Architecture @ Kanopy

Ever since learning about Kanopy back in June, I've been using the free, limited access made available through two libraries – NYPL and Queens Library – to watch primarily documentaries on architecture. If you live in the United States and have a card at a participating library, then you might know already that Kanopy is excellent for watching documentaries of all sorts but also independent films, foreign films, and classic movies. This isn't binge-watching on Netflix; it's expanding one's mind by watching educational, intelligent films on a variety of subjects. Below are 40 architecture films worth watching, organized by film production company.

Checkerboard Film Foundation:

Film First Corp:
  • Helvetica. The first of Gary Hustwit's three-part series on design at different scales. Focused on typography, it's the most removed from architecture but, to me, the most interesting of the trio.
  • Objectified. The second installment looks at industrial design and features just about every important designer from the last 50 years.
  • Urbanized. Hustwit jumps from handheld objects to cities, jetting around the world to see how architects, urban designers, and planners consider this centuries many seemingly insurmountable problems.

First Run Features:
  • Art House: Exploring the Homes of Artists. Although I didn't get to watch this one yet, based on the other First Run Features I'm confident it's well made and worth watching. The houses include Frederick Church's Olana, Paolo Soleri's Cosanti, and George Nakashima's house and studio in Pennsylvania.
  • Concrete Love: The Böhm Architects. As the title hints at, Concrete Love is about a family of architects, not just Pritzker Prize winner Gottfried Böhm; it's an intimate story of a tight-knit family beautifully told. (Image above is a screenshot from the film.)
  • The Oyler House: Richard Neutra's Desert Retreat. Although modest, Richard Neutra's Oyler House in Lone Pine, California, is blessed with a stunning site. Neutra's sons, client Richard Oyler, and new owner Kelly Lynch enrich the story of the house as one about design, family, and preservation.
  • The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. A great film on a project – Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, built in 1956 and demolished starting in 1972 – that is the center of a number of myths: of Postmodern architecture and of the failures of public housing.
  • Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island. A relaxing story about the work of architect Todd Saunders on Fogo Island, focusing on the Fogo Island Inn. The client's repetitive if good-natured words on building responsibly on the island got old at times, but they don't detract too much from the charms of the story and the place.
  • Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. As described in my review of the 2016 documentary, Troublemakers is more an origin story than a comprehensive story of land art. There's plenty about artists Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Nancy Holt, as well as Virginia Dwan, the gallerist that gave them their big breaks, but little beyond them. Lots is missing, though there's still lots to learn. 

Michael Blackwood Productions:
  • Beyond Utopia: Changing Attitudes in American Architecture. Most of Michael Blackwood's architecture documentaries were made in the 1980s and 1990s and therefore focus on Postmodern and Deconstructivist architecture. This one dates to 1982 and visits four important architects: Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Peter Eisenman
  • Deconstructivist Architects. Thirty years ago, MoMA mounted the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition, and Blackwood was there to interview Eisenman, Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and others about the designs shaking up architecture at the time.
  • Frank Gehry: The Formative Years. Seeming to anticipate that Frank Gehry would become the most important architect at the end of the century, Blackwood devoted a one-hour documentary to him in 1988, almost a decade before the Guggenheim Bilbao.
  • Frank Gehry An Architecture of Joy. This documentary on Gehry picks up with the "starchitect" two decades later, following him in Bilbao and Berlin as he talks about Guggenheim Bilbao and builds the DZ Bank Building.
  • Louis Kahn: Silence and Light. Nathaniel Kahn's Oscar-nominated My Architect isn't on Kanopy, but this documentary on the great Louis I. Kahn is – and is worth watching.
  • Peter Eisenman: Making Architecture Move. Blackwood captures Eisenman's personality – arrogant, intellectual, friendly with the right people – as he follows the architect in the US and Germany. Suited best for fans of Eisenman's buildings and words.

