Friday, May 25, 2007

Ken Adam's Protected Mode (Pt. I)

Ken Adam posing in front of a Hawker Typhoon

The Hawker Typhoon was a single-seat multirole fighter used by the Royal Air Force in the latter moments of World War II. Its wings were low and clipped at the ends. It also featured a liquid-cooled 2,260 horsepower Napier Sabre IIC engine, one of the most powerful piston-engine designs at the time. When armed with rockets, the Typhoon could wreak havoc on ground targets as well as low-flying interceptors. The aircraft’s compact, nimble airframe made it a hard target to destroy. The aircraft was equally versatile and heralded. Typhoons from 609 Squadron at R.A.F. Duxford scored the most amount of kills against enemy aircraft from 1943 to 1944. Prior to the Normandy Invasion, 609 Squadron also became famous for its lightning-fast raids against German radar installations on the French coast, as well as against Panzer formations in the Falaise Gap in August of 1944.

The Typhoon was also notorious for its design flaws. Early versions of the aircraft would break apart during low dives, a defect that cost the lives of nearly one-third of its pilots during operations. Although engineers were able to correct this flaw in later versions of the Typhoon, it was plagued by another imperfection. Unlike most single-seat fighters, the Typhoon did not feature a sliding bubble canopy. A pilot would enter and exit the canopy via a hinged “car door” on the starboard side of the aircraft. This could prove deadly. In case of an emergency, a pilot would have to maneuver his Typhoon into precarious angle in order to bail out. If not done correctly, the pilot could very well fall into the slipstream and crash into the rear tail assembly. A pilot having to bail out of an aircraft with a regular bubble canopy could just roll the aircraft onto its back and fall to earth. A Typhoon pilot had no such luxury. It was as if a “Tiffy” pilot had to resign himself to the fact that he was literally and figuratively trapped inside the cockpit of his aircraft. He could only exit when his mission was finished, and this meant either flying home, or crashing.

Klaus Adam, a German Jew who left for England with his family in 1934, and who studied architecture at the Bartlett until the opening moments of the Second World War, became one of 609 Squadron’s most decorated Typhoon pilots. For him, being trapped inside the “car door” cockpit had a double irony. He had to take the same precautions as any Typhoon pilot. However, as the only German citizen enlisted in the R.A.F., this meant that he could not bail out or let himself crash in enemy territory. If this did happen, he would be shot as a traitor. For this pilot, the cockpit was a regulated environment imbued with different meanings: the aircraft’s instrumentation and in-flight oxygen not only allowed him to fly and operate the aircraft, but it was also a cocoon-like space that preserved his life and his identity as an architecture student. The latter meaning is important, for shortly after the war, Klaus Adam became a naturalized English subject and continued his studies. He also changed his first name to “Ken.”

Ken Adam at work on Dr. Strangelove

Ken Adam is now highly regarded as a master production designer, primarily for his work with Stanley Kubrick as well as with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s James Bond franchise on films such as Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). His designs for films such as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) as well as Thunderball feature a distinct infatuation with architecture and technology. Though his work on such films would not be helpful in determining whether this aesthetic was Bauhaus- or Bartlett-influenced, the designs are certainly modern. Or are they perhaps reacting against modernist orthodoxy? In a November 2005 interview for Icon, Adam recalls working on Dr. No, his first outing as a production designer:
It was just a small budget film … But I felt it gave me an opportunity. Remember, this was, what, 1962, and something unbelievably exciting was going on – a renaissance, a revolution in the arts, similar to what had happened in Germany between the wars. We were all young, we all thought, “Fuck the Empire, it’s over.” I felt that Bond gave me the opportunity to express a little bit of that period, of technology and computers, and get away from normal film constructions and design. You saw it 30 years before in Metropolis or Things to Come, but that was a long time before.
The ability to experiment with forms, styles and technologies was an important impulse for Adam. When asked about the heightened reality, the delirious camp of his Bond sets, Adam claimed, “I felt I had to liberate myself from the rigidity of architecture.”

Adam on the set of Dr. Strangelove's War Room

Although such a statement implies that he was moving beyond the prim rigor of architectural drawing to the creation of bold forms on sound stages, it also suggests an escape from the stuffy, claustrophobic cockpit of his World War II Typhoon fighter. It thus bears mentioning that airplane cockpits are prominently featured in some of Ken Adam’s films, such as the Avro Vulcan jet bomber in Thunderball and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress in Dr. Strangelove. As with the Hawker Typhoon, the Vulcan’s and B-52’s cockpits are yet another type of regulated environment. Used for cinematic purposes, these spatial configurations have a different purpose, a role that is the subject of this essay, a purpose that is evident in Adam’s designs for Dr. Strangelove.

From the fluorescent-lit mainframe computer labs at Burpleson Air Force Base, to the cramped, information-saturated cockpit of a B-52 Stratofortress jet bomber, this essay looks to the proliferation of “regulated” environments in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In a certain sense, the term “regulated” could very well refer to the controlled environments within an Air Force base and a bomber cockpit. Whereas a cadre of military police constantly secures Burpelson Air Force base, a bomber cockpit must be contained at a minimal amount of air pressure in order to maintain the crewmembers’ safety and comfort. However, there is another level of “regulation” that operates in these environments: both the Air Force base and the bomber cockpit are environments that insulate and secure information.

Ken Adam’s set designs for Dr. Strangelove are certainly iconic. After all, who cannot think of President George W. Bush’s defense of the controversial Total Information Awareness program without conjuring General Buck Turgidson’s (George C. Scott) desperate pleas to protect the “Big Board” in the War Room from Soviet Spies? This essay will look at two of Ken Adam’s environments for Dr. Strangelove -- the computer data salons and offices of Burpleson Air Force Base, and the frenetic cockpit of Major T.J. King Kong’s B-52 Stratofortress – to investigate how set designs are used to depict the regulation and control of information in these spaces. Each regulated environment thus features one type of media, and thus the following posts will demonstrate how the film’s regulated environments contain and exploit those particular media. Whereas Burpleson Air Force Base traffics in radio signals (notice Lionel Mandrake’s use of a transistor radio), the B-52 cockpit features written code embedded in books (such as the infamous “Plan ‘R’ for ‘Robert’).

To Be Continued ...

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