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Ambitious take on public housing

In "The Architect," Anthony LaPaglia is an architecture professor who fights to save from demolition a public housing project he designed. (Macall Polay/Magnolia Pictures)

In the 1960s, monolithic brick-and-concrete public-housing projects went up in cities across America under the aegis of Lyndon Johnson's Department of Housing and Urban Development. The towers were meant to provide safe, inexpensive housing for the urban poor, but that dream became a nightmare. Tenants found the architecture soulless and alienating. Gangs moved in. As the projects decayed, they became headstones on the grave of the Great Society.

Was large-scale public housing a noble attempt to solve intractable social problems? Or were the projects themselves the problem? That's the question behind "The Architect," a thoughtful drama about the relationship between buildings, the people who design them, and those who live in them.

Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia) , a professor of architecture at an unnamed Chicago university, is teaching a class on urban planning when an African-American woman walks into his nearly all-white class. Tonya Neeley (Viola Davis) asks Waters to sign her petition to tear down Eden Court, the now ironically named project where she lives. There's only one problem: Waters was Eden Court's architect, and he refuses to support its destruction.

For the rest of the film, Waters battles Neeley and his own conscience in a quixotic attempt to save the complex, which he considers "fundamentally sound." As he paces thoughtfully around his suburban McMansion -- think Frank Lloyd Wright meets Martha Stewart -- Waters plots a redesign of Eden Court. But when he unveils his model to Neeley, it becomes clear that Waters hasn't actually visited the buildings in decades. "I thought it would cloud my perspective," he says defensively.

The conflict between Waters and Neeley would make a compelling short film, as would several After School Special-type side stories involving Waters's and Neeley's families. But the plot threads never make a tapestry. It isn't clear what Neeley's son's suicide or Waters's son's sexual-identity crisis have to do with the price of eggs or egos. And as Waters's neurotic, unhappy wife, Isabella Rossellini has little to do but throw china and ruin her mascara. First-time director Matt Tauber wants to hammer home the irony of an architect being unable to prevent his own family's collapse, but this just seems one albatross too many on the neck of someone already dealing with the consequences of his intellectual arrogance.

What, finally, does the film have to say about the vexed issue of public housing? Surprisingly little. We're shown how bad such towers are, but we aren't given an alternative vision. If Eden Court were torn down, what would replace it? Where would its residents go? Perhaps urban-planning solutions are too much to expect from a Friday night at the movies, but in a film this ambitious, the evident lack of thought put into the problem is disappointing. As any architect knows, it's easier to tear down than to build up.

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