Will Wiles sees a minimalist mask of sanity about to slip
Not much perturbs Patrick Bateman, the well-groomed, hugely wealthy serial killer who is the subject of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho. In between orgies of torture and murder, he is a model of composure, blending in perfectly – invisibly – with his Wall Street colleagues. It’s not that they do not see him for what he is; more that they cannot see him at all, instead registering a constellation of Oliver Peoples glasses, designer labels, restaurant reservations and Clinique, which is all he sees of them. But in one telling scene, he believes his camouflage has slipped, that he is at last being seen for what he is.
Bateman has murdered his rival, Paul Owen, covering the crime with a story about Owen moving to London, and using Owen’s apartment for more killing. Much later, he returns to this apartment, troubled by the thought that it is more expensive and attractive than his own beautiful home. He expects to find the same horrifying scene he left behind, but it has been cleaned up, and there is a woman there. She immediately wrongfoots him, catching him in a foolish lie. This woman, Bateman senses, knows who he is and what he has done – and she knows because he has seen her in the mirror. He has at last met someone like him. She is a real estate agent.
American Psycho was the cultural reference point that architecture commentators including Sam Jacob, Owen Hatherley, Oliver Wainwright (my alter ego on this page) and scores of others reached for when discussing a remarkable promotional video released by housebuilder Redrow late last year, since withdrawn. It featured a raptor-eyed, smart-suited Aryan scowling and smirking his way to victory over society and the metropolis and receiving as his reward a slice of Aldgate wrapped in green glass and dishrack brises-soleil. The American Psycho comparison is open-and-shut. It was a dead ringer, at least for Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation, starring Christian Bale as Bateman: all affectless minimalism and sex without affection, though the nailgun is kept out of shot.
Hatherley and the others are right to use the affinity between the Redrow film and American Psycho to make a point about the psychotic nature of London’s real estate market
Hatherley and the others are right to use the affinity between the Redrow film and American Psycho to make a point about the psychotic nature of London’s real estate market. But how does Bateman’s apartment express his psychosis? (And, by extension, how therefore did the Redrow film suggest unfortunate implications about the kind of person who might want to live in its development?)
Ellis and Harron differ little on Bateman’s home, all polished white floors and black leather; Mies’s Barcelona chairs in the film, a Gio Ponti desk and magazine rack in the book; Richard Prince on the walls in the film, David Onica in the book. Palazzetti, Zona, Conran, ‘crystal ashtrays from Fortunoff, even though I don’t smoke’. It’s far from the glowering gothic of Norman Bates’s home in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and essentially indistinguishable from the homes of Bateman’s colleagues: Paul Owen favours Thonet and cowhide, but otherwise it’s the same, ‘very spare, minimalist’. These homes have contents, meticulously catalogued, but not content, memory or conscience. Whatever stomach-churning carnage Bateman creates is wiped away, quietly dealt with. He endlessly refreshes his possessions. Even when Bateman wants to be caught he finds it impossible to be seen, his persona is just too in-keeping with his surroundings.
Only the real estate agent sees, and knows, because she is complicit. She has swept away the gore, but kept the furniture. She rumbles Bateman, but does not report or expose him. She is working in Bateman’s same world of mirrors and masks. The promise made by a new apartment, especially a new-build apartment, is a new life, a clean slate, a neutralised conscience. This is, not coincidentally, also the daily promise of hotels, which may explain the new breed of luxury flat furnished and serviced by the high-end hotel chains. Anything to help the 1% sleep a little easier.
Will Wiles is a journalist and author. Read him here every other month and try his look at weird space: ribaj.com/culture/crazy-on-the-inside
The same year that American Psycho hit bookstores, Joseph Ruben’s psychological thriller Sleeping With The Enemy hit cinemas, and by happy accident also features a psychopathic finance worker in an austere modernist home. The obsessive, tyrannical Martin Bourney (Patrick Bergin) torments his wife (Julia Roberts), beating her for tiny domestic imperfections such as towels misaligned on a rail; his home, her prison, is a beachfront bit of Cape Cod Bauhaus with infernal mirror-shine black marble floors and the overthought taps you see advertised in Italian magazines. She escapes, fleeing into uber-quaint clapboard Iowa vernacular. Not a great year for minimalism, 1991.