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Architecture goes to the movies

by Steve McKee on August 14, 2004

The other day my family was watching “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock. Halfway through, Jessica Tandy finds her friend dead with his eyes pecked out. Stunned, she scrambles back into her truck, speeds madly across a field back to her house, climbs out and stumbles up her front porch, completely speechless, in a total panic to get inside. So my comment to my wife was “Cool newel post.”

Which, of course, it was. The front porch rail was pretty average, but the newel post at the top step made for a great little accent. It was shaped from a simple 4×4 that had the top cut into a sort of pyramid with a horizontal band cut a few inches below the top to create a matching indentation. And all doable with a simple table saw, I’ll have you know. Looking sharp, it was.

A couple years ago a builder friend of mine in Lafayette wanted me to design for him a large spec house, so he told me to watch “The Parent Trap” (1998 version with Dennis Quaid) in order to understand what he wanted in the house. In particular, I was supposed to pay attention to the tall doors and windows and also the simple way the door jambs met the walls without any casing trim. (This would be the Napa house in the movie, though the London house was also pretty nice.) After I saw the movie, he and I also agreed that our house should have a covered porch as open and sturdy as the one in the movie. Thank you “Parent Trap.”

If you’re slightly demented like me, you sometimes spend time in movies scanning backgrounds for cool looking houses and nice details. I know some of my clients well enough to be pretty sure I’m not alone in this. It’s actually pretty easy to pay close attention to the dialogue and story line while you scan a house for eye pleasing items.

Movies are a great way to effortlessly find yourself in some great environment, or at least awash in some mighty fine architectural detail. The Harry Potter movies have had some rooms that were real gems. The centuries old classrooms depicted really seem as if they were created in funky leftover spaces in some medieval building. There are often segments of big stone arches or dark wood railings weathered by centuries of human hands. Set designers are really very good at creating great visual environments, and in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and also “Prisoner of Azkaban” they do this very well.

Then there are simpler discoveries, like the kitchen cabinet details of Diane Keaton’s kitchen in “Something’s Got to Give.” (For me, it was mostly the curved bracket shape under each upper cabinet.) I seem to remember from some years ago that the movie “Immediate Family” with Glen Close and James Woods also had an enjoyable house.

Melody and I still refer to the Dining Room wall in the sisters’ house in “Crimes of the Heart” as the definitive example of a very nice room divider (double french door with glass side panels and wood wainscot) that may show up someday in a house of ours. We also consider Daryl Hannah’s front porch in “Roxanne” as quite comfortable and worthy of inclusion in a dream house. For the best looking picket fences, take another look at “Lady and the Tramp,” with its idealized Victorian era neighborhood. I built the picket fence at my own house on West K Street based upon a fence I had seen in Lady’s side yard.

The quintessential cabin-on-the-lake experience can be found in “On Golden Pond.” The house itself isn’t architecturally dazzling, but it’s comfortable and in a forest by a lake and has its own boat dock. When you arrive for the summer, you first pull the sheets off the couches and then you sit and listen to loons on the water. In the midst of our busy lives, it’s pleasing to imagine how relaxed such a place must surely be.

On the overdone side, there would be all the interiors in the “Haunted Mansion.” Not one wall surface or trim detail in the various parlors and rooms is spared from many layers of trim and texture or detail. Living full time in such a place might wear you out, but what a kick it is to visit.

When it comes to depicting cities in film, some sort of award should go to the movie “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” It’s animated, but that only lets genius film maker Hayao Miyazaki get this city right. It’s a highly watchable movie about a friendly young witch who travels to a new city to start her life as the city’s resident witch. This seaside city seems not of any particular nationality and we never hear its name, but it’s a great combination of the best elements you might find in the most livable European cities. From the big clock tower at the center of the city, to the well gardened pedestrian back lanes, to the big stone oven that is fueled with firewood, this whole place feels somehow familiar, or at least very easy to feel at home there.

Conversely, there are sinister-feeling cities in movies like “Blade Runner” and “Batman” (1989 version) that are quite visually rich. Other exaggerated versions of cities can be found in “Triplets of Belleville” and “Brazil.” I seem to recall that the stylized Las Vegas created by Francis Ford Coppola in “One from the Heart” is actually quite sweet.

There are many more good examples of this sort of thing, no doubt. I’m sure I’ll think of some really good ones right after I submit this article, when it’s too late of course. Because there’s surely more to say on this subject, I hope we can revisit this topic a few months from now.

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