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Connecting The Dots - THE VANDAMM HOUSE in ‘North By Northwest’

A recent trip to FALLINGWATER, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, made me reflect on cantilevered structures. FALLINGWATER was built in 1936 and gracefully embraces the natural terrain as it floats above the rambling waterfall.

As I was admiring the proportions of this architectural wonder, I started thinking about another unforgettable house embedded in rocks – The Vandamm House from North by Northwest.

From the beginning Hitchcock wanted North By Northwest to show the trappings of wealth, power and prestige. He and his art team carefully surrounded the hero Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with examples of 1950’s luxury: the Plaza Hotel in New York, the Phipps Estate on Long Island, the new United Nations Building, the Twentieth Century Limited, The Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. The mysterious woman Roger meets, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), wears Bergdorf Goodman clothes topped with a ruby necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels. She also drives a new 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible. It’s only natural that Thornhill’s adventures will culminate at Mount Rushmore, where he finds the villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) living in a spectacular house perched almost on top of the monument.

The house is often mistaken for a Frank Lloyd Wright design, and its story is as intriguing as the plot of the movie. For starters, the top of the monument was considered so ecologically fragile that MGM researchers had to have special permits to visit, accompanied by U.S. Park Service escorts. Clearly building the set on location was out of the question. Nor was it possible to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design the house - his fee demand was ten percent of the film’s overall budget. Then there was the challenge that the house needed to embody sophistication, money and taste. So Hitchcock turned to his production designer Robert Boyle and his team (William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey) to create a look-alike. And without a doubt they all rose to the occasion.

The design of The Vandamm house blends perfectly into the mountain setting with its sharp horizontal lines and multiple cantilevers. The interior features many natural elements including wood and limestone. The open floor plan evokes another Wright signature design.

Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for saying, "of the hill, not on top of the hill" so Robert Boyle correctly placed the Vandamm house just under the hill. The design featured steel beams supporting the cantilever, which is one element that would not have been used by Wright. The beams were, however, necessary to provide Cary Grant with a way to physically climb up the exterior of the structure.

The house was built entirely on the MGM stages in Culver City. The interiors were built as full-scale movie sets. Some of the exteriors were also build on stage – the previously-mentioned beams, the balcony from which Roger sees Eve, etc. In addition, Hitchcock used matte design by matte artist Matthew Yurichich to show the entire structure from the outside. All of the scenes took place at night, so that the effects would look more realistic.

North by Northwest was one of the first films to openly highlight the sophistication and luxury of modernist architecture. It also established modernism as the successful villain style of choice, which later became the trademark of all Bond movies. For example in “Diamonds Are Forever” Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the Bond villain, lives in what is actually the Elrod House designed by John Lautner, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.

On a recent visit to NYU’s Design Show, I spotted Kris Lyang’s design proposal for COSI FAN TUTTE, which paid ‘homage’ to the Vandamm House.

The Kidosaki Architects Studio designed this cantilevered house in Yatsugatake in 2011. Their clients searched for many years for the perfect spot to build their dream house; the views were of upmost importance. I’d like to think that the clients were also fans of North By Northwest since the house has striking similarities.

As technology progresses, cantilevered architecture reaches into the future. So far the Cliff House by Modscape only exists as a concept and it’s only a matter of time for it to become cinematic reality.

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