Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
How modernism simply led us down the garden path
People are always trying to make architecture mean something. Trying to show skyscrapers cause crime, or density generates slums or beauty civilises. On the evidence, I don’t buy it. I give you Chicago lakeside, Barcelona and the Third Reich, in that order. But there is emotional meaning in architecture, all the same, as Tom Ford’s A Single Man shows.
Colin Firth is a gorgeously nuanced George and cat-eyed Kenny nicely disturbing but the film’s real star is the house, with a plan like a busted-up angel, brick and redwood planes shooting every which way and more glass than could conceivably be thought healthy, even in Beverly Hills.
Most of the memorable scenes – the toilet-waving scene, the frozen breakfast, the sleeping bag suicide, the flirty fire-lighting, the love scene, the funeral prep and the death – not only occur in the house but take from it their flavour and, to a surprising extent, their meaning. In the frozen breakfast scene, the raking glass roof opens around George a gaping desolation, a sense of optimism crushed reminiscent of Michael Caine’s house in Children of Men. In both cases, encasing the now-desolate human in built optimism just intensifies his suffering and underlines the trust betrayed.
The toilet-waving scene, similarly, is a sad farce where the neighbouring Strunks wave to Firth as he sits at his business, pretending to read John Ruskin but actually being repelled by the suburban normalcy surrounding him. The strip window that makes the scene possible also symbolises the false intimacy by which Firth, an Englishman closeted in California, can appear so connected but feel so isolated.
The house is John Lautner’s 1949 Schaffer residence. It is classic Lautner, if that’s a meaningful term, for Lautner was always known (and derided) for both his shameless vulgarity and his refusal to pursue any style or thought from one building to the next.
Yet these very traits have given Lautner a strong cult following (Frank Gehry is a lifelong fan) and endeared him to the movie world. Lautner’s houses have appeared in any number of films – the porn-director’s house in The Big Lebowski (Sheats House, 1963), the Googie diner in Pulp Fiction, the flower-form Willard Whyte house (Elrod House 1968) in Diamonds are Forever, and so on.
This, with Ford’s fashionista background and the current vogue for mid-century modern, or MCM, in all things makes Lautner’s Schaffer residence an obvious casting choice.
But this vogue ignores the gulf between modernism’s on-screen charm and its real-life disappointments; between what modernism promised and what it delivered. Modernism failed; a glimpse behind the rose-coloured lens reveals why.
Lautner was a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple who became wilder even than Wright at his octogenarian wackiest. Like most moderns, he had an almost religious faith in architecture’s transcendent possibilities. Unlike most, however, he did not see this as prescribing any particular style or tectonic. He built triangular, circular and freeform; in concrete, timber, stone and steel; organic and rationalist, innocent, austere and outright gonzo.
Lautner’s grail, his one constant desire, was to dissolve the facade, to create the frontless, backless, ideally wall-less house, facilitating a genuine connect with nature.
It was the standard modernist dream. From Mies van der Rohe’s uber-rationalist Farnsworth House to Bruce Goff’s woodsy organicism, from Bill Lucas’s Sydney treehouse to Hugh Buhrich’s expressionism, that was constant.
But it was based on a single false premise, call it the Eden premise, that we were still in the garden.
All over the world, houses were designed as if nature were infinitely benign and humans infinitely robust; as if cold bridging, solar gain, spiders, leaks, rising damp and prying eyes simply did not exist. As if all the bases on which tradition advised skill, detail and caution – on which “drip, lap and flash!” became the student catch-cry – were figmentary. As if no one ever needed a house to withdraw into, but only to go out from. Only to impress the guests.
This wasn’t incompetence. It was philosophy. Frank Lloyd Wright accused Lautner of destroying the box and breaking open the corners, and no doubt Lautner took it as a compliment; just as Seidler was doing here.
But the world is not Eden. Even in southern California, people occasionally need more comfort than a smiley-face. As we now see, the relentless commitment to positive thinking can undermine entire cultures.
Hence our discomfort as we watch George, in his bereavement, strike a match in the see-through hearth, attempt suicide beside the vast plate glass, make breakfast with dripping forest over. Wave to the Strunks from the bog.
A Single Man is set a month after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. So the worm was already deep in modernism’s rose. Isherwood’s original lets the sense of this percolate through in George’s world-weary English cynicism (houses, he notes, are “invariably called homes and described as a new concept in living”.) But Tom Ford prefers his innocence glamorised, so his film is as elegant, and as lacking hinterland, as Lautner’s lovely, unliveable house.