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.