by Nitija Immanuel, Jerry ElengicalSep 16, 2021
Great cinema is defined by great spaces. On Frank Lloyd Wright's death anniversary, STIR takes you through his brilliant buildings that feature in some of the most memorable films and TV shows ever made.
Throughout his career, opinions on Wright’s buildings remained divisive - while hailed frequently as revolutionary, his projects simultaneously invited severe criticism - evidenced in the Guggenheim Museum having once been likened to a massive washing machine!
Nevertheless, over a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Wright emerged as one of the leading architects of his era, in no small part due to his position at the forefront of the first truly 'American' way of building - now known as the Prairie School. Drawn from the rolling plains and flatlands of the Midwestern United States, Wright's style redefined American architecture as we know it. His open interior plans featured diagonally interlocked spaces freely flowing into one another, enveloped by exterior facades that strongly emphasised the horizontal, subtly blending into the natural landscape.
Wright's oeuvre encompasses some of the most recognisable and oft-studied buildings of the 20th century, including Fallingwater, the Frederick C Robie House, and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. All three have since been certified as US National Historic Landmarks as well as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
In addition to boundless creativity - seen in his ability to “simply shake the buildings out of his sleeves” - Wright was also renowned for his caustic wit and unwavering sense of self-belief, once having remarked, "Early on in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility...I chose the former and have seen no reason to change". Wright's quotes are now nearly as well-known as his buildings - which have been featured all across mainstream media.
STIR lists some of the films and TV shows that used the celebrated architect's buildings as the grand stage upon which they wove their narratives.
1. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum (1959), New York, USA
The International (2009)
The spiralling galleries of this famous New York landmark provide a dynamic background for the intense, chaotic shootout that takes place at a pivotal point during this fast-paced action thriller. While some shots of the actual lobby were included in the final cut, the filmmakers built a full-scale replica in order to avoid the insurance nightmare of riddling the museum's interior with bullet holes.
Mr Popper's Penguins (2011)
Loosely based on the children's book of the same name, the Guggenheim's curving ramps are used in a more humorous vein in this scene, as the titular Antarctic avians waddle, slip, and slide their way towards the bandstand at a high-profile gala event. With cleverly framed shots of shocked bystanders, the dynamic camera work here highlights the museum's unique spatial narrative consisting of a continuous ascent along a curved gradient towards its famed glass ceiling.
2. Ennis House (1924), Los Angeles, USA
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
This campy horror flick uses exterior shots of Wright's Ennis House built in Los Feliz, California, during its opening scenes to set the tone for its macabre storyline. As one of his projects built using the unique method of textile-block construction, the Ennis House takes inspiration from Mayan temples with an exotic facade that makes extensive use of geometrically-patterned relief features.
3. Millard House (1923), Pasadena, USA
Another one of his textile block homes is featured as the personal residence of one of the main characters in this sci-fi western series. Nestled among the lush trees of a steeply sloped landscape, the Millard House was Wright's first experiment with the innovative modular building system that broke away from his associations with the Prairie School while still embodying his commitment to integrating architecture and nature.
4. Marin County Civic Center (1962), San Rafael, USA
This retro-futuristic science fiction film, exploring themes of eugenics and genetic discrimination, makes use of Wright's Marin County Civic Center as a filming location for the offices of the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. The building's barrel-vaulted glass roof, stucco walls, glazed partitions, and gold anodised grilles contribute heavily to the aesthetic fusion of mid-century modernism and space-age futurism that characterises the film's sets.
5. John Sowden House (1926), Los Angeles, USA
I Am The Night (2019)
Filmed on location at the John Sowden House in Los Angeles, this mini-series is based upon a memoir by Fauna Hodel, granddaughter of George Hodel - a prime suspect in the infamous Black Dahlia case. The structure, which once served as the elder Hodel's own private residence, features a facade that uses textile blocks to create a form resembling either an ancient Mayan temple or the gaping maw of a great white shark. Its exotic and outlandish interiors provide a perfectly sinister setting for the show's dark narrative.
Throughout his working life, Frank Lloyd Wright refused to be typecast and continually pushed the boundaries of architectural practice, building on all sorts of scales drawing upon a myriad of sources to refine his perpetually evolving style. His oft-uttered observation "The only thing wrong with architecture is architects," remains relevant even today when the profession faces some of its greatest challenges. Serving as a staggering reminder of how architecture must be revered and respected due to its ineffable influence on human lives, Wright's attitude towards design prioritised the human element of building, while honouring mankind's debts to nature.
(Text by Jerry Joe Elengical, intern at STIRworld.com)