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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Aug-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Comment

Page: 15

Wordcount: 904

Even sadists need somewhere to play

Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald

FLICKERING, ephemeral, populist. Film is the moral medium of our time, message stick and image maker in one. So it’s fitting the Royal Australian Institute of Architects marked this year’s 10th Sydney Design with four design-conscious movies. The choice was interesting.

Not Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, ruthlessly exploiting the slapstick potential of whitewall modernism, nor Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt) featuring what many consider the world’s most beautiful house, Adalberto Libera’s 1938 step-roofed Casa Malaparte on Capri. Not the usual apocalyptic favourites The Fountainhead, Metropolis or Blade Runner. No, the RAIA showed Woody Allen’s Sleeper, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, My Architect by Nathaniel (son of Louis) Kahn and the interminable Russian Ark.

So, what kind of message are we looking at? Sleeper tells of an involuntarily cryo-frozen Allen who awakes, 200 years on, in a convincingly 1973-issue future, all catsuits, white moulded fibreglass and pleasure contraptionery – remember the orgasmatron? The architecture, notably I.M. Pei’s brutalist Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, and Charles Deaton’s clam-on-a-stalk concrete shell house in the hills outside Denver, is selected for its graphic gusto and breathtaking sangfroid; all of it, of course, underlining Allen’s boneless discombobulation.

Orange uses architecture to similarly alienating effect. Anthony Burgess, who wrote the novel, expressed his bewilderment over modern architecture on a number of occasions, writing in his Listener column, “the necessary excitement of the concept is so rarely conveyed in the finished product”. Of James Stirling’s revered Leicester University Engineering Building (all but indistinguishable from Pei’s Mesa lab), Burgess wrote: “What can we do … except admire without being moved?”

Admire without being moved pretty well sums up Orange, whose X-rated violence now, after 35 years, comes across as a balletic condiment to the architecture. Now, indeed, the architecture seems the real perpetrator of Malcolm McDowell’s milk-fed ultraviolence.

From the excreta encrusted liftwells of home to the milkbar’s spread-legged Allen Jones-inspired coffee tables; from the serene, bookish modernism of the brothers’ first home invasion to the tight plastic psychedelia of the parental flat, Orange is as architecture dependent as, for instance, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But the architecture, however shmick, is no good guy.

In My Architect, architecture’s link with morality takes a different beating. Louis Kahn was known for his mystical commitment to truth in architecture. But for decades he kept three separate families, blocks apart but totally ignorant of each other until he collapsed and died, aged 73, alone and bankrupt in a men’s room of Penn station, New York.

At least you might expect a little humour here. But the film, and the profession – to say nothing of the wives – shows Kahn nothing but reverential sympathy. Even the DVD comes with a tract in which he aphorises: “You realise when you are in the realm of architecture that you are touching the basic feelings of man and that architecture would never have been part ofhumanity if it weren’t the truth to begin with.” Not a trace of irony, or even scepticism. Go figure.

That’s modernism. Serious business. In the parlours of architectural aesthetics modernism pulses on, but for a contemporary built-world morality tale we must look closer to rug level. Over the Hedge is a parable of over-consumption which, while lacking the scripting and characterisation panache of, say, The Lion King, brings a refreshing self-criticism to the big-screen-for-little-guys.

The story is of a sneaky raccoon, R.J. (Bruce Willis), who, caught stealing food from a grumpy hibernating bear (Nick Nolte), must make good his crime. Hungry, desperate and rejected by the snack machine, R.J. seduces the woodland innocents – who are enjoying a healthy natural life led by a neurotic tortoise, Verne – into helping him.

The animals emerge from their winter slumbers to find a vast new hedge bisecting their forest. Behind it gleams a freshly minted ex-urb of big’n’bloated project homes, complete with lawns, pools and SUVs to keep houses and people fully stuffed with all manner of cutely packaged processed foods.

Most terrifying of all is a hard-voiced creature-phobe and homeowner, Gladys Sharp, with her lawn-top “peltilator”. The animals, initially wary, learn to see suburbia as the origin of all things desirable. As their pilfering proceeds, they not only get fat and lazy but develop yearnings for other forms of phoniness, like the mock-Hawaiian luau hut they make for the equally fraudulent R.J.

The moral is that old-fashioned distinction between want and need. We’ve seen anti-human propaganda before, from over-obvious enviro tales such as Fern Gully to us-versus-the-people stories such as Shrek and Finding Nemo. But this is different. Not since Dr Seuss has there been so subtle yet muscular a children’s parable on the species-wide perils of consumption addiction.

Seuss wrote The Lorax in 1971. In classic rhyming couplets it tells how the urge-to-commerce reduces Eden to sludge. Even The Cat in the Hat, though, with the pink stain that is moveable but never erasable, is a clear jeremiad on waste, especially nuclear waste.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the most powerful filmic architecture can be the most ephemeral, as in Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the dissolution of walls and roofs conveys all the more keenly the claustrophobia of this atomised community. It is material openness underscoring the closure of minds.

Still, it’s all fantasy, right? Fantasy is the common ground between architecture and film. We love architecture for the sweet nothings it whispers of possible worlds, possible lives. So I’m with Lou Kahn: truth schmuth. It’s all in the stories you tell yourself.


PHOTO: Eyes front … A Clockwork Orange goes psychedelic to maintain the mood.


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