The movie Where’d you go, Bernadette? is an adaptation of Maria Semple’s novel that goes with the same name, which was quite a rave when it was first published in 2012. It is based on the life of a reclusive star architect who leaves her sublime career to raise a family in Seattle

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet1
Movie Poster-Where’d you go Bernadette?_ ©Youtube (Where’d you go, Bernadette?, 2022)

This movie by Richard Linklater and the creative genius of the production designer Bruce Curtis is special to the architecture community because of the lead character and its striking designer aesthetic . In the film, the lead Bernadette Fox (played by Cate Blanchette) lives with her tech-billionaire husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a former school located on a hill. 

The story starts with the portrayal of Bernadette as a regular suburban mom who finds her life in Seattle unfulfilling. Her character is a synthesis of paranoia, vitriol, and cynicism that is seen as the coping mechanism for her lack of application of creative abilities. Her once glorious architectural career, which was lost in 20 years of domestic life, gets a reboot when she takes the trip to Antarctica.   

20 Years of Living under a Rock

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet2
Bernadette in her only loved place in Seattle, the Library_©Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures

Bernadette’s Fox was once a sensation in the field of architecture. She even won the Macarthur Grant award for one of her designs before she chose to adopt a domestic life and settle in Seattle. The move from LA to Seattle was also triggered by a major career setback regarding one of her projects.

She found Seattle’s architecture and planning full of systemic flaws where doing anything would require immense effort, but somehow she couldn’t channel her creative energies there. The only place in Seattle that she admired was the Seattle Public library by Rem Koolhaas . The grand scale and light flushing interiors made her heart race, the good kind of heart race.  

The architectural backdrop of the movie switches between the scenes between three major segments – the house of residence, the video essay of the past, and the Antarctican escapade.  

The Ramshackled Mansion

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet3
The Ramshackled Mansion_ ©Bruce Curtis

The residence of the family exists in a decrepit state. This seems rather ironic at first, considering the fact the protagonist is an architect, but it perfectly symbolizes her drudging state. It perfectly exemplifies and embodies the unspirited and insipid life of Bernadette in Seattle. The European country-style mansion is characterized by leaking roofs, ivy covering most of the walls, and plants growing on the floor boards, indicating a dire need for restoration .

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet4
Extravagant Mansion Interior_ ©Wilson Webb

Few of the rooms in the mansion are extravagantly stylish with Victorian interiors. It also has crafty touches here and there; the installation along the staircase particularly stands out. Every room is differently stylized to complement the emotion enacted in the scene. The artsy blue great room embodies Bernadette’s cold creative exertions, the library as a place for serious, focused conversations, and the glamorous living room as the beholder of drama.  

The Glorious Past Career in a Flashback Video Essay

The true enigma of architect Bernadette Fox in Where’d you Bernadette? runs as a flashback video essay. It shows the rise and fall of her architectural career. After winning the Macarthur grant, she designed two projects; one was the Beeber Bifocal house and the 20 miles house.  

  • Beeber Bifocal House

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet5
Beeber Bifocal House_ ©Bruce Curtis

The Beeber house was a combination of her eye for design and her knack for knitting leading to a unique invention of knitted bifocal lenses artefacts and architectural members. These were housed inside the abandoned factory that Bernadette very skillfully converted into a livable luxurious house by bringing in ample light.

  • 20 Mile House 

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet6
20 Mile House_ ©Wilson Webb

The next of Fox’s miracles was the twenty-mile house. This house really spoke of a modernist and sustainable approach to design. All the materials used in this house were sourced within a 20-mile radius of the house. Waste was recycled, and natural materials like wood were also used to construct this marvel. For reasons we won’t discuss here, the house marked the end of Bernadette’s brief first phase of her career. 

Solace in Despair: The Trip to Antarctica

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet7
Bernadette in Antarctica_ ©(Werner Paddles Used By Cate Blanchett In Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019), 2022)

In an attempt to bring together the drifting family of three, Bee persuades both her parents to go on a family trip to  Antarctica. Although Bernadette, for most of the time, remains anxious and unwilling to go, when the time comes, she takes the trip solo, dropping all her fears and apprehensions. This turns out to be the much-needed escape when she is on the verge of breaking. The wandering in Antarctica rekindles her creative spirit and energizes her to take on a challenge she never dreamed of before.  

The Closing Round: The Antarctican Research Centre

An architectural review of Where'd you go, Bernadette? - Sheet8
Antarctic Station Design_ ©Bruce Curtis

Bernadette starts the second innings of her architectural career in  Where’d you go, Bernadette?  by taking on the challenge of designing a new research centre in Antarctica. When asked why she wanted to design the centre and whether she is an architect, she quotes:

“I’ve not considered myself an architect per se. I’m more of a creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares.”  

The Antarctica Station_ ©(NEWS STORY: Halley VI wins two awards – British Antarctic Survey, 2022)

The concept for the research centre follows the same zero-waste strategy, a signature of Bernadette. It is designed as a series of pods collectively forming a linear walking city. The elevated leg supports to allow the station to be shifted as the ice loosens to avoid shrinking.

The Takeaway

Where’d you go, Bernadette? is a story of an artistic genius that waited for a muse to unlock her creative block. It illustrates how passion drives architects and designers to completely immerse themselves through dedication to creating the best outcomes. A striking line from the movie that best describes passion-driven creative souls can be the biggest takeaway from the movie quotes:

“People like you must create. If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.”

Artists must channel their energy into creating something positive, otherwise, they may end up harming not just themselves, but those around them too. 

No matter the size of the problem, going into the depth of it and immersing oneself in the problem is the way to work. The movie also has cues of  feminism in architecture ,  where in a scene, the Beeber house is described as  ‘feminine and feels like a warm hug  because it is designed with that much care.  

Overall, the movie manages to deliver a rather straightforward plot without many twist-and turns. But, somewhere, it fails to justify the characters and their actions, and at places, it lacks a binding thread. 

Where’d you go, Bernadette? has amazing and diverse sets, each of which was different yet has a balanced aesthetic. Architecture’s role in the movie was pivotal. It acted as a perfect backdrop for the scenes and played a serenading role in amplifying the emotions delivered in the scenes.

References:

  1. Los Angeles Times. 2022. How Richard Linklater’s ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ uses oddball architecture to reflect its heroine . [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 August 2022].
  2. Nast, C., 2022. How Where’d You Go, Bernadette’s Production Designer Created the Film’s Stunning Fictional Architecture . [online] Architectural Digest. Available at: [Accessed 21 August 2022].
  3. Castillo, M., 2022. Where’d You Go, Bernadette movie review (2019) | Roger Ebert . [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: [Accessed 21 August 2022].
  4. Nast, C., 2022. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” Reviewed: Richard Linklater’s Narrow View of a Creator in Crisis . [online] The New Yorker. Available at: [Accessed 21 August 2022].
Author

Namita Dhawan is an architect and a writer. She is extremely enthusiastic about architecture, design, history, research, and writing. She believes architecture is about power, it can provoke thoughts, and emotions, and control the actions of the users subtly.

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