James Bond: the enemy of architecture
From Venetian palazzos to fantastical submersible lairs, the buildings in Bond films dazzle - what a shame they get blown to smithereens, writes Steve Rose in The Guardian
Most people will be too carried away by the relentless action in the latest Bond film to notice the background, but design-minded viewers will find it more exciting than most. It's unlikely to go down as the best Bond ever, but Quantum of Solace wins hands down when it comes to best architecture.
Perhaps it's because he's Swiss, but director Marc Forster certainly has an eye for a good building, usually a piece of hard-edged European modernism with a conveniently flat roof. A key location, for example, is the Festival House Bregenz, in Austria - a dauntingly sophisticated ensemble of steel cladding and huge glass windows that opens out on to a spectacular open-air amphitheatre facing the lake, with the stage in the middle of the water. Designed by Austrian architect Dietrich Untertrifaller, it's the perfect venue for a covert mid-opera meeting of arch-villains. It's also great for crane shots, tuxedo-clad shootouts, and the odd rooftop punch-up. Forster seems to have passed up on another local landmark, mind you: the Kunsthaus Bregenz, designed by his revered compatriot Peter Zumthor. Perhaps it just didn't have enough places to plug in a Klieg light.
Elsewhere we get a precarious chase over the terracotta tiled roofscape of Siena, a brief tour of London's Barbican, some grand colonial buildings in Panama, even a car chase through Italy's Carrara marble quarry - birthplace of Rome's Pantheon, among others. Topping the bill, though, is the ESO Paranal Residencia in Chile, where the traditional climactic rendezvous between Bond and his nemesis takes place. In reality, this stunning building is a hostel for astronomers at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere. Designed by German architects Auer and Weber it's a fine choice: a long rectangular strip of a building, sunk into the barren landscape that contains a splendid indoor garden and swimming pool lit by a 35-metre glass dome. Being situated in the middle of the Atacama desert, 2,400 metres above sea level, it's a place very few of us are likely to ever see inside for real, so here's your chance. Be dazzled by the rhythmic concrete facades! Thrill to the earth-toned interiors! Swoon over the long internal perspectives. Salivate over the minimal detailing! Then watch it all get blown to smithereens!
Yes, almost inevitably, the building does not survive its encounter with Bond, and as he saunters away from its smoking ruins, it occurred to me that few buildings ever do. Bond movies invariably end like Quantum: with 007 single-handedly trashing not only the plans of would-be world dominators but also their hideouts, which is a pity because most of them are rather splendid. Think of the stupendous submersible lair of Stromberg in the Spy Who Loved Me with its circular underwater windows and 2001-style furniture, the hollowed-out volcano in Thunderball, the vertiginous control room in Moonraker, the elegant, if structurally unfeasible, ice palace in Die Another Day, and so forth. Some of the low-rent Bond baddies settle for oil rigs and such, but whatever the villain's crib of choice, you can guarantee it's going to get exploded. Those villains tend to put a great deal of effort into their bachelor pads, recruiting tasteful but evil architects, contractors, interior designers etc - it can't be easy. Then along comes Bond. The villains are the creators; Bond is the destroyer. He's basically an enemy of architecture.
Even beyond the villains' lairs, Bond is a menace to the built environment. Think back to Casino Royale. For once there was no hideout at the end, so what does Bond do? He demolishes a priceless Venetian palazzo instead, not just smashing it up but actually sinking it into the lagoon. That seemed like an awful lot of damage to inflict in the name of a $150m theft, or whatever it was. How much would it cost to repair that building? Probably more. It's a similar story when it comes to historic cityscapes in Quantum of Solace. The chase across the rooftops of Siena leaves plenty of tiles in need of replacement, and culminates in Bond and his quarry crashing through a skylight, swinging about on pulleys and knocking over statues inside some antiquated chamber.
If Bond has a problem with architecture it can probably be traced back to his creator, Ian Fleming, who was certainly no fan of modernism. He even went as far as to name one of his best baddies after the Erno Goldfinger, architect of London's Trellick Tower among others. Goldfinger the architect was apparently a neighbour of Fleming's in Hampstead, and the conservation-minded author was incensed when he demolished two Victorian houses to build his now-classic modern villas on Willow Road. So he returned the insult by lending Goldfinger's name to his fictional gold-loving megalomaniac. Another, less-controversial version of the story has it that Fleming played golf with Goldfinger's wife's cousin, but either way, poor Erno tried and failed to stop Fleming appropriating his name, and had to bear the association for the rest of his life.
Fleming's views on Le Corbusier were equally scathing, according to associates. In fact, on closer inspection, what is the archetypal Bond villain if not a modern architect? He is usually on a mission to "improve" humanity by wiping out the messy status quo and replacing it with some orderly, rational utopia of his own design. In Moonraker it's Hugo Drax who wants to start civilisation afresh in space. In the Spy Who Loved Me, it's Stromberg, who tries to wipe out the world's cities and create his own underwater world of Atlantis. "The only hope for the future of mankind," he says, echoing Le Corbusier. "We all have our dreams," responds Bond, resolving to ensure Stromberg's scorched-earth vision remains just that - a dream.
The association between evil and modernism runs through many Bond movies. In Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore is taught a lesson by Bambi and Thumper in John Lautner's beautiful Elrod House in Palm Springs - all futuristic concrete domes, dynamic diagonals and circular furniture. Villain interiors are often modelled on similar modernists. Osato's spacious office in Thunderball is rather Corbusier in Japan. Goldfinger's "rumpus room" is distinctly Frank Lloyd Wright, as is Hugo Drax's behind-the-waterfall lair in Moonraker, whose Mayan-patterned relief panels resemble those of Wright's Ennis House. The association continues in Quantum of Solace. When they find a mole within MI6, where do you think he lives? London's Barbican centre, of course. What kind of house does Bond himself live in, I wonder? Does he even have one?
If Bond is the scourge of modern architecture, the movies at least have a champion in the form of Ken Adam, production designer extraordinaire. He was the man behind most of the classic Bond villain headquarters - from Dr No to Moonraker, and he designed and furnished them with great skill and devotion, as a new book from Thames and Hudson details. Adam studied architecture in London before the second world war, and he deserves to be considered one. Inarguably, he created some of the most memorable spaces of the modern era. Usually, we look at buildings in a city and wonder what they look like inside. Adam's spectacular interiors do the opposite, inviting us to wonder what the buildings look like on the outside. In reality of course, most of them were just flimsy sets in Pinewood studios whose ultimate fate was to be dismantled or blown up (like the Venetian palazzo in Casino Royale, and the interior of the Paranal Residencia in Quantum of Solace), but Adam's designs have been as influential as any "real" pieces of architecture.
Bond might deploy his licence to trash with worrying abandon, but his motive should be seen less as a grudge against modern architecture and more an extreme form of criticism. He makes a mockery of buildings' functions and pricks the pomposity of their designers. Flat rooftops become platforms from which to dangle henchmen by their neckties; tall chimneys are there to drop wheelchair-bound villains down; corridors become racetracks, balconies vantage points, buildings as a whole turned into giant climbing frames, their carefully designed details relegated to mere footholds and escape routes. Perhaps that's just fanciful thinking on the part of someone who writes about architecture for a living, but as I loosen my bowtie, unholster my revolver and mix a stiff vodka martini, I can't help but identify with him.
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