Dec 17, 2008

Chicago architecture at home in 'Lake House': Movie takes Hollywood's affair with Windy City landmarks to a new level

Popular culture pays tribute to architecture. In case you haven't notice it in the movie, "The Lake House", let's do a double take…

Written by Chicago native David Auburn (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Proof," also set in the Windy City), "The Lake House" takes full advantage of the city's rich architectural tapestry, paying special attention to the diversity of periods and styles.

"Every great architect from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan to Mies van der Rohe has built in Chicago, and what other city in America gives you all those buildings in close proximity to each other?" says "Lake House" production designer Nathan Crowley, who also used several Chicago locations in last year's "Batman Begins." "Sometimes you go to a city like New York and you feel its greatness, but cinematically, it doesn't stack up like Chicago does - - it's very, very cinematic," Crowley says.

Accordingly, the film's Argentinian director, Alejandro Agresti, and his Canadian cinematographer, Alar Kivilo, lavish shot after shot on some of the city's best-known architectural vistas, from the Chicago River and its lattice of bridges to the skyline as seen from the Grant Park softball fields. They also zoom in on a number of Chicago landmarks, including Daley Plaza (using an unusual down-and-southward perspective on the Picasso sculpture), Holabird & Roche's Old Colony Building, the Artist's Cafe in Solon Beman's Fine Arts Building, and interior and exterior shots of Daniel Burnham's Santa Fe Building and Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building, whose great reading room for Roosevelt University students doubles as a design studio.

The film's architectural obsession even manages to reinforce Auburn's central conceit of time travel. In its most poetic visual trope, the movie features a series of montages of ornate 19th and early 20th century buildings standing side-by-side with glass-and- steel modernist monoliths -- a subtle but effective visual symbol of the lovers' co-existence in separate but parallel time frames.

Most daringly for a wide release, perhaps, Auburn's script includes a fair amount of dialogs relating to architectural practice and theory. Alex critiques the glass-walled house of the title (which Crowley designed and built at nearby Maple Lake as a Miesian glass box with romantic Regency touches) as being "about ownership, not connection"; his younger brother, also an architect, calls it "Le Corbusier meets Frank Lloyd Wright." And how many Hollywood movies refer to living architects such as Richard Meier, or ponder the qualities and architectural implications of natural light in an art museum in Barcelona vs. one in Tokyo?

Wilbert and Marilyn Hasbrouck, owners of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop on South Wabash, who were contacted by a location scout about the possibility of using their store in a scene for the film. "They were doing some filming on the street in front of us, and one day this young lady came in and said Sandra and Keanu were going to have a scene where they were looking at books in a shop," recalls Wilbert Hasbrouck, an architect and architectural historian whose The Chicago Architectural Club: Prelude to the Modern (The Monacelli Press) came out last year. "She asked if they could use our bookshop, and I said yes." The next day, however, the woman returned with a message from Reeves, who wanted to talk to someone about architects, their practices and especially their vocabulary. Hasbrouck, a devoted raconteur with more stories in his vest pocket about Chicago architects than anyone else on the planet, volunteered for the job.

In the end, the book-viewing scene was shelved, but Agresti, who had checked out Prairie Avenue on the sly, decided to use the shop as Alex's father's study. After several days of preparation (in which the crew built a fireplace out of cardboard and what Hasbrouck calls "those little railroad tracks the camera rides on"), the director shot Reeves and Plummer's emotional "sleazy condo developer" scene there. The result is a film that, while hardly the final word on Chicago architecture, treats it with respect and brings it into a pop- cultural context. "We're proud of our building and its architectural legacy, and the movie helps us show it off a little," says Kim Gibson-Harman, assistant vice president for administrative services at Roosevelt, which owns the Auditorium Building. "It certainly can't hurt."

"The Lake House" with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock features several Chicago landmarks and panoramic vistas, including:
The Chicago River and its lattice of bridges, with the Marina City towers on the right.
The Picasso sculpture at Daley Plaza, where a crucial and recurring scene plays out.
The Auditorium Building whose reading room doubles as an architectural design studio.
The Prairie Avenue Bookshop on South Wabash, which was made over as an architect's study.

Text from: Kevin Nance, The Chicago Sun-Times, June 15, 2006

* Note: The article above are excerpts. The full article is available on Highbeam Research but on subscription only.

posted by ling


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just watched that movie and I wonder if you maybe know where I can find the art/architecture poster on the wall in the office/studio where we first meet the father at the reunion (about minute 15)? The poster hangs between his and his son's head in the back. Thank you! Paula

DeArasis said...

Dear Paula,

Unfortunately, we have no information regarding the said poster. That scene was filmed in the reading room of the Auditorium Building which is owned by the Roosevelt University.

We also can't confirm if the said poster was already there pre-filming or was set up by the film's set decorator.

We kindly advise that it is best to enlist the help of the Roosevelt University or the film's set decorator, Ms. Meg Everist.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi DeArasis,

Nice blog! I have a question for you, but I can't find your contact info anywhere.

Can you please e-mail me at



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