The movies have a particular fascination for modernist glass houses. Perhaps it is because they contain and frame everyday scenes in the same way as a screen. Perhaps it is because they represent the fishbowl, the container of domestic drama.
Or perhaps it is because, at their best, they just look cool, so here are some of the coolest architectural and production design classics.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Being a film star might do wonders for an actor’s balance sheet but sometimes not for the houses they film in.
When the Ben Rose House went on sale for $2.3m in 2009, the sleek modernist villa looked a snip. Built in 1953 in the woods of Highland Park, near Lake Michigan north of Chicago, the house had a history as one of the star settings of cult 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It is the home of Cameron’s dad, the one with the nice cars. Designed by modernist architect A James Speyer and David Haid, this was once a model dwelling, touted by the US steel industry as the future of architecture.
The house itself is a classic mid-century paean to transparency: a glass aquarium, its interior bleeding into the canopy of the trees outside.
It is impeccably done, as one might expect from a one-time student of former Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe, who had set the standard with his Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, competed only a couple of years before this version.
Despite the stardust, the Ben Rose House took years to sell, and even then it went for less than half the original asking price. People now just want bigger houses.
The astonishing house of reclusive tech billionaire Nathan Bateman (brilliantly and creepily played in this 2014 film by Oscar Isaac) is actually a Norwegian hotel, the Juvet Landscape Hotel, designed by architects Jensen & Skodvin.
This is a film that truly exploits the potential of glass. The material, so often a dim, unimaginative cipher for “transparency” is, throughout this film, used as a barrier, something impenetrable.
The great cliché of modernist architecture was always the blurring of boundaries between interior and landscape, as if architecture could be made to melt away, dematerialised.
Here, the house appears as fishbowl, a closed-off realm of unethical experimentation, not an interior at one with the landscape, but rather one in which the outside is tantalisingly out of reach for the artificial-intelligence robot Ava.
It becomes, at the end, a trap, an unbreakable glass prison as hapless programmer Caleb is caught by his own vanity, able to see out from his prison but unable to escape his own limitations as a human.
The Big Lebowski
The Sheats-Goldstein Residence is one of those houses that has become familiar through endless cameos in movies, videos and ads, a house that might easily pop up as a villain’s lair, a hip-hop party house, a sci-fi LA dystopia or a swinging sixties sex den.
Its finest role, though, was in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, in which it appeared as porn baron Jackie Treehorn’s place.
It is the perfect contrast to the musty, dope-soaked dimness of main character The Dude’s apartment with his urine-soaked rug.
One-time Frank Lloyd Wright assistant John Lautner set the style for the sexier, less suburban edge of mid-century America, designing the Googie Coffee House (and with it setting the atomic-age style) and a host of houses that have appeared as villains’ lairs in Bond movies and beyond.
This house is not as glassy as some of the others, but it does have the most astonishing corner window overlooking the city, and another the terrace and pool. The furniture is built-in, concrete in fact.
The views are set, almost like cinema, with the architect as director pointing the viewer at the screen. On that screen inside a screen, the glassy expanse, is the city itself and its fantasy, the smoggy skyline and the corporate towers, the pool and the hills.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011 version)
The symbolism here really is a little too obvious. Wealthy industrialist Martin Vanger’s exquisite glass villa, the perfectly transparent glass box, has its dark underbelly in the concrete torture chamber below, the bit no one else sees.
It is Grand Guignol of course, a clunky cipher for Sweden’s seemingly perfect social democracy and openness with its dark secrets.
But what a house. It was designed by Swedish architect John Robert Nilsson and is called the Villa Överby. Set on a craggy hilltop on the Värmdö peninsula east of Stockholm, it is a house about the landscape — as all of these seem to be.
With its infinity pool and outside conversation pit, the villa embodies a certain kind of clean luxury, a minimal modernism that sits perfectly between breathtaking and cliché.
Jacques Tati’s take on steel and glass modernism is maybe the best film about architecture that is not about architecture. Although most of the 1967 film is taken up with tableaux of the corporate city, the bureaucracy and the street (a place for cars rather than people), its take on the glass home is unforgettable.
Taking a little cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Tati extrapolates the idea of windows as irresistible glimpses into the private lives of others and turns it into pure theatre.
Here, rather than the ragbag of various-sized windows and scenes familiar from Hitchcock’s Greenwich Village and the rear of a bunch of apartment buildings, we have a grid of windows laid out like a modernist chequerboard. Each produces a perfect proscenium arch — or perhaps a television screen exposing the whole of family life to the street.
Each scene is perfectly illuminated, a human zoo in which families come home from work in glass boxes to appear on view to the street. Like all the sets for this film — which pretty much bankrupted the actor-director — these are not real buildings but meticulously made sets, almost hard to believe.
In some ways this use of architectural exposure is a riposte to the net-curtain culture of provincial continental Europe and, far from the alienation it is often interpreted as, looks like everyday life as urban theatre.
Just as the French place, or town square, is a forum of events and rhythms, so the interior becomes an extension of the public city.
In another way, you might say it is an extraordinary prediction of how we have exposed ourselves to surveillance with our Alexas and smart devices. We all now live in glass boxes.
Photographs: Alamy; Knut Bry; Arch.james; Åke Eson Lindman