Devious designs

Mar 01 2011

MUN's Ocean Sciences Centre

What’s the connection between Bond villains and Modernist architecture?

Out on the Red Cliff path near the end of the trail, one can see all the way down to Logy Bay, where the Marine Lab is. And from this vantage point, you can get a great view of this really interesting modern building. The thought has occurred to me before that the Marine Lab (also known as the Ocean Sciences Centre) looks like it could be the home-base of some kind of eccentric super-villain.

I wonder about this apparent connection between Modernism and villainy that I have subconsciously made. Modernism and its philosophy is often criticised by New Urbanists and contemporary architecture critics. They consider the buildings to be culturally sterile. Void of identity.

Super-villains, on the other hand—who generally seem to have the most impeccable taste in architecture and design—appear to be great fans of Modernism. The Modernist dwellings of Bond villains are a case-in-point. Maybe it was just the era in which the films emerged that made for such great architecture, but there was something about the huge scale, stylishness, and sheer improbability of the cold-war-era villain dwelling that propelled it to archetypal status. Many of these set designs were heavily inspired by prominent Modernist architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van de Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some exemplary pieces of Modernist architecture were even used as sets, like the Elrod House by John Lautner. The villian’s lair always had most exquisite materials: marble, exotic hardwoods, precious metals. It would be nestled into a mountainside or other spectacular location with panoramic glass walls, vast open rooms with spaces divided by sculptural ceilings and in-floor water features.

Film and architecture critics have noted before now that the Bond villain and the Modernist architect are, in many ways, one in the same. Radical schemes to change the world for an indeterminable good or bad have been common themes amongst architects. Modernists like Le Corbusier dreamt of eradicating the existing chaos of our planet – having a clean slate upon which to build an idealized, rationalized utopian world. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) himself was the perfect template for Ian Fleming’s villains. He gave himself a new name, he ruthlessly castigated his adversaries, and he had a mission that sounded eerily like world domination.

While Modernist architects probably weren’t seeking actual global domination, the result of their work did produce a kind of global style. The work of famous Modernist architects like Mies Van de Rohe was defined partially by a desire to transcend regional and national identity, and to speak the material language of international business and politics. This philosophy translated into buildings that rejected local characteristics, but celebrated the essence of materials and structural functions. The absence of any contextualizing feature makes it such that the building belongs nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Even though frequently seen as outsiders—especially in places like Newfoundland—Modernist buildings can be picked up and placed in any location and still make sense.

In fact, recently I learned that the Arts and Culture Centre in Grand Falls Windsor started its life as the Czech Pavilion at the ‘67 expo in Montreal. The building, designed by Czech architects Repa and Pycha, was purchased from the Czechoslovakian government by Smallwood in 1967 for 230,000 Czech crowns. The pavilion was actually brought over in pieces and reassembled in Grand Falls. This was easy, as it was a prefabricated modular building, designed specifically for assembly and reassembly. It houses a 400-seat theatre, an art gallery and a public library. It’s a truly fascinating building and I was surprised that its story is not as celebrated as it could be.

I wonder what this relationship between high Modernism and villainy says about Modernism in reality. Is there perhaps a Bond-villain effect that taints our perception of Modernist design? Examples of Modernism in Newfoundland are sparse, and our collective definition of important historical architecture is selective and excludes the instances of great Modernist buildings that we do have. Even though these buildings might be a part of something bigger, something other than our regional architectural identity, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t fit in somehow and be a rich cultural contribution that makes this island interesting.

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2 responses so far

  1. You’re right that supervillains like in the James Bond movies tend toward Modernism in the design of their evil lairs. Does classical design imply goodness? Were there no evil people in the past? Who knows.

    I think that some Modernist designs appear cool, sterile, distant — similar to the characters of the bad guys who inhabit them.

    Good commentary.