15 Essential Films About Famous Architects

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There’s been a flurry of activity in the world of film and architecture this week. Notable LA filmmaker and film critic Thom Andersen released his unconventional documentary Reconversão about last year’s Pritzker Prize-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and their mutual fascination — one you know we share — with abandoned spaces, contemporary ruins and the societal conflicts that create them. Add to that an intriguing Kickstarter for Great Spaces , a web series by four young design enthusiasts exploring the world one space at a time, showed up in our inbox and persuaded us to champion their worthy cause.

To celebrate the very best of multidisciplinary mash-ups, we thought we’d take a look at some of the fantastic films about architects that have been made over the years. From one of the most inspiring films you will ever see about husband-wife creative powerhouse Charles and Ray Eames (notably narrated by our favorite art house badboy James Franco) to Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack’s look at America’s design darling, Frank Gehry, click through to check out our picks for must-see films focused on one of the most enigmatic and conflicted characters in the world: the architect.

The Architect and The Painter, directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey

Narrated by none other than James Franco, this look at Charles and Ray Eames explores their great influence on the development of modernism, the rise of the computer age, and their approach to running an unconventionally creative workplace that created everything from iconic mid-century furniture to splints for wounded military during World War II. The film also delves into their personal life, notably the challenges of being a woman — and the wife — in a creative partnership during a time when all attention was devoted to the men of the world.

My Architect, directed by Nathaniel Kahn

The story of a son’s heartbreaking search to understand his father, the brilliant architect Louis Kahn, who died bankrupt and alone in 1974.

Visual Acoustics, directed by Eric Bricker

Visual Acoustics from wes on Vimeo.

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Visual Acoustics celebrates the joyful life and career of Julius Shulman, the world’s greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream. Charged with documenting everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Gehry, his images, as stated by the filmmakers, epitomized the singular beauty of Southern California’s modernist movement and brought its iconic structures to the attention of the general public.

American Masters: Sketches of Frank Gehry, directed by Sydney Pollack

Directed by the great Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were, Out of Africa, Michael Clayton), a lifelong friend of Gehry’s, this documentary explores the life and work of the greatest living American architect. It also includes interviews with Dennis Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Ruscha and Julian Schnabel, among others.

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, directed by Murray Grigor

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner from Design Onscreen on Vimeo.

With appearances by Sean Connery, Frank Gehry, Julius Shulman, and other Lautner devotees, the film traces the lifelong quest of a visionary genius who led a complicated life. Exceptional filmmaking explores Lautner’s dramatic spaces with choreographed camera moves, as Lautner himself provides the commentary, speaking with insight and wit in recordings culled from archival sources.

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas

Citizen Architect presents the life work of the late Samuel Mockbee, a true pioneer who championed the belief that “everyone deserves shelter for the soul.” A professor at Auburn University, Mockbee created the Rural Studio, a design-build studio teaching the social responsibilities of the profession of architecture while also providing safe, well-constructed, and inspirational homes and buildings for communities in rural west Alabama, one of the poorest regions in America. To date, the Rural Studio has completed more than 80 innovative projects, many for less than $20,000. This film tells the story of the movement by following Jay Sanders, a young, first-time instructor leading a group of students charged with building a home for the Music Man, a soul loving local. Also included are never-before-seen interviews with Mockbee himself.

Reconversão, directed by Thom Andersen

RECONVERSÃO, Thom Andersen from Curtas CRL on Vimeo.

Depicting the life work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and his fascination with architecture’s problems and conflicts, Thom Andersen’s film tracks his designs over time, including those structures that are now derelict and abandoned. “Most films about architecture present buildings as art objects,” the director recently told LA Weekly . “The building is shown as an ideal, eternal form. I wanted to show the real life of the buildings.”

The World of Buckminster Fuller, directed by Robert Snyder

Academy Award-winner Robert Snyder’s look at Buckminster Fuller — architect, engineer, geometrician, cartographer, philosopher, futurist, inventor of the famous geodesic dome, and one of the most brilliant thinkers of his time. Now more relevant than ever, the documentary consists of clips mostly from the late ’60s and early ’70s of “Bucky” in various outdoor and indoor settings, talking about the ideas and interests that have inspired and informed his own sense of purpose and individual vitality. Most of the voiceover is stream of consciousness, with him talking about the principles that informed his work like synergy, the beauty of nature’s principles and basic structures, physics, metaphysics, and humanity’s apparent purpose in the universe.

Frank Lloyd Wright, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

A captivating film that spans the 91 years of the rebellious, nature-worshipping Frank Lloyd Wright’s illustrious — and tragic — life.

Antonio Gaudí, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Less a documentary than a visual poem, Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí takes viewers on a tour of the Catalan architect’s truly spectacular buildings, including his massive, still-unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. With camera work as bold and sensual as the curves of his subject’s organic structures, Teshigahara immortalizes Gaudí on film.

Kochuu: Japanese Architecture/ Influence and Origin, directed by Jesper Wachtmeister

A visually stunning film about modern Japanese architecture, its roots in the Japanese tradition, and its impact on the Nordic building tradition, this film features interviews with Pritzker Prize winners Tadao Ando and Sverre Fehn, as well as Toyo Ito. A wonderful exploration of contemporary designers resolving the conflict between modern man and old philosophies.

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directed by Freida Lee Mock

This Academy Award-winning documentary about the creation of the Vietnam Memorial focuses on the controversy that arose when it was announced that the winning design was submitted by a 21 year-old Chinese-American woman.

Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, directed by Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch

An engaging portrait of a visionary man, which takes us to the heart of his ideas. The filmmakers have made a visually inventive thought provoking portrait of the architect, prompting Rem Koolhaas to state “it’s the only film about me that I have liked.”

Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect, directed by Barbara Wolf

A beautiful snapshot that shows the human side of Johnson and how his extraordinary life shaped his rich architectural legacy.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, directed by Carlos Carcas and Norberto López Amado

An Art Commissioners project, this film traces Foster’s career and his unending quest to improve the quality of life through design with emphasis on his fundamental sustainability practices and polices. “We can not ignore the damage that our buildings inflict on the natural environment,” he has said. “As the consequences of our past inaction becomes ever more apparent, designing for a sustainable future becomes a necessity, not a choice.”