When I first met Bernadette Fox, I wasn’t sure what to think. Fox, the protagonist of Maria Semple’s epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a middle-aged female architect who no longer practices, the mother of an eighth grader, an unwilling resident of Seattle, and a MacArthur “genius” award winner married to a TED-talking AI specialist. Two days before Christmas, she disappears on a cruise to Antarctica.
The book was hilarious and felt so real—except for the disappearing part. I started to pick at the details. How long has knitting been a subversive craft? When was the color pink co-opted by feminists? Was Bernadette an avatar of thwarted female creativity for her time or for ours? My real question, embedded in a blog post I wrote for Design Observer at the time, was whether Bernadette Fox was a good role model.
Creating a role model wasn’t Semple’s intention, but as a woman in architecture who, when I read the book in 2013, had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, the book’s entwined storylines of motherhood and genius and how women find the space to make something great… well, I found it hard not to identify. I rooted for Bernadette against the “Galer Street gnats,” the private school moms who didn’t understand her disinterest in participating in school activities or taking care of her yard. I rooted for Bernadette to seem like a gift and not a problem for her workaholic husband. I rooted for Bernadette and the sense of adventure she shared only with her daughter, Bee.
On August 16, the movie adaptation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette arrives in theaters, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette. I had cast Julianne Moore in my head while reading the book, but no matter. Movie Bernadette sports the bangs and round sunglasses of the Keith Hayes illustration on the front of the book. Billy Crudup plays her Microsoft engineer husband, Elgin Branch; Kristin Wiig plays her mom-nemesis Audrey Griffin in a series of holiday turtlenecks straight from L.L.Bean; Emma Nelson plays Bernadette’s daughter, the delightful Bee Branch, whom you will want to adopt. (Light spoilers for both the book and the film ahead.)
When I heard that Bernadette was going to be made into a movie, I was excited. Every time I shared news of its progress on Twitter, other women in architecture were excited too. Bernadette meant something to all of us. But what?
I frequently cringe when I see creativity depicted on screen. Chewing on a pencil or a brush. Sketching at a drafting table late into the night. Fingers pounding on a keyboard. Paint splashed about. It is as if our idea of artistic inspiration is stuck on Hans Namuth’s 1950 photographs of Jackson Pollock in full action-painting mode. Would Ed Harris have had the chance to play Pollock in a biopic if the audience didn’t know, at some subconscious level, that we would get to see those photographs in action? In color? The poster for the 2000 film shows Harris crouched over his canvas, lightly flexing, with a completed chaotic masterpiece in the background.
That kind of macho posturing would not do for Bernadette. Instead, her characteristic movement is knitting, throughout architecture school, at construction sites, at home, a kind of constant low-level making that, one suspects, allows her room to think. I wondered how that would translate on screen. Knitting has become revolutionary, but not everyone has caught up.
Compare Namuth’s vision of Pollock to the moment that sold me on the movie version of Bernadette. Blanchett-as-Bernadette is in one of the many lightly inhabited rooms at Straight Gate, the former “Catholic school for wayward girls” the Fox-Branch family calls home. She feels a lump under the carpet and follows it to its end. We expect it to be something mundane and manmade, like an abandoned extension cord. Bernadette gets out a mat knife and cuts an x.
The “skritch, skritch” of the knife will provoke a sense memory for anyone who has been to architecture school: the slide of the thumb to advance the blade, the pressure required to make it cut smoothly. Bernadette folds back the four triangles of carpet she’s made and pins them down with a nail gun in a series of quick, decisive movements.
It isn’t a wire but a vine, its bud unfurling upward. She’s freed it.
“I had thought of opening the carpet up like a starfish,” says Bruce Curtis, production designer for Where’d You Go, Bernadette. “I just wanted it to be artful, to expose that blackberry vine, to have that care and nurture for such a pest. Cate owned it.”
Other traces of Bernadette’s creativity are scattered, unremarked-upon, throughout the family home. The roof may leak, but the kitchen is modern, a sleek and functional interloper. Dozens of books are mounted on the wall beside the grand staircase, their pages origami-folded and fanned out like butterfly wings. Around a doorway, geometric string art. Curtis is quick to credit set decorator Beauchamp Fontaine and the team of artisans hired for the film with creating Bernadette’s home decor on location in Pittsburgh, which stood in for Seattle.
The creative team tried to limit itself to materials that Bernadette might have scavenged from within the former school, echoing the ecological and technical limitations the character imposes on herself in the story. Old pencils, glued to the wall around door frames like rays of light, are a subtle, visual way of underlining how even though Bernadette’s world may have shrunk to the scale of the family, her artistic spirit still lives. “The house is a constant work in flux,” Curtis says. “She never tries to complete everything, so it is ‘a shambles,’ to quote both the book and the script.”
This is Bernadette house-hunting:
Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman. It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and that it will be poorly situated on the lot.
