Ferris Bueller’s high art

The classic 1986 movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is much more than a hijinks school comedy heroising some quick-witted kids. Like many, I am drawn to rewatch and relive a time of relative innocence where truancy was considered the high-water mark for rebelliousness. The resulting adverse school record served more as a 'diploma' to reflect your individuality as a high school undergraduate.

The movie resonates on another, more sublime level, separate from the sociological one that evokes nostalgia. This subliminal level is given an overture when Ferris, his girlfriend and buddy visit the Art Institute of Chicago, where they appear to pay solemn homage to masterpieces that include works by Picasso and Pollock. Such a pursuit, of course, is incongruous for truants.

The movie presents us with two high art pieces aside from the Art Institute masterpieces; to me, high art is an exemplary human expression that inspires us to see what is possible. It is timeless and reconnects us to our humanity.

The first piece is the Carrozzeria Scaglietti sculptured 1961 Ferrari 250GT California Spider - arguably one of Ferrari's best creations. This sports car is an undeniable masterpiece that collectors prize. The massive value the car attracts at auctions underscores its masterwork status. In studying its sculptured presence, one notices that apart from meeting the needs of aerodynamics and projecting a powerful dynamism while idle, it also exhibits a humanistic persona from its anterior. In the film, the Ferrari 250GT peacefully resides at Ferris' best friend Cameron Frye's father's home for most of the time. The house seemed inspired in the way it not only showcased the iconic Ferrari but also in the way it appeared to be in total harmony with its setting.

Of course, this made me research its provenance to understand who was responsible for the second piece of high art. From a quick search on the web, I found that it was created by A.James Speyer, a student of the great modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The residence, built-in 1953, is known as the Ben Rose House and is located in Highland Park, Illinois. Apart from being an example of mid-century architecture at its finest, it spurs us to contemplate what makes a residential building so much at peace with its setting. This contemplation is timely, as we often hear about 'sustainable housing', which in my opinion, for the most part, only addresses a fraction of sustainability and the built form.

The conversation surrounding sustainability appears to pivot around energy efficiency, with little to no consideration given to the carbon footprint or how a building harmonises with its environmental setting. Traditional bulk building materials such as masonry and concrete are some of the biggest offenders regarding the carbon impact on the environment. Industry web custom and practice and materials supply chains impede the shift to more sustainable building materials, providing architects with a richer palette.

The Ben Rose House is a low impact on the environment. The design adopts a beam and column structural frame to raise it above the sloping site without cutting, filling or retaining walls. Its design has been in harmony with its setting since 1953. Its carbon footprint has been spectacularly low. Its design reaches out and invites the surrounding beauty to become part of its interior design while at the same time paying homage to its setting by way of its architectural and structural design.

We should pay more attention to high art and learn from its subliminal messages. Ferris was worthy of a distinction grade for having a day off!

Dario Amara FIEAust, CPEng, NER, APEC Engineer, IntPE(Aus) is a second-generation builder, experienced construction, and engineering executive and chartered professional engineer with some 40 years' industry experience.  He has also served as Chairman of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Chairman of the West Australian Opera Company and Chairman of Heritage Perth amongst other positions.

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