Thursday, March 7, 2013

James Bond: Architecture Critic

Bond prepares to destory another Ken Adam designed set at the start of Goldfinger.

In a very obvious way, Ian Fleming's novel Goldfinger can be regarded as a critique of modern architecture. It is well documented that Fleming based his eponymous hero on Erno Goldfinger, the architect of London's Balfron and Trellick Towers. Fleming, an old-fashioned (even for the 1950's) big C Conservative reputedly detested the Russian emigre architect. For him, Goldfinger epitomised both the megalomania of modern architects and a wider threat of continental European socialism.

This fairly straightforward piece of reactionary characterisation fits easily into Fleming's oevure. Goldfinger takes his place in roll-call of xenophobic stereotypes that also includes Hugo Drax and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Fleming's fondness for the emerging consumer culture of the 1950's though cuts across this imperialist morality and brings with it a certain - albeit throughly commercialised - form of modernism. The fast cars, gadgets and globe trotting break out of the fusty Victorianism of Fleming's world view despite himself.

His love of up-to-the-minute technology permeates the films much more thoroughly. These increasingly based themselves on a slightly fantastical imminent future. This technological futurism extends to the architecture too which throughout the 1960's and 70's is frequently modernist. As is well known, the sets for the films of this period were designed by Ken Adam in a rich amalgam of modernist styles. 

As well as Adams' sets, the films often made use of genuine examples of modern architecture including the rotating Alpine restaurant in On Her Majesties Secret Service and John Lautner's Elrod House in Diamond's Are Forever. The use of the latter as a locations in particular is far from hostile or emblematic of incipient megolamania. It doesn't belong to the villain and, unusually  it isn't blown up at the end by Bond either.

Bond enters John Lautner's Elrod House in Diamond's Are Forever.

Bond's favoured method of architectural criticism is high explosives. Most of Adams' sets are destroyed in the climatic scene that almost invariably involves Bond throwing hand grenades at boiler suited lackeys escaping via monorails and collapsing perspex bridges. But, as the use of the Elrod House suggests, Bond's attitude to modernism is not entirely hostile.

But back to Goldfinger, which contains, appropriately enough, Fleming's most architectural plot. Much of the early part of the book takes place close to (Fleming's) home on the east coast of Kent. Goldfinger's lair is in Reculver, on the Isle of Thanet and Bond spends the night in a hotel in Ramsgate. Goldfinger's house is described in the book as a somewhat depressing, Victorian grange though which Bond takes an instant dislike to. 

Fleming has previous form here having based his previous novel Moonraker on the Kent coast too, this time in Kingsdown just outside of Dover, where that novel's villain Hugo Drax also lives in a grimly old fashioned pile. Interestingly, for all his apparent dislike of modern architecture, Fleming chose an undistinguished and gloomy Victorian neo-Gothic style to symbolise his villain's dark subconscious.

In the film, Goldfinger's house in Kentucky, where Bond is taken as a captive, represents one of Ken Adam's first full-on architectural set designs. The house itself is a kind of essay in late Frank Loyd Wright Praire Style, with rubble stone walls, timber cantilevers and raking windows. Inside it Goldfinger has installed a large model of the US gold depository at Fort Knox, which he intends to attack with a dirty bomb.

This model appears to have been constructed on the underside of the floor of Goldfinger's living room for reasons that are never made entirely clear. Whatever, at the touch of a button on the control panel - itself hidden below a rotating billiard table -  the floor slides open to reveal Goldfinger's Hornby scale heist set. Alongside this model Goldfinger has also mounted an enormous black and white photograph of Fort Knox, the size of an advertisting billboard. It is an undeniably impressive crit presentation. 

Having escaped from a cell somewhere in the basement of the house, Bond pops up within this model, squeezing his head inside Fort Knox itself in order to spy on Goldfinger explaining his dastardly plan. In a strange act of miniaturisation, Bond is trapped within a model within Goldfinger's house. He is thus doubly ensnared within architecture.

Adams' design is fabulous, the prototypical set for all subsequent Bond films and the subject of endless spoofs and parodies. It equates forever the image of the villain with his giant model plotting to take over the world. Models here are equated with a lust for a power. Their scale flatters the villain into thinking that he is in control, able to enact his will with minimum resistance. 

It is at this point that Fleming - or perhaps Adam - slips in a more compelling critique of architecture than we might have previously supposed. Fleming's litany of hideous caricature villains always want to replace what they see as an imperfect world with something of their own devising. A utopia of sorts, albeit usually for the benefit of one. It is Bond's job to stop them. As impressive as the representations of their planned new worlds are, it must be destroyed. As the author of this blog puts it, we can never again trust anyone with a giant model. 

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