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DESIGN IN THE MOVIES : Good Guys Don't Live in White Boxes : In Today's Movies, Modern Design Signifies Ambition, Money, Power--and Now Evil.

November 01, 1987|PILAR VILADAS | Pilar Viladas is a senior editor at Progressive Architecture.

IN MOVIES TODAY, actors aren't the only scene stealers. Contemporary architecture and design are playing an ever in creasing screen role.

After a long period of naturalism in production design, films once again have become more stylized, exploiting dramatic buildings and interiors to create an image. So, coincidentally, has architecture. The ruling style of the 1960s and early '70s--that of the ho-hum glass box--has given way to a pluralistic approach that draws from many periods of architectural history. Contemporary design has a strongly scenographic appeal, as if modern rooms were meant to be stage sets--a point that is not lost on Hollywood.

High-style theatrical design is everywhere. And in some cases, a film's architecture and set design define character as surely as did the black hats and white hats of Western villains and heroes.

"Robocop," a gritty action picture designed by William Sandell, features grim, dizzying skyscrapers (with Dallas and Pittsburgh standing in for Detroit of the future) and what must be the meanest police cars ever: Ford Tauruses painted matte black.

In "The Big Easy," a murder victim floats in a flamboyant, post-modern fountain--which happens to be the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, designed by Charles Moore, one of the architects of Sea Ranch in Northern California and the Beverly Hills Civic Center.

These and other contemporary designs have one thing in common: They are irresistibly photogenic. "There is always the problem of giving the movie a distinctive look . . . and a lot of good contemporary design is very theatrical," says Jim Bissell, production designer for Ridley Scott's crime drama, "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Theatricality in design has become the trademark of producer-director Michael Mann, who recently told the national convention of the American Institute of Architects that "film architecture is no longer a passive backdrop but active in the drama itself."

Mann should know. His "Miami Vice" introduced millions of TV viewers to new-wave design and also helped revive interest in Miami's fine but languishing Art Deco architecture. Mann's high-profile look, however, is costly to produce and thus far hasn't spawned too many followers on television.

Feature film makers and production designers, on the other hand, have considerably more freedom. Armed with bags of dazzling technical tricks and free from the need to make their creations last any longer than the time it takes to record them on film, they integrate dozens of design images into a coherent whole. Films such as "Blade Runner," "Brazil" and "Robocop" depict a rich but ominous vision of an urban future by hybridizing real locations, designed sets and special effects.

Things are not always what they seem. In Mann's feature film "Manhunter," a sleekly modern, white-on-white prison for the criminally insane is, in reality, Atlanta's High Museum, designed by award-winning architect Richard Meier, who is now at work on the Getty Center in Brentwood. Those who are familiar with the elegant museum may be shocked to see it portrayed in such sinister terms.

But that brings up an interesting aspect of current movie design--that modern architecture and interiors seem invariably to have a negative connotation.

In Adrian Lyne's "9 1/2 Weeks," production designer Ken Davis places furniture by 20th-Century masters in monochromatic rooms to create austere, perfectionist spaces for a successful, sadistic currency trader. His victimized girlfriend, on the other hand, inhabits a cluttered, cozy prewar apartment.

"Ruthless People," with its hilarious sendup of Memphis furniture, satirizes the lemming-like trendiness of a nouveau-riche housewife while the story's underdogs live in a cute little bungalow.

In "Baby Boom," steel and leather furniture by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe reflects, says production designer Jeffrey Howard, Le Corbusier's view of the house as a "machine for living"--the perfect home for the ambitious executive played by Diane Keaton--until, that is, she inherits a baby and flees to the chintz-covered comfort of a Vermont country house.

For Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," production designer Stephen Hendrickson creates luxurious but emphatically modern settings for the film's main characters, who are young, ruthless players in the game of big money. If there is a message in all this, it seems to be that Hollywood equates modern architecture and interiors with youth, ambition, new money, power and--more often than not--evil. Modern architecture has irresistible star quality, all right, but it isn't for nice people. "Sleek, cool, driven people inhabit modern architecture," says Sandell. "It smacks of elitism, which troubles a lot of people. But that's also the fun of it."

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