House in a Role

Since the beginning of film history, architecture has played a huge role to define characters’ personalities. From dreamy castles presenting lovely princesses to gloomy caves portraying mean witches, habitats define each role to set the atmosphere in which the character will evolve. But sometimes houses are not only backgrounds to give a deepest sense of the scene, architecture becomes alive on film and interact in the scenario just as any other actor.

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The Big Lebowski (1998) by the Cohen brothers is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary next week and yet it’s the film that more often comes to our mind when thinking about a house performing a role. In a few minutes the Doctor Paul Sheats House (1963), now known as the Goldstein House, displays all the intricacies of the plot in a few shots. In this film it is inhabited by Jackie Treehorn, a rich man who tries to intimidate a slacker that everyone calls “the Dude”. Mr.Treehorn gets in the living room, where the target is waiting, from behind a wall that finishes with an angular vertex. Just as his body starts to be revealed he opens his arms to announce his presence in the room. In this shot, the building seems to deliver the host in front of his guest, announcing that his approach to him will be very direct. Next, we can see “the Dude” awkwardly surrounded by fancy furniture: the sleekness of the sittings contrasts with the character’s appearance, highlighting how hostile the house is for him.

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The most recognisable element of the Goldstein house is its roof, which is used in its user advantage. In a following shot the roof structure seems to have Mr. Treehorn’s back. The structure is not only at sight indoors, it continues outdoors and it’s visible through to a glass. From this point of view, the viewer can have a sense of how menacing the situation is for the guest, he is trapped in that room and although he can see outside, the surroundings belong to the residence and any exterior help is far away. The next shot in which the roof is presented, we can see how “the Dude” has been caught by the house by smashing his face to a glass table and pressing him against it with the presence of the roof.

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The house role in the film is as important as any actor’s and so is other John Lautner’s works in Hollywood films. It’s difficult to imagine a space that would describe George’s emotion in A Single Man (2009) with as much delicacy as the Schaffer Residence (1949). On the other hand it’s hard to think about a more flamboyant geometry that could held a fight between James Bond and two guards with acrobat skills, as the Elrod House (1968) in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Actors are not only supported by its design they are enhanced by it just as if the dwelling became part of their performance.

Lautner’s capacity to design expressive dwellings that not only would cater his clients but a director’s vision for a story is what makes his work so cinematographic. Their capacity to offer many angles, expressing differents feelings to its viewer is what makes them stand out for their acting skills. But what makes a house a good house if it’s not its capacity to go along with its owner during his journey? Could we think about a house not only as a recipient for our life but as a life companion? It’s definetely easy to choose a house in a role rather than any other.

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