A conversation between Shreyank Khemalapure (SK) and Nazmi Anuar (NA)
For this issue of RUANG dedicated to the theme of Fiction, we have decided to try and unpack an interesting phenomenon where architecture is appropriated into the realm of fiction through the medium of film. In the best interest of presenting a concise discussion of this topic we have taken the liberty to eschew an exhaustive analysis or a general overview of architecture in films and will focus our discussion on the works of one architect; Mies van der Rohe.
This discussion will explore several appearances of Mies’s work in films and the themes and meaning associated with their presence. In 3 Acts of different scales, we will be exploring the glitz and the glamour of modern architecture, paired with a healthy dose of alienation, suffering and dual personalities. We will be delving into juicy questions such as ‘why are Mies’s work often cast as the lair of the villain and the anti-hero?’ and ‘do the scandalous details of the Farnsworth house affair deserve to be made into a movie?’
Lights, camera, action! We present to you MIES AT THE MOVIES!
ACT 1 – WHITE HOUSES
[The Tugendhat House in Hannibal Rising (Momentum Picture 2007)]
NA: In the 2007 film Hannibal Rising Mies’s Tugendhat House appeared as the house of the villain, although I don’t think the architecture really played an important part in the film.
SK: But why Tugendhat?
NA: Maybe it was used, to portray decadence and violence? In the film it served as the house a former war criminal that escaped justice and is now living a comfortable life. During its time it the actual house was an example of luxurious modern living for the bourgeois.
SK: True…Wasn’t it abandoned by the owners?
NA: The owners had to flee Europe during the war and the house was subsequently occupied by German officials during the war and was then badly damaged by Soviet bombing. It was even used as a stable for horses. So it was in a way subjected to a lot of violence.
SK: There… that is similar with the theme of that film, like Hannibal.
NA: Maybe it was a strange coincidence yet interesting to correlate. In the film, Hannibal’s family had to leave behind their comfortable bourgeois life and into a life of suffering, strangely mirrored in the fate of the house. It would have been maybe more fitting as Hannibal’s house.
SK: The Wayne Manor only appeared for a short while in Batman vs Superman (2016). It was a sort of carbon copy of Farnsworth House.
NA: It’s almost an exact copy, isn’t it? In black of course, being Batman’s country house.
SK: Batman must have had a great Miesian student to design it.
NA: Or to copy it! Do you think painting the Farnsworth House black was simply an aesthetic choice?
SK: I think so. I think that’s what Farnsworth House should have been, black, there by truly going into the background.
NA: I think that by being white, it becomes a frame. Farnsworth is probably the only Mies building of that period where the steel elements weren’t painted black, right?
SK: Absolutely! I wonder if it is because of Dr. Farnsworth.
NA: Well, there’s that back-story to the whole Farnsworth House affair. Client met architect at dinner party, requested a house, their relationship bloomed but got complicated during the design and construction, eventual fall out and lawsuits .I mean, if they made that into a film, it’ll be more interesting that the Batman Superman bromance.
SK: Totally. Speaking of the two houses it is interesting to note that the chrome finished columns in the Tugendhat House are on the inside – It is no secret that Mies admired Corbusier. It was as is if to clear way to peep into the house as clearly as possible – like into the mind of Hannibal. But it is with the Farnsworth House Mies goes full throttle with his Gothic project and the structure is revealed, as if to take a stance, and, as you said, to frame also the architecture. On the one hand the Tugendhat House could be placed in context of the discussions of Modern Psychology and Farnsworth House emphasising the Gothic, ethical, side of the Modernism.
NA: Would you think Mies’s architecture is more suitable for Wayne or Batman?
SK: In its taste it suits Bruce and its spirit it is definitely a Batman house.
[Wayne Manor – a black Farnsworth House – in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Bros. 2016)]
ACT 2 – DARK TOWERS
[The Richard J Daley Center – designed by Mies’s former student Jacques Brownson- as the Wayne Tower in Dark Knight (Warner Bros. 2008)]
NA: In American Psycho (2000)Mies’s Toronto Dominion Center appeared as the office of the anti-hero Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), a corporate yuppie in the daytime and serial killer at night. What is it about Mies’s architecture that lends itself for these depictions? Its cold perfection and ruthless precision? A similar depiction of modern architecture was at the center of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).
SK: It could be one way of looking at it, a representation of the cold and harsh mechanical society. Wasn’t it Mies’s project in a way to bring into his architecture the will of the epoch?
NA: In his critical monograph MIES, DetlefMertins argued that Mies was continuously struggling with the role of architecture in modernity: to make an architecture that is the translation of the will of the epoch but also to somehow transcend the idea of modernity. In this sense his work could be said to embody a set of contradictions.
SK: The thing about Mies was that he was in many ways an ascetic being yet one who chose to live and work in the very heart of capitalism.
NA: In the film, Patrick Bateman was trying to transcend the banality of the corporate existence – power lunches, flashy suits, comparing business cards- through his acts of violence. He is trying to find himself, through addressing his homicidal impulses.
