Houses and the Academy Awards

Oscar as Client

In films, houses are often metaphors for a state of mind or an idea.  Residential settings in two recent Academy Award contenders are especially evocative — and show how design creates a mood. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Kim Cattrall but the isolated and foreboding modern house by the sea — where much of the action takes place — has an important supporting role. The house where the ex British Prime Minister (Brosnan) works on his memoirs with his ghost writer (McGregor) after the previous writer’s mysterious disappearance

is all geometric glass and concrete. The contemporary furnishings (by Walter Knoll Designs) in sombre grays and black, with a splash of blood red in the modern painting, exude corporate cool and the threat of danger. In the distance is the glass railing around the stair. Everything appears rational and visible and yet invisible at the same time — like the transparent railing itself. The orderly home office

where the writer is supposed to work telescopes the film’s core conceit.  Precisely positioned items  — juice bottles, manuscript pages, file box  — allude to a straightforward narrative, at least on the desktop. The modern window wall looking out on a severe landscape of sea grass, dune, and gray sky frames a view of apparent clarity, yet there’s hardly anything there. Or rather, what’s there is hidden below the surface, and every surface in the house is sleek or sharp or reflective. It’s not giving away the plot to say that nothing is as it seems; or everything is. The house is itself not a real house but completely invented; an impressive example of set designer Albrecht Konrad’s  artistry. Photos courtesy House of Anais blog.

In The King’s Speech (directed by Tom Hooper)  Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue, meet in Logue’s office. This space is shabby but architecturally distinctive, even elegant, with mottled walls that look as though layers of wallpaper have been stripped away, leaded arched windows and a curved clerestory. It has what might be called “good bones.” (Set decorator Judy Farr and production designer Eve Stewart reworked existing  rooms in London’s stately Portland Place, built in 1775).

The rooms are seen in contrast to the stultifying formal palace interiors where the royals live. The clever juxtaposition is between preserving appearances and understanding reality, between the psychological causes of the stammer and the therapeutic cure — literally the stripping away of layers of restraint. Wallpaper-as-psyche! I love it.

Not that we all need gloomy modernity or the equivalent of the analyst’s couch to shape our days and nights. But it’s worth remembering that architectural space can produce strong emotional effects through structure, furnishings, and light. In other words every space is a potential stage set.  A while  ago, when I entered the stairway of an aggressively sculptural public library in Buenos Aires I felt physically compressed, as if the walls were closing in on me. A space that to my mind ought to have been all about movement, instead shouted constriction. Maybe it should have been used in a movie!

Shameless Self-Promotion Department

In other news, a very thoughtful article about Houseplans.com appeared in The Washington Post last week. Real estate columnist Katherine Salant talks about some of the plans in our Exclusive Studio, including work by Sarah Susanka, and the Sea Ranch Cottages by William Turnbull, and explains the role of the architectural editor. So this is what I do!

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