Forbidden Pleasures

The following are extracts from a talk given at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil on 7 November 2013. 

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‘I mainly work on architecture and the experience of architecture. Increasingly I have been interested in the way the architecture of film and TV conditions the way we experience real buildings. So this talk is about the representation of architecture in two recent American TV series, Breaking Bad and Mad Men both of which have attracted huge interest from architects and designers in the English-speaking world, and in some ways, they represent some of the most imaginative architecture built in the last ten years or so – although they do not, as I say represent real buildings, but rather fantasies (…)

‘I was as surprised as anyone to find myself talking about TV. But as soon as I had discovered Mad Men (directed by Matthew Wiener, 2008 to present) I realised that TV could express things that were not being properly expressed anywhere else. TV seemed to be able to express in more detail, and with more subtlety, the complexities of modern family life, and how it was housed. I wanted architecture to have something to say about that, but about architecture, as always, seemed mostly to want to talk about itself. TV seemed to show the lived experience.

‘The TV I refer to is sometimes known as the ‘third golden age’. It is different from previous ‘ages’ in that it is exclusively produced by and for cable networks. So it is not subject to the usual forms of censorship, or self-censorship that apply on mainstream TV (and American TV is, as you probably know, unusually censorious). What else? It is extremely well funded. It is technically of a very high quality, certainly as good as mainstream Hollywood. It allows long-term character development of a kind only known previously in (say) the nineteenth century novel (…) The narratives of each of these dramas revolves around the tension between the public role and the private desire, order and chaos, between civilisation and sex. There are invariably secrets; those secrets invariably threaten to reveal themselves at any moment. Just as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movies of the 50s an 60s played out themes from Freudian psychoanalysis, so these long-form TV dramas revisit psychoanalytical themes: eros and civilsation, the death drive, the return of the repressed – they are all there, just as they were in Hitchcock.

MAD MEN ‘It concerns the changing fortunes of a New York advertising agency, starting in the early 1960s. It allows viewers to experience – albeit vicariously – a whole range of pleasures that are now more or less forbidden. These include smoking (the US has some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in the developed world); drinking (the US is strikingly puritanical when it comes to alcohol, certainly compared with western Europe); extra-marital sex (American marriages are strikingly intolerant of transgression). Mad Men allows viewers to experience all of these things safely from the comfort of the home. And  architecture frames these things, and in so doing provides us with a different reading of the modernist city.

‘The city is undoubtedly that of Mies van der Rohe. His architecture communicates restraint and good taste, characteristics of civilisation, you might say, not eros. It tolerates well-behaved humans, but only just. Mad Men subverts all that, introducing bodies to a modernist environment, bodies with all kinds of desires, bodies which are frankly incapable of behaving. Where Mies demands restraint, Mad Men goes for excess. So, smoking, now so powerfully discouraged in the US, punctuates absolutely every activity. Everyone smokes, all of the time (…) So it is with drinking (…)

‘And, inevitably, sex. When we see the office Diva, Joan Harris set against the regular grid of the open-plan desks, we know there is going to be trouble. By the end of series one, we know that the open plan is a kind of arena, a space largely occupied by women who parade for the entertainment of the largely male partners who occupy the translucent offices surrounding the centre. And we know that the parading is not just for show. Often something happens in the open plan which leads to something else happening the private offices. So towards the end of season 1, Pete Campbell has sex on his office couch early one morning with a colleague, Peggy Olson, an act that – to great comic effect – is visible in silhouette through the glass. The janitor’s blasé attitude says it all. He’s seen it plenty of times before: it’s simply what goes on in this place. In summary, Mad Men turns a place of restraint, order and efficiency into its opposite; the Miesian office becomes a machine for the free reign of the libido. We can never look at it in the same way again (…)

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BREAKING BAD ‘Neither can we look in the same way at the sunny, suburban city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the location of Breaking Bad. The narrative, for those of you who have not seen it, concerns a mild-mannered gifted high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Walt is faced with not only an unexpected child (his wife) but also his own diagnosis of terminal cancer. Unable to bear leaving his family with debt, he turns to the manufacture of the highly addictive and dangerous drug methamphetamine. He turns out to be extremely good at this. He also turns out to be extremely good at killing. It is one of the strengths of the series that it is sufficiently complex to allow our sympathies to remain with Walt far longer than they should; even after the bodies start to pile up, we still want Walt to ‘win’. The reason for this is, in a way, simple. Walt’s descent into criminality is also a libidinal awakening. In other words, as he becomes a criminal, he also becomes a man (…)

Breaking Bad parades a whole range of transgressions, but all of them can be defined in terms of the libido. In the first episode of the first season, Walt is depicted in bed with his wife, Skyler at the end of a day celebrating Walt’s 50th birthday. It is a dismal scene: an overdecorated, dark bedroom, Skyler distracted with a laptop (she is bidding for items on e-Bay) while she gives Walt a desultory handjob; she’s far more interested in what’s going on onscreen than she is in Walt’s pleasure – he loses whatever interest he had. He is both figuratively and literally emasculated. But later in that episode, through a series of extraordinary turns, Walt has started to construct a new, and libidinally charged identity.

‘Here he is in a composite image used for publicity purposes, but which beautifully summarises the early stages of his transition. The location is the New Mexico desert on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a place (we learn quickly) where Bad Things Happen – a lawless zone, where civilisation literally and figuratively does not exist. In the background is the 1986 Fleetwood Bounder, a large RV that serves for the first half of the series as a mobile laboratory. To Walt’s right lies a discarded breathing mask, necessary attire for cooking meth, but also (in terms of the symbolism of the series) an important uniform. Walt himself stands half-transformed. His residual clothing (the green shirt and the desert boots) is that of his old identity of chemistry school teacher – but he has lost his pants, he stands legs apart, glaring at the camera, and he holds a pistol, with intent. He looks absurd – but also menacing. What is certain in this image is that he is decisively more in control in this by all accounts crazy environment than he ever was in the relative security of home  (…)

‘Now Walt’s solution is an almost perfect realisation of the Freudian death drive, a will to destruction that we all to greater, or lesser degrees, have. Enacting that drive is not an option for most of us, so the function of dramas like Breaking Bad is to stage it, so it can be vicariously consumed. Walt is a fictional character, as are the characters in Mad Men, but there are many Walts out there, angry white men, harbouring the same fantasies of destruction. American TV drama may not have any answers, but it is certainly asking the right questions.

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