Wednesday, 05 August 2009 10:53

Edwin Heathcote

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words Edwin Heathcote

Modern architecture gets shot to hell in The International - is it a victim of anger at corporations and bankers?

The idea of a New Deal, like the one Roosevelt dealt in the 1930s, is bobbing around as a model for escaping the current recession. Railways, schools, squares, power stations, infrastructure, Olympics, housing. Resuscitation through construction.

The last construction project of the last New Deal (the real Deal), Mike Davis tells us compellingly in his book Dead Cities, was the construction, in the last months of the war in Europe, of the Dugway Proving Ground. This was a singularly weird kind of project, construction for destruction.

A collaboration between an oil company and Hollywood, Dugway was a mocked up Berlin in the middle of the saltbrush desert 90 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. Not some tacky film set but the real thing: brick, plaster, timber. Curtains from German fabrics, German furniture and tablecloths, so that the buildings would burn just right. The architect was Erich Mendelssohn, German Jewish expressionist maverick and designer of Bexhill's De la Warr Pavilion. Its construction was overseen by RKO's Authenticity Department, which had completed Citizen Kane three years earlier. Authenticity Department? Beautifully sinister.

I couldn't help thinking of the Dugway while I watched the outrageous shoot-'em-up The International. Production designers had almost given up on recreating the spiralling interior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York until they came upon an abandoned brick train turning shed in Berlin, the same kind of structure as London's Roundhouse. They reproduced the Guggenheim, meticulously, then machine-gunned the hell out of it. It is an extraordinary scene, inducing a kind of Hitchcockian giddiness, and the production values are astonishing, seamlessly moving between the real building and the mock-up, bullets slashing across the structure. Berlin finally got its revenge on the US for the Dugway and the firebombing first tested on it.

I don't think I've ever seen a movie which attempts to so completely embrace modern architecture. Libeskind's Berlin Jewish Museum is there. So is Von Gerkan, Marg at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Zaha is there, although Wolfsburg's Phaeno Science Centre is incongruously CGI'd into an Italian lakeside, and Ponti, but Wright provides the highlight. The architecture is there as a glamorous backdrop, or perhaps a MacGuffin, but is the film also making a more profound point? Is the architecture complicit, even instrumental in this evil, anonymous world of banking? There is also, though, a little too much delight in the destruction. The big disaster movies of the 1990s (pre-9/11) revelled in the destruction of landmarks from the White House to the Empire State Building, and were themselves delightfully parodied in Team America. But there is something disturbing about so much destruction, so obviously enjoyed.

The International's plot revolves around a massively corrupt bank, loosely modelled on Luxembourg-based, Pakistani-funded and spectacularly collapsed BCCI, and here referred to as the International Bank of Business and Credit. The IBBC funds and deliberately sustains everything evil from African civil wars and international arms deals to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not the most sophisticated of devices. The plot regards itself as endlessly convoluted and intelligent, but is in fact just endlessly convoluted and an excuse for faux-wise and spurious meditations on the nature of international debt. What it does do, consciously or not, is to highlight the disparity between the architectural image of a corporation and the lack of transparency of its actual business.

The architecture of glass is often confused with an architectural transparency and the director, Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run), brilliantly conveys the disconnection setting scenes in ominous glass boxes, from the actual Interpol HQ in Lyons (how the hell did he get permission for that?), to Ponti's Pirelli Building in Milan and a sinister Luxembourg bank. The buildings allow glimpses through, but into what exactly? There is no context.

In his remarkable film Los Angeles Plays Itself, director Thom Anderson shows, through a barrage of clips, how Hollywood has associated modern architecture almost exclusively with evil, with the lairs of master criminals and pornographers, gangsters and dealers. He bemoans what he sees as a sinister conspiracy to portray modern architecture as inherently malevolent. Tykwer's film seems to reflect this tradition and, in the absence of other, better critiques of the tropes of contemporary architecture in film, I'm happy to go with this one as the most effective and devastating attack on corporate architecture since Antonioni and Tati. The bankers have had their kicking, the architects have got away lightly. So far.

Edwin Heathcote is the Financial Times' architecture critic and a regular icon contributor

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