Ireland finally falls for modernism a century on
Modernist houses have long been favoured backdrops for Hollywood baddies
In its heyday, Sam Stephenson’s home, No 31, a converted coach house off Leeson Street, was the party house in Dublin.
About 100 years on, though somewhat less on these shores, it looks as if Ireland is finally falling in love with modernism, if the muddied vistas of construction sites are anything to go by. But do all those currently tweaking their planning applications from the once-ubiquitous dormers to the now in-favour long-line modernist boxes know what they’re letting themselves in for?
There have, obviously, been pioneers: Scott Tallon Walker co-founder Michael Scott designed his own house, Geragh, built in Sandycove in 1938, while Robin Walker’s O’Flaherty House in Kinsale in 1963 showed the pair were a match made in heaven, architecturally speaking. Meantime, Eileen Gray, the thinking woman’s modernist, has been rediscovered so frequently through exhibitions – at Imma in 2013; in the film The Price of Desire, in 2015; and now theatre and dance, Invitation to a Journey at this year’s Galway arts festival – that we can hardly consider her forgotten any more.
Invitation to a Journey (July 9th-17th, giaf.ie) looks intriguing. A collaboration between Crash Ensemble, CoisCéim Dance Theatre, Fishamble and the Galway festival, it explores Gray’s convention-defying life and work, most famously expressed in her curvaceous Bibendum chair (1926), and her sleek white villa in the south of France, E-1027 (1929). The house opened to the public last year – you can book at capmoderne.com/en, but even if you’ve never actually been inside a full- on modernist extravaganza, you’ll still find something oddly familiar about them. That’s because they’re every film villain’s dream home. In fact, in one of those What I Learned from the Movies moments, the bad guys are mainly modernists.
While goodies live in traditional homes, and usually have French provincial, American Shaker, colonial or otherwise country-style kitchens, the baddies opt for clean lines, plenty of poured concrete and lots and lots of plate glass. Perhaps it’s that comfortable past versus scary future thing, but you can always tell a person’s movie motivations by the homes they’re scripted to inhabit.
Interestingly, at the same time as they were casting the houses as dens of megalomania and iniquity, Hollywood’s top producers and directors were commissioning similar things for themselves – which kind of makes you wonder about their self- image and vision. Maybe another reason for the link is the usually unspoken-about glamour and sheen of sin and immorality.
Anyway, Bond villains adore modernism, and the architect du jour of celluloid’s evil geniuses is John Lautner. A Lautner is home to the wicked schemes of the bad guy in Diamonds are Forever (1971) as Ernst Blofeld’s house. Others are there in The Big Lebowski (1998) as pornographer and loan shark Jackie Treehorn’s pad; Paul Newman’s corrupt cop Harry Ross’s bribe house in Twilight (1998); as the backdrop for the headquarters of the South African bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989); and the home that turns anti- hero Jake Scully into a peeping tom in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984).
Richard Neutra’s Lovell House plays home to another pornographer in L.A. Confidential (1997), while my favourite is evil James Mason’s mountain lair in North by Northwest (1959) – inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright but created for the movie by Hitchcock’s designers.
Things have got a little less black and white these days, as seen by the sprawling modernist palace of conflicted Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, at Point Dume in Malibu. A few years ago there were rumours that the house was up for sale, for $25million. Director Jon Favreau disappointed Marvel-loving millionaires by confirming the house was CGI fabrication: “It’s sort of like the best spot and nobody is allowed to build there, so we put a digital house.”
So if architecture is a reflection of our values, while also inflecting how we live, and as Ireland finally catches on to modernism, what are we letting ourselves in for? Or are we finally giving our true natures architectural rein? If you want an overnight in a modernist pad, without breaking the bank, try one of Dublin’s hidden sleepover gems. Number 31, just off Leeson Street, was the home of Sam Stephenson, the architect of the Wood Quay office blocks and the Central Bank on Dame Street. He’d bought the former coach house in the 1950s for about £1,000, and set about turning it into the perfect James Bond baddie pad.
Stay there and slink into the leather- lined sunken sitting room, run your fingers across the white-and-gold mosaics, and dream of world domination. That wouldn’t be too far-fetched either, in its heyday, No 31 was the party house in Dublin, and hosted the likes of Henry Kissinger, Charlie Haughey and Grace Kelly. Stay from €240, and make sure to request one of the Stephenson rooms when booking. All you need is a white cat and an evil cackle.