Stephanie Curtis and Euan Kerr talk about the roles that architects and buildings play in cinema
Interview by Joel Hoekstra
Known as the Cube Critics—they’re cubicle neighbors—longtime MPR personalities Stephanie Curtis and Euan Kerr have an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. Their celluloid tastes run from art to action, and their ability to recall obscure titles and strange lines of dialogue rivals that of any film scholar. Curtis and Kerr began recording and broadcasting their conversations about movies a few years ago, and their reviews can be heard weekly on 91.1 KNOW or downloaded as podcasts from iTunes. Recently, the pair sat down with Architecture MN to chat about architects and architecture on the big screen.
The Oscars are coming. Any nominations for 2017’s Best Performance by a Building in a Leading Role?
Euan: Last year there was a movie that I loved—and that Stephanie and the rest of the world hated—called The Book of Henry. And part of the movie took place in an amazing tree house. [To Stephanie:] Would you not have killed to have a tree house like that? For many architects, I think, the tree house is where the journey begins.
Stephanie: Bad movie but a cool tree house. My tree house was not that nice. It was a piece of wood in a tree. I would have killed to have a tree house like the one from Swiss Family Robinson.
Euan: Another film from 2017 that featured great architecture was Columbus. Basically, a man finds himself in Columbus, Indiana, where his architect father is in a coma. He meets a young woman who is stuck in the town, caring for her mother. But in fact, Columbus, Indiana, is this living shrine to modernist architecture—it’s a real place!—and in this movie, these two characters, who are slightly adrift and bump into each other one day, discover that the way that they can talk to each other is through their fascination with these buildings. Talking about architecture helps them get through their respective crises. It’s an extraordinary little indie film, though I bet only architects saw it.
Stephanie: When I think about architecture in movies, I think about old German Expressionist films, and how filmmakers built things. They added weird angles and everything was slightly off. Even if the people seeing it didn’t think, Why is that door so small? or Why do I feel so unnerved by this setting?, the directors and cinematographers were using architecture to alter the feel of the movie. You’re unnerved not only because there are crazed murderers running around but also because the perspective is out of scale. It affects you.
What’s your favorite place to watch movies?
Euan: I grew up in Scotland and, in Glasgow, there’s an Art Deco theater just down the street from the Glasgow School of Art. It opened in 1939, and even now you can walk in and feel this is a place for watching fine films. (Of course, I’ve seen a lot of really bad films there, too.) During World War II, if there was an air raid, they would stop the movie and say, “If you want to leave, we’re going to pause for a couple of minutes,” and people could exit and return before they restarted the film. But usually only two or three people left. Once, according to legend, the air-raid sirens were howling and it was pouring buckets of rain, but there was still a line around the block because people wanted to see the next picture. People loved the escapism of movies.
Who is the most memorable architect in film?
Stephanie: I think that the architect that architects love most is Juror 8, Henry Fonda, from Twelve Angry Men. It’s only the mind of an architect that could go through everything evenhandedly and then deliver a compelling pitch, you know? You’ve got to satisfy your clients. In this case, Fonda’s clients are the other jurors, and he slowly brings them along and convinces them of his vision—skills that are required in the job of an architect.
But if you asked a whole generation of young women to name the architect they remember best from movies, I think you’d get an undisputed answer: Keanu Reeves in The Lake House. He plays a guy named Alex Wyler, and he and Sandra Bullock both live in the same house but at different times. Magically, they can leave each other letters in the mailbox and write back and forth. He’s a frustrated architect, and he has a dream of restoring this perfect house on a lake, designed by his famous architect father. It’s all glass, it’s out on the water, and it’s beautiful, and . . . well, if you restored this house for most women between ages 20 and 35, they would absolutely die. It’s one of the great romance films of our time. There are a lot of scenes with Keanu sitting at his drawing board, sketching out designs. He’s a very hot architect.
Does Hollywood ever cast women as architects?
Stephanie: In One Fine Day, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an architect. She runs around all day beside George Clooney, carrying rolled-up plans and building models. They always have to have blueprints and models, don’t they?
Euan: Sadly, those are vanishing in an era of AutoCAD. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing fewer architects onscreen.
Stephanie: I like watching them draw. It’s much better than those montages of writers thinking, typing, thinking, typing.
What’s your pick for most alluring onscreen architect, Euan? Or most passion-filled movie about architecture?
Euan: I’d have to say The Draughtsman’s Contract, a Peter Greenaway movie from the 1980s. Greenaway is a very architectural director. He made The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as well as an amazing version of Shakespeare’s Tempest called Prospero’s Books. The Draughtsman’s Contract is about this poor architect in the 17th century who is summoned to make architectural drawings of an estate and gets pulled into all sorts of intrigue with the lady of the house.
Stephanie: Do not show it to your kids. Or the budding architect in your home. Am I blushing?!