneously said it looked like the back of a cheap brothel…

    This industrial style of steel, glass and cold colours is also popular in Holland among the re-designers of social housing apartments. In an area where I lived, they redesigned a few blocks of apartment buildings from the fifties or sixties in this style, the whole area looking very cold and alienating, an environment where an average human would feel lost and would prefer to get inside into the safe and warm space of his house, but where small time villains roaming the streets and hiding in cars feel perfectly at home.
    Why is it designed as such? this is not the work of starchitects, but ordinary designers, they have no style and class themselves, no mind of their own, so they just follow the trend of the big ones, and the authorities who give clearance to this have no class, style and backbone, and not the slightest intention of acquiring these.


  2. John says:

    Guess what, the exhibitionist architectural style and the sterile modern indoor decoration and furniture style is also a specially preferred location for the porn and soft-porn industry. Also a favoured location of the high class prostitution branch.
    They sense the atmosphere and its utility very well…

    Additionally, digital nomads, say the homeless wanderers of the world like the atmosphere too, the situation in a city with much modern architecture brings about a melancholic sense of being lost, but also of a safe anonymity, your individuality gets lost, and some people like that (it gets lost in prostitution and porn too).
    Expats are another group which comes to mind, rootless as some are.

    Subhuman and sometimes mentally diseased tendencies, meaning the crushing and or temporal dissolution of the self, rootlessness, alienation, etc, psychological experiences brought about by modern architecture but also deliberately sought for in environments with the sleazy glamour-glitter-materialism, exhibitionism, overpowering coldness off steel and glass, etc.


  3. Lewis Dana says:

    Not to quibble, since I, too, haven’t read the book in question…

    …but Vampires, a most villainous sort almost invariably inhabit 16th century fortresses, vis. “With Your Teeth in My Neck or the Fearless Vampire Killers” by a slightly reprehensible character himself, Roman Polanski. Commissioner Dreyfus tangles with Inspector Clouseau in a moat-surrounded Alpine castle with ample opportunities for sight gags. (“Revenge of the Pink Panther”, I believe.)

    On the non-blood-sucking front, there is the Victorian mansarded hulk that housed Anthony Perkins and his mom in “Psycho”. Or the castle laboratory setting for the immortal “Young Frankenstein.” Abbott & Costello of beloved memory tangled with villains like the Wolfman, Frankenstein and others in various castlellated quarters, Victorian houses and other non-Corbusian sites.

    Cary Grants’ loony Aunts, villains of a particularly kindly sort, lived in a nice Victorian, in “Arsenic & Old Lace” with a pretend Panama Canal in the basement.

    The Addams family lived not in Bauhausian austerity, but in yet another Victorian horror with eaves wide enough to serve as a base from which to pour boiling substances on jolly Christmas carollers.

    In fact, I’d opine that more villainous activities have gone on in Victorian houses in the movies than all the sleekly (and not at all creepily) modern Corbu, Breuer, Wright, Noyes, Neutra, etc. dwellings put together.

    Happy New Year, David.


    • All very good points, Lew, but you might not have taken the link to the article about the book to read that it points out one of the criteria for including a lair in the book is that its inhabitant not be just your garden-variety murderer or bad guy but someone with aspirations to rule the world or some sort of more ambitious jackanapes. And HNY to you as well!


    • John says:

      It seems to me that is not for villainy, but for villainy of a specific character that modernist architecture (and interior decoration) provides a perfect atmosphere. The main characteristics of the atmosphere would be something of a coldness, hardness, and loss of individuality. Which also characterizes our times at large, in many areas.


  4. LazyReader says:

    I said this back in June.
    Some might say there’s a certain elitism and classicism (negative word version) associated with classical architecture. However regardless of whether you live/work in said building is irrelevant, namely because of the amount of positive emotion these buildings equate upon those who casually stroll by and view them.
    Star Wars director George Lucas generally housed his bad guys in modernist settings.
    And the good guys in traditional or vernacular settings.
    It may have been unintentional, but in the long run it shows the roots of technological fascism and crazed apathy towards human mental health showcase itself in the trappings they surround themselves in and in some cases elaborate upon others. Modern is fine in small doses. Star Trek…on the other hand, for the series that boasted humanity’s future in a near utopian setting architecture albeit clean was predominately stale.
    Where as the star wars universe, even futuristic designs were graceful and elegant.
    Characterized cues from Frank Lloyd wright, Eero Sarrienan. Cassina of Italy



    • John says:

      “Some might say there’s a certain elitism and classicism (negative word version) associated with classical architecture.”

      Elitism in the negative sense points justifiably to groups of people helping each other into high places and filling their pockets at the expense of others. The association of elitism with classicism is a product of the envy of mediocrity towards people who have a sense of class and style. In a democracy you are not allowed to raise your head too much above the crowd, hence, suspicious making based on hostility and envy.
      Elitists in the negative sense love everything which grants them an air of splendour, modern or classicist.


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