Oy Bad Taste LTD:
  • The Koshino House. Of the four documentaries in Finland's Oy Bad Taste's Master Houses series, this is the only one I've watched – so far. The laid-back telling, great cinematography, and thoroughness of this one-hour documentary make me want to watch the rest. Which I'll do once my limited views (a downside of watching Kanopy via libraries) are recharged next month. Accordingly, the descriptions of the other three "master houses" come from Kanopy.
  • Le Cabanon par Le Corbusier. The film "dive[s] into the amazing story of Le Cabanon tracing from the architect's arrival at Cote d'Azur to his final building connected with the Etoile de Mer restaurant, and the fate of the architect in his paradise home."
  • The Melnikov House. This film "tells the incredible story of how this utopian design from the late 1920's in Moscow imprisoned the fate of the architect when Joseph Stalin prohibited modern architecture from the Soviet Union."
  • Villa Mairea. This film "explore[s] how the Villa Mairea is a unique artistic microcosm influenced by international modern architecture and art, Finnish cultural heritage, and Japanese aesthetic tradition."

  • 10 Buildings That Changed America. The first of Geoffrey Baer's ongoing series that also highlights 10 Parks That Changed America and 10 Towns That Changed America. Not the most thorough takes on fairly well-known places, but I'm a sucker for lists.
  • Cool Spaces: Unique Architecture in the United States. A series of four videos with Stephen Chung highlighting some contemporary buildings following four typologies: art spaces, healing spaces, libraries, and performing spaces. My review of episode 1, on performing spaces.
  • John Portman: A Life of Building. Back in 2012 when I first watched the documentary, I was surprised that there was even a documentary devoted to Portman. Given his influential and ever-appealing atrium hotels, I'm not that surprised anymore. A standout from the documentary is Portman visiting the progenitor to those atriums: a public housing project that was eventually demolished.
  • Ken Burns' American Lives: Frank Lloyd Wright. Ken Burns usually sets his sights big, creating multi-part documentaries on such sweeping subjects as the Vietnam War, jazz, and baseball. His two-parter on Wright, done with Lynn Novick, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
  • Ken Burns: The Brooklyn Bridge. Well before he made the Wright documentary, Ken Burns made this relatively diminutive (only 58 minutes) documentary on the greatest bridge in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge. It came out in 1981, two years ahead of the bridge's centennial.
  • The Rise and Fall of Penn Station. I can't think of any other building that continues to enthrall people so long after it was removed from the face of the earth. This documentary of Penn Station though, as mentioned in my review of it, deals more with the tunnels, which still exist, rather than the building.

Misc filmmakers – architecture titles:
  • The Edge of the Possible, From my 2009 review: "Interviews with Utzon at his home in Denmark and archival footage of the construction make this documentary valuable... It was especially nice to see the various models made for the design, be it the roof structure, the house ceilings or the proposed plywood structure."
  • Glenn Murcutt: Spirit of Place. As much a story of Murcutt's life as about his design and realization of the Australian Islamic Centre in Melbourne. A humble film on a humble and enormously talented architect.
  • Precise Poetry: Lina Bo Bardi's Architecture. One of these days I'll make it to Brazil and make a beeline for SESC Pompeia. In the meantime, this documentary (in Portuguese with subtitles) intelligently discusses it and other designs by Bo Bardi.
  • Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. Released in 2009, the year of Shulman's death, the film celebrates the life and career of "the world's greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream."

Misc filmmakers – landscape/urbanism titles:
  • The Human Scale: Planning Livable and Humanistic Cities. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl is the star of The Human Scale, a documentary that "questions our assumptions about modernity, exploring what happens when we put people into the center of our equations." I saw it five years ago, when Gehl's urban design recommendations in NYC were long embraced by residents and tourists alike.
  • J.B. Jackson and the American Landscape. Two one-hour films on an American treasure: John Brinkerhoff Jackson, who created the field of landscape studies after serving in Europe during WWII and applying his take on European landscapes to American ways of life. Both films are worth watching, with only a little bit of overlap between them.
  • Manufactured Landscapes: The Art of Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky's powerful and impressively large photographs document the destruction of the earth by humans, be it through excavation, pollution, or other modern processes. An equally powerful film even eleven years after I saw a matinee of the film.
  • Radiant City, From my 2009 review: "The film is a mix of documentary and reality TV, with some of the usual experts and critics of suburbia (James Howard Kunstler, Andrés Duany) comprising the first and some families living in a subdivision in the suburbs of Calgary making up the second...the actions of the parents and children of sprawl ... [was] a more scathing critique than the retread lines of Kunstler."

One more for an even 40:
  • Playtime. How could I not include Jacques Tati's classic comedy that critiques modern society in general and modern architecture in particular? I can watch this or any Tati film over and over – all of which are available on Kanopy through the Criterion Collection.