Sunday, December 19, 2010

Future Interiors from the Past 5: The Vandamme house from North by Northwest

Agent Triple P watched Alfred Hitchcock's classic film North by Northwest (1959 again last night which contains one of the most desirable houses in the world of cinema in the modernist form of the Vandamme house.

Perched over a chasm, supposedly close to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota where the film's climax was set,  this was a house that exuded ultra-modern, luxury rather than old world palatialness.  The house itself looks so much like a Frank Lloyd Wright house that many people think that it actually is a real Wright building and want to visit the house when in the Mount Rushmore area, even though it is, quite obviously, a matte painting.

Matthew Yuricich and some actress

The matte artist on the film was Matthew (Matt!) Yuricich who'd begun his film career only nine years before, having studied fine arts at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.  He would later go on to be a matte artist and visual effects director on such films as Ben Hur, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Logan's Run (for which he won a special Academy award), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Academy Award nomination), Star Trek:The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Ghost Busters and Die Hard.

The living room set included some exterior detail for the balcony

Of course, what gives it the air of realism is that the film's makers not only built some interiors but also some part exteriors of the house.  It is, however, a pastiche of a Frank Lloyd Wright house not an original design. One of the themes of North by Northwest is the powerlessness of the hero (having been set up in the opening sequence with his secretary as a rich and powerful figure) to deal with the events happening to him despite his wealth and influence.  Hitchcock highlights luxury brands all the way through the film in an almost Ian Fleming-like way; from the top (real) hotels featured (The Plaza in New York and the Ambassador East in Chicago), through the cars (a Cadillac, a Lincoln and a Mercedes) to Eve Marie Saint's Bergdorf Goodman costumes and Van Cleef and Arpels jewellery. 

A very Wrightian limestone block interior

A genuine Frank Lloyd Wright (then the most famous living architect) house would have been a perfect addition to these luxury brands and Hitchcock was, initially, keen to get him on board.  Unfortunately, the architect had priced himself out of the market when approached to do designs for the 1949 film The Fountainhead, a Gary Cooper film about a modern architect.  Wright had asked for a 10% fee for working on the film.  The film's producers thought that 10% of the set budget was a lot but agreed it.  Wright then explained that he wanted 10% of the entire film's budget.  He was never approached by Hollywood again.

Another matte painting although the film's team did build a real version of the porch (although they used plaster rather than limestone blocks)

So it was left to the film's design team (Robert Boyle, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, Frank McKelvey and William A Horning) to come up with a house that looked like a Frank Lloyd Wright structure.  In reality the top of Mount Rushmore is a steep, vertiginous peak and doesn't have the flat area behind it where the house is supposedly sited. In addition, the authorities wouldn't permit anything to be built close to the monument, for ecological reasons, so the structure would have to be realised as a combination of studio sets and special effects.

A bar come TV unit!  Who wouldn't want one?

As a pastiche it is rather good, using the same limestone blocks and cantilevered deck of Wright's most famous house, Falling Water. It is also sited just below the brow of a hill rather than on top of it: another distinguishing feature of the architect's vision and evidence that the design team had done their homework.   The largely glass walls of the overhanging deck are also similar.

Falling Water, Bear Run, Pennsylvania

In Falling Water, Wright didn't not use the sort of supporting beams that the design team did on the film (and never would have) but they may have been included for a plot point as Cary Grant uses one of the beams to climb up to the balcony so he can spy on James Mason playing Vandamme. 

Interestingly, some cantilevered homes completed in Los Angeles two years after the film opened, which were designed by William Sutherland Beckett, did have supporting beams like the Vandamme house.

Houses by William Beckett. Los Angeles 1961

The interior of the house, again, pastiches Wright with its exposed limestone blocks and includes a lot of contemporary but modernistic Scandinavian furniture mixed with oriental and pre-Columbian art and Greek rugs.

Greek flokati rugs

The part of the house suspended over the cliff uses a lot of glass (the interior set didn't have any glass in order to avoid reflections of the crew and equipment) which, with the brightly lit interiors (we only see the house at night), adds to the illusion of it floating over the abyss.

The landing and intererior balcony

The set was built at the MGM studios in Culver City and included the suspended living room and exterior balcony, the interior landing giving a view down onto the living room, the bedroom, the base of the exterior supporting beams and wall and the house entrance and car port.

The stairs.  The cupboards (centre rear) were removable to permit the filming of this reverse angle (below)

So, the Vandamme house is one of Agent Triple P's most desirable cinematic residences.  Triple P's father was an architect and when he was young Triple P was surrounded by architectural books and magazines so, even as a little boy, was familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright's work.  One of our treasured posessions is Triple P's father's book Architecture in America. 

The fact that this isn't a real Wright design doesn't matter as it isn't actually a real house but it is a quintessence of what a modernist, luxury house should have been at the end of the fifties.  For Triple P, the exposed stone that features both outside and in, the polished floors and ethnic rugs, the floor to ceiling glass walls, the open plan multi-level intereriors and, above all, the spectacular location made a huge impression on him the moment he first saw the film on TV. 

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