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The architecture of Spectre 29.10.15

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The absence of a “Bond Villain’s Lair” aesthetic in Spectre, the latest instalment in the James Bond franchise, reveals the disconcerting state of London's corporate architecture, says Edwin Heathcote.

There is a sub-genre of architecture that has become known as “Bond Villain’s Lair”. It’s a typology we all recognize – even though it might vary wildly from one production design to another, it nevertheless remains oddly familiar. It might be inside a crater on a mysterious island. It might be a John Lautner-esque house atop a concrete column or a Pierre Koenig-type villa cantilevered over a hillside. It might be a dark war-room like the one in Dr. Strangelove (not Bond, but the same designer, Ken Adam) or it might be an interior with very deep white shag carpets (to go with the cat) and a strangely sculptural fireplace. These are architectures that exist in a permanent retro-future, an ultra-modernism from the past. The Bond films were all about a glamorous view of a near future in which technology was sexier and villains used visionary modernism to express their desire for world domination.

Something has gone wrong since then. Spectre, the latest instalment in the Bond franchise, doesn’t employ the kind of modernism that saw Ken Adam act as a conduit between German expressionism and 60s pop. Instead the locations are grittier, more real. Sure, there’s a minimalist clinic (actually the Ice Q restaurant high in the Austrian Tyrol, designed by Johann Obermoser) but the real action takes place on the rooftops of Mexico City and the dark, deeply shadowed streets of London. Oddest of all is the new intelligence HQ – a tower dedicated to surveillance on the banks of the Thames. The design is truly horrible – like something a second-rate British commercial practice might design for Shanghai – yet also deeply credible in its proposed Vauxhall location.

This stretch of London’s South Bank, with the new US Embassy boasting its own moat and a prickly skyline of dim towers, is becoming a sub-Bond set realised at urban scale. The tower so skilfully CGI’d into London’s skyline for Spectre is a cylinder with an atrium and a split in its structure to reveal this. It’s a kind of bad British corporate aesthetic redolent of City Hall, with its zippered atrium and histrionic structure. The irony is that the new tower makes the burnt-out Vauxhall Cross building (its top blown off in Skyfall, like London’s own volcano) look pretty good. In Spectre, destined for demolition, Terry Farrell’s MI6 HQ (which he has always claimed was merely commissioned as one more civil-service building) begins to appear more as a place of dark, expressionist shadows, like Gotham from Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman series. Its postmodernist, neo-Art Deco detailing recalls the relief on the concrete in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, which appears in so many movies from Blade Runner to House on Haunted Hill. Laid over this is a criss-crossing of orange explosive cables – a cross between the lasers in Entrapment (featuring ur-Bond Sean Connery), a huge art-installation project and Ariadne’s thread in its dark labyrinth. Vauxhall Cross becomes a sinister Turbine Hall, and the orange cables act as a perfect metaphor for the sinister world of secret surveillance and the myriad connotations of agencies working in the shadows and the corners of our communications. The Minotaur is the monitoring.

MI6 HQ copy

Perhaps it is the glassy emptiness and the desperate but incompetent search for architectural expression from nothing more than real-estate-as-investment-vehicle that has given Farrell’s Vauxhall Cross building a kind of dignity. It blows up here for a second time, but it is a dignified death. Like Mexico City and a Venetian palazzo before it, it falls prey to the Bond-spectacular-collapse - just as Blofeld’s own desert lair has gone up in flames.

The grand HQ has gone. Bond is now back on the streets of London in his Aston Martin. In a way it’s a fine metaphor, coming as the police axe the huge, modernist New Scotland Yard. The infrastructure doesn’t matter any more – the more anonymous the better. Farrell’s building was the last gasp of the oxymoronic notion of an architectural expression for a secret service. Now the spies are underground, online and all around us. All we need to do is pick up a phone, turn on the location services or send an email. Architecture is irrelevant.



Edwin Heathcote


Sony Pictures, Wikipedia


quotes story

Perhaps it is the glassy emptiness and the desperate but incompetent search for architectural expression from nothing more than real-estate-as-investment-vehicle that has given Farrell’s Vauxhall Cross building a kind of dignity

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