Leo Waters is a man who builds things. As an architect, he builds public housing for the government and mansions for the rich. As a lecturer, at a prestigious Chicago university, he provides the foundation for young minds preparing to one day become architects, and build permeable structures themselves. He designed and helped construct the beautiful house where, by all appearances, his beautiful family resides. He spent a lifetime assembling a steel solid reputation among peers, colleagues, and students.
Played by Anthony Lapaglia, Waters looks like a building: strong, solid, powerful. It is for this reason, as well all the ones above, that Waters absolutely demands respect. His students beam with pride when they answer one of his questions correctly, earning his praise. His daughter views him as the ideal man, whom she uses as a yardstick with which to measure her admirers. His son resents him because he fears that he will never reach his level of success. However, once one takes a peek into the back corridors of Waters’ life, it becomes obvious that something is wrong, and the implementation is not as seemingly flawless as the design. Two women—one of whom lives in a public housing project that Waters designed, the other being his wife—cannot admire the quiet bravado, forceful presence, and astonishing achievements of Leo Waters because they are too distracted by his failures, which are positioned and poised right in their respective faces.
The Architect, directed by Matt Tauber, and based on a play by David Greig, is about a man who has the ability to build, but not maintain, and the desire to reconstruct, but not renovate. When Waters is visited by an activist named Tonya Neeley (nicely played by Viola Davis) who wants Waters’ projects torn down, he tells her that the design is “fundamentally sound”, and therefore there is no reason to destroy the buildings. He simply cannot fathom that something he creatively crafted and cleverly constructed desperately needs major improvements, even if it has been over 20 years since he last laid eyes upon, much less designed, the projects.
His attitude and perspective towards marriage is the parallel to his narrow method of follow-through in his career. His wife, played by Isabella Rossellini, is falling apart at the seams; she does not feel loved anymore. Waters refuses to give the marriage the attention it needs to thrive. When his wife confesses that she doesn’t love him anymore, he responds by blindly bemoaning, “I just think that once we had the children, we stopped having fun. We need to start having fun again”. His treatment of the children is loving but equally bizarre. No curfew is imposed upon his 15-year-old daughter, and when she comes wandering into the house in the wee hours of the morning, Waters does not so much as ask where she has been. All he needs to know is that she exists in all her glory, partially due to him.
Watsers has become as hypnotized by the aura of respect that surrounds him as his college students. It is impossible for him to imagine anything he created, be it a public housing project or a private family, needing upkeep or repair. He is guilty of ignoring, even denying, the whole truth because he is so obsessed and driven by one partial truth: his designs are brilliant. This makes him great at what he does, of course, but he must look beyond that small segment of that truth and grasp the larger concept. Even if something is ingeniously crafted, over time it may very well become outdated, rusty, and rotting.
This architect, however, is not the only one who misses the big picture by affixing his or her eyes on one small element contained in that picture. A crucial point in the film arrives when Waters tells Neeley, “The problem isn’t the design. It’s the people.” Of course, that statement is both right and wrong. It cannot possibly be the building’s fault that many of its inhabitants are drug users. Neeley admits that the worst aspect of the projects is its dominance by street gangs, which are not a product of faulty wiring or loose structure. Still, she’s so intent on solving the building’s problem that she does not place proper blame on some of the more mischievous and criminal residents. She is, in effect, as ignorant as Waters when he quickly glosses over asbestos hazards and leaking pipes and other such issues that afflict the homes of hundreds of people. Similarly, both of Waters’ children are in denial about something that is already or will soon have a substantial impact upon their lives.
This is a small movie with a message that is highly worthy of consideration, and will hopefully resonate with all viewers. It is also a fine reminder of what an intelligent writer, visionary director, and sensitive cast, led by Lapaglia in a brilliantly understated yet demanding performance, can accomplish without a big budget. Even minor characters in the film, like a trucker that Waters’ daughter befriends and Tonya’s youngest daughter, are complex enough to provoke thought and empathy. They are all fleshed out further in the DVD extras, which include interviews with the cast and director, along with deleted scenes and director commentary.
The Architect is not packed with excitement, laughs, or relatively big name stars. With its quiet force, Tauber’s film does not go over the top to make its point. Instead, it seeks participation from the viewer, who must decide how the story ends and attempt to determine its meaning. It believes in the often forgotten concept that good film, like good art, is not for all spectators.