Architecture Documentaries

Made from less drama and more realism, architecture movies and documentaries can also leave a viewer mesmerized with delight, just as a Hollywood action film can leave him breathless. The main idea of these architecture films can be the life and work of a star architect, a display of the work of an architecture school, or even a story or concept tackling cities and history, but the truth behind this type of films is that they portray, thematically and regardless of the filming effects and monetary investment, a real story from real life circumstances, depicting intrinsic change born out of visionary concepts. Fiction will always impress, but the endeavor for realizing creative ideas in feasible manners seems delirious. The most notable architecture documentaries are under the microscope in our talk today.

From “Cairo, the Capital of Egypt” (1914 Documentary) to the latest produced, the list is long to analyze. In what follows, architecture documentaries will be divided into three categories: Documentaries depicting the life and work of past architects, documentaries revolving about contemporary ones, and documentaries discussing a case, theory, situation, or story. Some of those documentaries have gained worldwide popularity and won or were nominated for awards, others became acknowledged through their topic or presentation, still a rating of documentaries over a wide range of time is subject to variations. In each category, documentaries will be mentioned in a descending chronological order.

Documentaries about Past Architects

1. Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011)

This film, directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, depicts the professional and personal life of Charles and Ray Eames, initially furniture designers, who revolutionized the design of the 20th century with their contribution to film, photography, art, branding, and graphics, along with their furniture designs.

2. Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture (2010)

This documentary, directed by Mark Richard Smith, provides insights on the human and professional sides of the veteran Louis Sullivan, who lived in two different centuries but couldn’t fit to any of them. It highlights the impact he had on American architecture later, along on master architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.

3.Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio (2010)

This movie, directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas, demonstrates Mockbee’s architectural motto: Architects have a social responsibility to make the world a better place, not just for high paying clients but for 90% of the people in the world who can’t afford to. It shows his work as the founder of Rural Studio that undertook the mission of providing sustainable shelters for those who couldn’t afford it.

4.Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner (2008)

This documentary, directed by Murray Grigor, follows the pursuit of John Lautner for “an architecture that has no beginnings or ends” since his early days, thereafter when he made his own renowned houses in California.


5.Loos Ornamental(2008)

This movie, directed by Heinz Emigholz, is in tribute of the minimalist who was ahead of his era, Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933) acknowledged as a pioneer Modernist. It presents still shots of 27 of his buildings, in order of their construction.

6.Schindlers Häuser(2007)

This documnetary, directed by Heinz Emigholz, is presented as a ‘cinematic photo album’ showing 40 of Schindler’s L.A houses, starting from 1921 till 1952. The director reframes Schindler’s works by focusing on thought-provoking shots

7.Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe (2005)

This film, directed by Patrick Demers and Joseph Hillel, explores, as Mies did, “every detail of how people perceive” his buildings, along with interviews with former students, scholars, and architects such as Elizabeth Diller and Rem Koolhaas. The aim of the film is to demonstrate Mies’s most enduring motto, “less is more.”


8.My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003)

Nominated for an Academy Award in 2004, and ranking first among architecture documentaries with 2.75 M$ at US Box Office, [2] Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary is a son’s journey to understand his father whom he unfortunately only got to know through his legacy of buildings. It explores his secret personal lives along with his peers’ perception and opinion. Most notably, the film depicts his tragic death, alone and bankrupt at the age of 73 in New York, when Nathaniel was only 11. It’s an impressive look at this Modernism master’s life and death.


9.Frank Lloyd Wright(1998)

This documentary, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, provides a look at Frank Lloyd wright’s life as a person, architect, and a prominent figure in American Architecture. Walking through all the stages of his career development, his misdeeds, the death of his family members, it ends up showing his acknowledgement as the Master of American Architects.


10.Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect(1997)

This documentary, directed by Barbara Wolf , is an exploration of Philip Johnson’s work, including a profound examination of Johnson’s “diary” — the famous “Glass House” he designed and lived in. The documentary also provides an interesting look into the weird creative methods he adopted in his quest of creative design.

The poster for ”Philip Johnson, Diary of an Eccentric Architect”

The poster for ”Philip Johnson, Diary of an Eccentric Architect”

11.Antonio Gaudí(1985)

With little verbal narrative, the director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s documentary stops lengthily on the works of innovative architect,.Antonio Gaudí (1852 – 1926).

Documentaries about Contemporary Architects

12.Koolhaas Houselife (2013)

Directed by Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine , this film allows the viewer to examine the everyday life of the world known architect Rem Koolhaas through the daily chores of Guadalupe Acedo, the housekeeper, and the other people who look after his house. It’s known to be loaded with fun and humor.


13.REM (2013)

Directed by his son Tomas, this second film in our list about the star architect Rem Koolhaas has been over a decade in the making. As Tomas states it in an interview,” I had to be sure I was ready because I knew I wouldn’t get a free pass from him. I knew I had to have a concept that was very different from, and more compelling than any that had been done before.” So what made this documentary stand out? According to Tomas, it’s “a rare insight into the reality of the hidden internal life of the buildings.”

