Architecture in Film: Bad Guys Live in Radical Homes

Architecture / Culture / Design

With everyone gearing up for the Oscars, hedging bets on contenders for best film, we thought we’d take a look at some of the more remarkable residences shot on film.

Remarkable film stages and sets have brought much of early film history to life. Who can forget the balustrade in Sunset Boulevard or the half-constructed half-digitally rendered locations in Peter Jackson’s Lothlòrien or Bag’s End. Then you have award-winning set designers and interior architects like David Wasco, who has brought the oh-so-charming tableaus in “The Royal Tennenbaums” to life. 

Much of film and television is indeed shot in the metonymic Hollywood (which includes the greater Los Angeles area and stretches up as far Northwest as Malibu). But generic America is apparently in Southern California… literally: American Horror Story, American Beauty, American Pie, the latter two of which are set in the Midwest.

In the video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, filmmaker and critic Thom Anderson makes the interesting observation that “the bad guy” always lives in a modernist home, and of the modernists, John Lautner has built more homes for the evil on screen than any other architect. In Lethal Weapon 2, it’s a South African tycoon; in Charlie’s Angels it’s a billionaire playboy. The Angels go back to another Lautner design, the Sheats Goldstein house, in the sequel, where producers of The Big Lebowski and Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond), respectively sent a pornographer and a villain to reside. In Less Than Zero, Robert Downey Jr. dusts Lautner's Silvertop house with cocaine.

The Sheats Goldstein Residence by John Lautner

Lautner is not the unique gatekeeper to housing evil on location, of course. Richard Neutra joins the club with his The Lovell House, home to a high-end pimp in LA Confidential. However, it was also used to shoot the father-son tribute The Beginners by Mike Mills, starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor.

Apparently the best thing to do to a big evil modernist structure is blow it up, as Bruce Willis’s iconic John McLean does in Die Hard, with The Bonaventure Hotel designed by John C. Portman Jr. The morally ambiguous doll-maker in Bladerunner keeps his studio in the aesthetically ambiguous Bradbury Building, a gorgeous work of ceiling exposures and stairways that’s made it a popular location for business offices as well as nighttime dealings.

Outside of Southern California there is still plenty of architecture to be shot. Last year, “Cameron’s house” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was famously listed at over a million dollars lower than its initial asking price. Designed by Mies van der Rohe protege James Speyer, and Speyer student David Haim, the house is now up for $1.6 million for all you Chicago residents.

If we're going for verisimilitude however, most of us would prefer depictions of living in apartments. Perhaps real life looks a bit more like the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby, shot at The Dakota building, where twelve years after the film’s release, John Lennon would be assassinated. Or if you’re really fortunate, your place looks something a bit closer to the penthouse in The Wolf of Wall Street, currently nominated for a Best Film Oscar, and which went on the market this month for $6.5 million. More likely you’ll want to find yourself in something like the apartment in Spike Jonze’s Her, impossible to identify; perhaps Los Angeles in the future is in fact vertical rather than sprawled, though Theodore Twombly’s shut-in abode is furnished to a mid-modern tee (Operating System not included).

The most remarkable locations shot in this year’s nominations were the four historically real antebellum plantations near New Orleans from 12 Years a Slave, and believed to be just miles from where Solomon Northrup was enslaved, in real life. Historical preservation has an almost unsavory character in this bit of architectural iconography, perhaps not unlike the Highclere Castle made famous by the show Downtown Abbey, if eliciting a completely opposite reaction of awe in viewers.

What are your favorite movie locations? Let us know in the comments.