The Wrong House: Alfred Hitchcock as architect

The Wrong House is the title of an exhibition devoted to the architecture of film director Alfred Hitchcock on show at deSingel in Antwerp until December 16. A book of the same name accompanies the exhibition.

Author Steven Jacobs had a mischievous twinkle in his eye when he presented ‘a monograph about an non-existing architect’ in his opening speech. The book is issued by 010 Publishers, which obviously saw some substance in his vision. It’s a claim worth considering: can we think of Hitchcock as an architect?

Why choose Hitchcock as the subject of study if you’re interested in both film and architecture? Jacobs offers five reasons. (1) Hitchcock began his career as a set designer. (2) Hitchcock devotes a striking amount of attention to architectural elements such as windows, doors and stairways. (3) Famous structures play a dramatic role in many of Hitchcock’s films. (4) Hitchcock made four ‘single set’ films that take place in one enclosed space. (5) Confinement is a key theme in Hitchcock’s films.

Jacobs studied the houses that feature in Hitchcock’s films. He watched the films, conducted archival research in different places, and worked through the very extensive volume of literature already devoted to the subject. This resulted in case studies of no fewer than 26 houses from 22 different films. All these houses were actually sets constructed in the studio. He reconstructed the floor plans of 17 of these houses, many of them solely on the basis of what we see in the films. Such drawings obviously didn’t exist, or Jacobs didn’t succeed in finding them, or else they were lost over the years. The reconstructions are often ‘incomplete’ plans, since the fictitious houses were usually only built in part.

In his opening remarks Jacobs made a number of statements worthy of consideration. Making exhibitions about architecture, he said, is ‘ridiculous’. Making exhibitions about film, he added, was equally ‘ridiculous’. Those two statements paved the way for his assertion that the exhibition about a combination of both was amazingly successful. Alas he was wrong. The Antwerp exhibition consists of a number of monitors showing loops of scenes from Hitchcock’s films, while visitors can sit at tables to examine the reconstructed house plans. All you can really do is conclude that the reconstructions seem accurate enough at first sight. (deSingel also attempted to draw a parallel between the Austrian architecture firm Pauhof and Hitchcock, but that attempt is – to use Jacobs’ own words – fairly ridiculous.)

As always when it comes to architecture exhibitions (and often films too, by the way), the book is better. It offers a wealth of information about how the different film sets were made. Moreover, relevant comments about the films are gathered together from various sources. Setting it all in a somewhat theoretical exposé – with references to sources such as Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Benjamin, Jeremy Bentham, Hermann Muthesius and Beatriz Colomina – is very tentative, however, and in places rather perfunctory.

So how should we interpret the ‘architecture’ of Hitchcock? What has been Hitchcock’s contribution to architecture? Jacobs is at his best when commenting on the most architecturally explicit masterpieces Rope, Rear Window and North by Northwest, but there’s a lot of repetition when he discusses many other films: the house forms a trap for its occupant. Hmmm, we knew that already… You’d expect a monograph on the work of an architect to reveal more of the significance of and offer more insight into the work. Jacobs may have reconstructed the floor plans, but he didn’t do that much with them. The analysis he offers would have been possible without those drawings.

That said, the importance of the study by Jacobs lies in the newly produced material: the reconstructed plans. A new generation of Hitchcock researchers can use these for further study. They can assess the value of the information offered and feast on the many titbits tucked away in the 342-page-thick book: no fewer than 25 sets were built in the studio of producer David Selznick for Rebecca; in The Lodger the home owners hear the footsteps of their tenant in the room upstairs, while the reconstruction of the plan shows that room to be on the other side of the house; the irregular stone walls of the Vandamm House in North by Northwest are not a reference to Frank Lloyd Wright but essential to the script: Cary Grant had to be able to clamber along the building; and so on. All this doesn’t make the book an architecture monograph. Presenting The Wrong House as an architecture book is nice and surprising, but in the end it’s just a book about film.