Screenshot from American Masters: Eero Saarinen - The Architect Who Saw the Future (2016)
If there’s a bright side to the dreary, damp days of a Willamette Valley winter, it’s that we can allow ourselves the indulgence of cocooning within the warm and cozy confines of our homes. In the past, this may have meant curling up with a good book while sipping a cup of hot tea or cocoa. Today, thanks to always-on wireless Internet connectivity and high-definition video, we also have immediate access to a boundless treasure trove of information, knowledge, and entertainment. While some may lament how insidious and addicting the Internet can be, there’s no doubt its content can engage, educate, and excite us, as well-written books have always done. The Internet is merely the medium; the message is still clearly what counts.
Architecture is well-suited to the immersive potential of the Internet. Architecture is visual, dynamic, and relatable. Short of experiencing real buildings and places firsthand, film and video are perhaps the most powerful means to convey their unique qualities. The Internet has become a convenient repository for anyone who produces a documentary film or treatise about architecture, so the number of good resources on the topic has grown exponentially. Whereas it once seemed you could only find a handful of quality productions each year, there now exists an overwhelming volume of uploaded films and videos about architecture to sift through.
Separating the wheat from the chaff is challenging. You do have to be discerning to recognize the best the Internet offers. It’s hard to explain, but I do tend to immediately recognize studiously researched, well-written and directed, and substantive work. I certainly cannot claim to have seen all the best documentary films, videos, or vlogs available online about architecture, but I can immediately suggest a few I enjoyed and found significant. There are also many sites that aggregate the best as vetted by juries or respected critics.
To start with, here are several links to websites listing many of the best films and videos about architecture and design as judged by others:
My Architect (2003):
The 2003 documentary film about architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974) by his son Nathaniel Kahn was an Academy Award nominee for best documentary and is now a classic of its genre. The film details Lou Kahn's extraordinary career and Nathaniel’s accounting of his father’s legacy following his death in 1974.
American Masters – Eero Saarinen (2016):
Like Nathaniel Kahn’s reflection about his father, the PBS documentary about Lou Kahn’s contemporary Eero Saarinen is viewed through the lens of his son, Eric, who likewise produced and directed the film. The production is visually stunning, shot in 6K with the latest in drone technology, showcasing the architect’s body of timeless work.
Archiculture offers a unique glimpse into the world of studio-based, design education through the eyes of a group of students finishing their final design projects. The film includes interviews with leading professionals, historians, and educators, who address key issues faced by the unique teaching methodology and the studio environment the students all share.
Architecture Documentary in 23 Episodes:
I’m not exactly sure how old this series of films is, but it does appear to be a French production (narrated in English) with individual segments directed variously by Stan Neumann, Richard Copans, Frederic Compain, Julien Donada, or Catherine Adda. I’ve included it here because of its breadth and quality, which is quite good.
TED Talks: Michael Green – Why we should build wooden skyscrapers (2013):
Michael Green calls for rapid systemic change in the way we build. His proposal: Forget steel, straw, concrete, shipping containers, and rammed earth. Use wood to erect urban skyscrapers. In this TED Talk Green explores the plausibility of tall wood buildings—the costs, benefits, and engineering challenges.
The Next Era of Architecture (The Nerdwriter):
Evan Puschak is the Nerdwriter. He produces a weekly web series that aims to foster a commitment to an intellectual life. He believes life is philosophical, political, moral, psychological, financial, artistic, scientific, and that what is worth knowing is worth entwining into a comprehensive web.
Evan isn’t an architect (he studied film production at Boston University) but I found his video about the next era of architecture both succinct and spot on. Architecture since post-modernism has largely gone undefined. In its place is a new pluralism that is both tolerant and messy. If anything, there is a void in architecture waiting to be filled. If a non-architect can recognize this, we all should.
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Film and video will never completely supplant the actual experience of being there, nor should they, no matter how sophisticated virtual reality technologies may become. Regardless, they can in a way take us to places we might otherwise never visit, just as a well-written novel might transplant us viscerally to an imagined world. The best films and videos about architecture expand our horizons, a wondrous thing when our immediate prospects are confined by the walls and roof that shelter us from the blustery, wet reality outdoors.