She also hates those giant urchin-like Dale Chihuly glass sculptures native to Seattle, five-way intersections, and all the new condominiums in South Lake Union.
Bernadette won her MacArthur after her first two independent architectural projects, both houses. The first, Beeber Bifocal, is a 3,000-square-foot cinderblock factory located in Venice Beach before Snapchat took over. Bernadette unboxes all the leftover glasses and leftover lenses, flattens the cardboard boxes, lines up the machinery. “It reminds me of being a kid and dumping out a bunch of Legos on the carpet,” her contractor says, in an embedded oral history. “And you just sit there and stare before you have any idea what you are going to make.”
Bernadette makes walls of out of glasses, knitted together with wire. She makes a prototype and then sets the male, Mexican construction workers up with knitting needles, a sort of reversal of inspiration, if you remember that Ruth Asawa’s wire sculptures were stimulated by Mexican fisherman’s wire baskets on the beach.
Her second house is built from the ground up. The Twenty Mile House is up in the hills, near Runyon Canyon. Bernadette decides everything in the house will come from within 20 miles of the site. To quote the book: “A cement factory in Gardena supplied the sand, which Fox mixed on-site. For steel, a recycling yard in Glendale contacted Fox if beams came in.” She dumpster-dives for fixtures discarded by her richer neighbors. She takes wood from local tree surgeons for cabinets and furniture.
The movie can’t delve so deeply into the details, which is why the few glimpses of those imaginary spaces matter. Beeber Bifocal looks great, shimmering, amber-hued partitions of oversize tortoise frames dividing the space. The Twenty Mile House looks more like any other California architect’s house: smooth surfaces, big windows, indoor-outdoor whatever. I prefer the mess of Straight Gate as a shorthand for creativity.
“I’d say I never considered myself a great architect,” Bernadette says, late in the action. “I’m more of a creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares.”
Her mentor tells Artforum, “When it comes to Bernadette, everyone teaches Beeber and Twenty Mile. I teach her permits.”
The book has many droll things to say about architecture, and Seattle, and private-school parents, and what is permitted, for whom. In the interest of time, the film turns away from the desperation of the many to focus on Bernadette.
The greatest misstep Linklater and co-screenwriters Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr. make in translating the novel into screenplay is in soft-pedaling Elgin Branch, Bernadette’s husband. In the book, he’s an obsessive workaholic, a man who has detached himself from his wife and the house in favor of the soothing, leak-free environment of Microsoft, where he is considered a certified genius and people are happy to do his bidding.
There’s an implicit and important comparison made between how he is treated out there in the world, and how she has been. No mother criticizes Elgin for never responding to emails from their daughter’s school; he has no need of a virtual assistant, because he has a real one. If she had been supported as he had, the book asks, would she have needed to disappear?
Bernadette Fox is wish fulfillment. That a female genius might be recognized in the earliest stages of her career. That she might have the means to not work while she cares for herself after miscarriages and for her sick child after a live birth. That she might, thanks to a series of incredible circumstances, find herself in possession of the perfect project, the project that all her other work was pointing toward. That she might be in her mid-40s and on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.
Bernadette’s mentor says, “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you become a menace to society.” Most women, most people, don’t have a cheerleader waiting in the wings for us to get our shit together. We either mentor ourselves or, more often than not, our talent is absorbed by other people and other lives. We never get to be on a first-name basis with the world, the subject of a solo profile. Bernadette’s genius, while derived from traditionally feminist craft and concerned with ecology, is still within the Zumthor-Murcutt-Pritzker mode.
I want this to be me and my friends, most of us in our mid-40s, and many of us looking around, now that our kids are tweens, and thinking, Hmmmmm, am I doing what I want? Am I saying what I need to say? The new midlife crisis is a career crisis, not a marital crisis.
The most true-to-life moment in the movie is the YouTube documentary Bernadette discovers about herself after being accosted by a young architect at (where else?) OMA’s Seattle Central Library—one of the only buildings in the city she likes.
In the book, her career recap is presented as an Artforum oral history. All that text would be deadly onscreen, so instead we get a documentary, with ungainly type and awkward segues and lots of men speaking about Bernadette in the past tense. It is the sort of documentary people put together when women artists are in their 80s and the art world decides to “rediscover” them. But those documentaries usually move swiftly past the decades between 40 and 80. What are women doing in those years? How do we expect them to survive in the time between promise and legend? Bernadette’s fictional life has been eased, first by the MacArthur, which paid for Straight Gate, and subsequently by her husband’s high salary. Both of these funding sources are out of reach for most.
As in the novel, the character study devolves into caper at the end. But there were enough details that felt like the architecture world I live in to make me love it. It is a fractured fairytale, where women save themselves through work, where daughters are the smartest people in the room.
In the final minutes of the film, Curtis and his design collaborators place some spectacular, real-life architecture in her hands (follow this link to see what it is). “It is the biggest and shiniest thing,” says Curtis. He thought, “Let’s give that to Bernadette.”