SK: Or rather he finds himself at home in his homicidal impulses?
NA: In that sense Mies’s architecture was perhaps the ideal background for those impulses to unfold?
SK: This form of psychosis is very evident also in the much graphic versions of the DC Comics – which we can address later. One of the key aspects of the modern metropolis, which most of the fictions are obsessed with, is the process of alienation, a process of disassociation from any and every previous reference or association or influence, a form of tabula rasa of associations.
NA: Yes, and I think that this process of disassociation was amusingly played out towards the end of the film where we find Bateman running lost in the lobbies and plaza of Mies’s Toronto Dominion Center, which somehow also recalled the scene in Playtime where some of the scenes unfolded in the indistinguishable lobbies of modern office buildings.
SK: Is it a sheer coincidence that Christian Bale would play both Bateman and Batman? Both shot in the presence of Mies, both working in the night?
NA: Maybe Mies’s architecture is nocturnal architecture?
SK: Oh yes! Totally!
[The lobby of the Toronto Dominion Center in American Psycho (Lionsgate Films 2000)]
NA: But even in daylight his buildings are dark buildings, silhouettes almost.
SK: It’s dark in the day and bright in the night, as if it awakens in the night.
NA: That’s an interesting take on his architecture; you can never say that about Corbusier’s work, for example.
SK: I agree. Is it possible to say that about the work of any other architect?
NA: Probably not. It is interesting to see how Mies’s presence was all over Dark Knight (2008). The Richard J Daley Center, by Mies’s former student Jacques Brownson acts as the Wayne Enterprise Headquarters. Wayne’s boardroom, as well as the offices of Harvey Dent and the Commissioner was shot in Mies’s IBM Building, while Wayne’s penthouse was actually shot in the lobby of Mies’s One Illinois Center. The gridded ceiling of the Batcave meanwhile is almost an exact copy on the interior of Mies’s Federal Center. That’s a lot of Mies in one film.
SK: Nolan’s a big fan of Mies that’s well established.
NA: His production designer Nathan Crowley is a big fan as well. It was specifically mentioned that Crowley referred to Mies’s work when designing the robots in Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Do you think that Crowley and Nolan took the Gothic out of Gotham?
SK: I would argue that they precisely got the Gothic back into Gotham. In most Batman movies, and comics, artists go back to Art Deco – which in a way was also a project to revive gothic practices and sentiment-, and it has to be either Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building on their cover pages. But it’s mostly Chrysler in case of Batman with its Gothic gargoyles.
NA: It was always the more the decorative aspects of Gothic that was depicted in those comics wasn’t it?
SK: Absolutely. The completion of the Chrysler Building also co-incides with the time of the first Batman comics. Coming back to Nolan’s Gotham, it may appear that he is trying to take out the Gothic from Gotham but in fact you cannot take the Gothic out of Mies and hence you cannot take the Gothic out of Chicago. So in that sense if most of Chicago is the home for Miesian school of modernism, then it cannot be anything else but Gothic and hence a perfect home for the Batman of our times.
NA: American Gothic. And again that Mies’s architecture was perfectly cast as the representation of an idea although this time in a more hopeful vein. Mertins’s reading of the bound and unresolved dualities in Mies’s work is captured perfectly through its depiction in these films.
SK: The unresolved duality of Batman.
NA: Exactly. As if the filmmakers totally understood the architect’s work and what it was striving to embody.
SK: Yes, It is very touching to see such homage.
NA: I think it is interesting maybe to approach the tower also through the vein of the duality in Mies’s work and how that is related to the duality of Batman. Especially the earlier point you mentioned about the differences of his architecture at night and day; dark tower during the day and tower of light at night. This somehow correlates with the duality of Batman, Bruce Wayne – corporate mogul at day, Dark Knight at night.
SK: Interestingly Mertin’s chapter on the Seagrams is his book on Mies is titled the Seagram Building – Dark Building. I always wondered would we have ever imagined of all these superheroes without the existence of the skyscraper.
NA: The skyscraper is the epitome of larger than life ambitions as exemplified by superheroes. So no, you can’t have superheroes without skyscrapers.
SK: That means you can’t have a super hero in Russia?
NA: Well, maybe they have supervillains.
[The Batcave, influenced by the Chicago Federal Center in Dark Knight (Warner Bros. 2008)]
ACT 3 – BACKGROUND
[The Seagram Building plaza in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Paramount Picture 1961)]
NA: In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard are shown sitting on the green marble ledge of the Seagram plaza. Effectively the building is only seen as a background, contrary to the other previous examples where Mies’s architecture was always inhabited. According to Mertins, “the film testifies that it (the building) was widely appreciated as the immanent fulfilment of its context – the most elegant, glamorous and successful of New York’s skyscrapers”. So finally we get to idea of glamour, I mean it can’t get any more glamorous than Audrey Hepburn and Mies, can’t it?
SK: It would be hard to compete.
NA: So here we see a different image of the architecture and a different set of embodied ideals. Glamour and sunshine replacing confusion and darkness.