The poster of “REM”

The poster of “REM”

14.Inside Piano (2013)

This film, directed by Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine, is mainly about three symbolic buildings of Renzo Piano. As it is described by directors in the official website, it’s “a visit throughout the Centre Pompidou. An immersion in the soundproof world of a submarine floating in the depths of the Parisian underground. A journey aboard a luminous magic carpet of a highly sophisticated architectural machine.”

15.How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (2010)

This documentary is an objective look at the Pritzker Prize winner’s career, narrated by Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Mus

The poster for “How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?”

The poster for “How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?”

16.Architects Herzog and de Meuron: The Alchemy of Building & The Tate Modern (2009)

This documentary, directed by  Beat Kuert , follows the journey of 2001 joint-Pritzker Prize winners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron when they began designing a new addition to the Tate Gallery in London. The documentary goes through the design stages from the beginnings to the final stage when the Tate Modern opened in 2000.


17.Bird’s Nest – Herzog & de Meuron in China (2008)

A documentary directed by Christoph Schaub & Michael Schindhelm, it elaborates on the challenges the two architects went through to build the new National Stadium for the Olympics in Beijing. The cultural and political conflicts embedded in this work are the main theme.


18.Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect (2008)

The third mentioned documentary about Rem Koolhaas, this interesting documentary examines the revolutionary work of Koolhaas’s Rotterdam-based firm OMA and shows how his theories are applied in physical realms.

“Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect” poster

“Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect” poster

19.The Socialist, The Architect and The Twisted Tower (2005)

As the director Fredrik Gertten describes it, this film is “the intriguing inside story on building Turning Torso, Europe’s highest residential building”. The film shows how the talent of famous architect Santiago Calatrava coupled with the authority of a former politician to produce the twisting tower.


20.Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)
Acknowledged as a widely seen documentary, its subject is the twin masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The film, directed by Sydney Pollack, asks: “What’s so hot about Frank Gehry?” Pollack portrays Gehry’s career and creative process, how his sketches and models become buildings—“a living thing,”

21.The Edge of the Possible (1998)
This documentary, directed by Daryl Dellora, is an account from Jørn Utzon, the acclaimed architect of the Sydney Opera House, about the design and construction of his masterpiece. The film shows how he was later forced from the project in 1966 for political reasons. It’s a demonstration of the dramatic path of the creation of this famous building.

22.First Person Singular: I.M. Pei(1997)

This documentary, directed by Peter Rosen, is a broad look at the life and work of I.M. Pei, told often by the architect himself. Documentaries about a case, theory, situation, or story.

23.Detropia (2012)

In this documentary, the directors Heidi Wing and Rachel Grady’s use “the damaging effects of the automotive industry’s decline on Detroit’s residents and infrastructure as a metaphor for the nation’s larger failure to “keep up” in the global economy.” The filmmakers interview three Detroit residents as they tell their own experiences in the city.


24.Unfinished Spaces (2011)

An inspiring story of dreams, how they are destroyed and how they can be revived, Unfinished Spaces is the story about the National Art Schools in Cuba, which was left unfinished due to unstable political conditions in Cuba at 1960s. This film awakened interest in restoring the structure. It was added to the watch list of the World Monuments Fund.


25.The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

Described as quietly devastating, this film, directed by Chad Freidrichs, tells the story of the 33 Pruitt-Igoe tower built in St. Louis in the early 1950s, from the time it was designed till it was brought to ground in a move to eliminate the violence that turned them to prisons. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth shows the story by looking at the complex relationship between issues of class, race, and public policy.


26.Urbanized by Gary Hustwit (2011)

The third documentary by director Gary Hustwit’s, after Helvetica and Objectified, Urbanized is directed towards the strategies of urban design that result in our cities, featuring some renowned architects and urban designers. It suggests a prospect for the future of urbanism.


27.Vertical Expectations – The Shard(2011)

This documentary, directed by Simona Piantieri, demonstrates the architectural and social effects the Shard- a Qatari-backed building- is having on the city of London, through accounts from local residents. The film ponders on who is benefiting from this, aesthetically and functionally.


28.Samsara (I) (2011)

Filmed over nearly five years in twenty-five countries on five continents, Samsara, directed by  Ron Fricke, is ranked second in the earnings of the US Box Office among architecture documentaries with $2.6 million. The film transports us to the varied worlds of sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural wonders.


29.First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture (2009)

First Earth is a documentary directed by G. B. Hajim about the movement towards a massive paradigm shift for shelter – building healthy houses in the old ways, out of the very earth itself. This film demonstrates a point about the superb health state offered by earthen homes and calls for the transformation of villages into Eco-villages.

30.Objectified (2009)

The second film in Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy (which includes Helvetica and the lately mentioned Urbanized), Objectified digs deep into the origin of the objects we use every day. The film is a must-see for anyone interested in the often invisible hand of design in our daily lives.


31.Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (2008)

This documentary, directed by Eric Bricker, recounts the professional memories of the celebrated architectural photographer Julius Shulman. The film shows the talent of the photographer in catching iconic photos of renowned architecture.


32.Great Expectations(2007)

Directed by Jesper Wachtmeister, this documentary is a fairly marvelous survey of the visionary, unconventional architecture of the 20th century.


33.Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927)

Though not a documentary, Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece is considered by architecture scholars a must-see for any architecture enthusiast. It depicts the futuristic image of a dystopian city, severely divided along lines of wealth and class.

By: Zeynab Matar

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