SK: It brings out perhaps the humanistic side of the project. There’s certainly still some confusion of course… especially in the scene where they are sitting on the bench facing their back to the Seagram’s. She going to marry someone else… the guys doesn’t know how to deal with it…suddenly you pay attention to the fountain… the bench… the sunshine and the tension between two people who can’t really express their love.
NA: But does this mean that the architecture is somehow generic that it could be a background to anything? Or any meaning ascribed to architecture is in itself fictional?
SK: It is so much in the background, so generic, that it also makes a platform to look back at the city and appreciate it. Like Audrey says in that scene “I will bring them back alright… because I must see this. Oh! I love New York”. I don’t think you can say the same from the edge of any other building in New York, even the Lever House
NA: Architecture for lovers. The image of the Miesian public space also came across in the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), although perhaps in less glamorous circumstances.
SK: Yes, but certainly in very festive circumstances… It is a representative of a very important idea which needs some attention even our times; the public spaces within public building premises.
NA: You mean private building premises?
SK: Well of course in the case of Seagram’s its private property But in the case of Chicago Federal Courts building, it’s a public space anyways.
NA: Perhaps the appearance of the spaces in film, and the way they are celebrated are a testament to their success? A subtle propaganda for more public spaces?
SK: Absolutely. In fact after the completion of Seagram’s the Building Laws of New York were modified incentivising private developers to provide public space within their property -per 1sqft of Public space = 10sqft of more commercial space. Not a bad bargain .It generated some 8 hectares of “the most expensive” open spaces within a decade. Do you think it is a question of ethics?
NA: In a way yes. It’s also about social responsibilities I guess, in the sense that your developments give something back to the public. Let’s go now to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which was in a way John Hughes’s love letter to Chicago. The film also featured the Miesian Ben Rose house, designed by Mies’s former students A.James Speyer and David Haid.
SK: Yes. In fact there is no point to the movie but to muse with Chicago. There’s also a scene where their expensive car is taken for a drive by the valets – without the knowledge of Ferris and his friends. While on their way back you see them driving at full speed and the car taking flight after a steep climb. I think it was shot just so that you can see the skyline of Chicago. Interestingly, the crime rates in Chicago went up since Mies started building in Chicago.
NA: The by-product of modernity? John Hughes vision of Chicago is then very different than Christopher Nolan’s.
[The Chicago Federal Center plaza in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount Picture 1986)]
SK: Totally. Interestingly, in Kenneth Frampton’s book Studies in Tectonic Culture; he was somehow hopeful that by reintroducing the notion of tectonics we could in a way be able to build towards a better society – to put it absolutely simplistically.
NA: That somehow what we build is a reflection of what we are as a society?
SK: In many ways, yes. It is no secret that Chicago is the home for the Miesian Modernism
NA: Yes, the so-called Second Chicago School
SK: Yet somehow either there were too many ‘blind-Mies’ or as Corbusier would say it “it is life that’s always right and the architect who is wrong”.
NA: Maybe Hughes’s projection is of a city in which modernist architecture is absorbed into the existing fabric whereas in Nolan’s conception modernist architecture is somehow seen as an alienating presence or a rupture in the fabric? Again we see different readings ascribed to the same things.
SK: I think in Nolan’s it shows that unfortunate times in which Gothic architecture was present in Europe, the Black Death, corruption, the Dark Ages. Yet in the construction of Cathedrals you would see absolute resolution in the construction techniques and the hope to make a better society – of course they were also to assert the presence of the powers of the church on the other hand.
NA: There you see how the images of architecture can never embody a single meaning, not in real life, nor in fiction. Meanings are in some ways always fictional.
SK: At best we can only hope to build a fragment of that fiction – a fragment of Utopia.
 “Like this new modernity, Mies has become more complex and contradictory, less black or white; in fact he now appears both black and white, dark and light, complicit and resistant, classical and modern, ordinary and extraordinary.” Detlef Mertins, MIES (London: Phaidon, 2014) p.6.
 “Nathan Crowley Constructs a Beautifully Grim Future in Space for Interstellar” by Caroline Chamberlain in KCRW Design and Architecture, accessed January 18, 2016 http://blogs.kcrw.com/dna/nathan-crowley- constructs-a- beautifully-grim- future-in- space-for-interstellar
[published in Ruang, 2017]
 “For Mies, like Schwarz and Guardini, Technology had a potential to become a “world’ just as classicism and the Middle Ages had each created their own worlds. Although he considered technology specific and narrow – not to be overestimated – it was never the less a real world, and authentic form, both deep and high called to the one, attempting the other to achieve its potential as a world, technology has to change into architecture as building art, just as it had with the Gothic it had to complete itself, if it did that, it would inherit “the Gothic Legacy” which, he said was our greatest “hope”. Mertins, p.360. In a way Batman is a mythical representative of that, the greatest hope both deep and high of the chaotic world Gotham had become – which is symbolic of the modern metropolis.
 Mertins, p.357.