DnA’s favorite films about design and architecture

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The boom in documentary filmmaking has spilled into design and architecture; maybe because the design world is brimming with driven and colorful characters that make for great stories. Among those…

The boom in documentary filmmaking has spilled into design and architecture; maybe because the design world is brimming with driven and colorful characters that make for great stories. Among those that came across our transom was “California Typewriter,” a truly fascinating story of the struggle by a loose collection of obsessive guys to preserve an obsolete technology; “Five Seasons,” a compelling story about a Dutch gardener whose work reconnects us with the passage of time; and an HBO doc, “Agnelli,” that transports us back to the high-style days of postwar Italy.

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

Take a great park or garden in the world today (High Line, New York; Millennium Park, Chicago; Hauser & Wirth, Somerset) and you will find the green-fingered artist behind the billowing, painterly plantings was Dutch “New Perennialist” Piet Oudolf. Filmmaker Thomas Piper, co-director of the documentary Reimagining Lincoln Center and the High Line, takes the viewer through the cycle of Oudolf’s Hauser & Wirth Somerset garden, from sketching and experimenting in his Netherlands-based home/botanical laboratory, to the planting and the passage of the blooms through the seasons. Each stage — from spring birth through to winter’s decay to rebirth again — is a revelation of mood, color and the glory of nature, reworked by the human hand.

California Typewriter

From the opening sequence restaging “Royal Road Test,” a 1967 art project in which Edward Ruscha tossed his typewriter from a car speeding through the desert, “California Typewriter” is a captivating homage to the typewriter and the geeks, artists, famed actors and repairmen who love them. Many, including Tom Hanks, who helped bankroll the movie, feel life is emptier since this 19th century invention was sidelined by the computer. Left out of the picture are representatives of the millions of women who once toiled as typists — maybe they don’t feel so nostalgic for whiteout and sticking keys. But this documentary, directed by Doug Nichol, is a thought provoking meditation on technology and our relationship to it.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock

In the early 1970s, rock fused with style and fluid sexuality in a moment of extreme exhibitionism. Veteran music photographer Mick Rock was there, and he helped define the images of dozens of artists from that decade, among them Lou Reed, Queen, and Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Now the camera has been turned on him, and pretty much only him (there are no talking heads), and his raw and seductive photographs, by music video maker Barnaby Clay. The result is highly creative piece of filmmaking doc with all the self-indulgence and allure of both the period and the personality celebrated in Shot!


Okay, it’s not quite a documentary, but this valentine to the midwestern home of more than 60 public buildings by modernist masters by film director Kogonada is as much a disquisition on architecture as it is a meditation on relationships — between a daughter and her damaged mother; between an estranged father and son; and between a young woman and the buildings that give her solace and inspiration. Columbus, Indiana, owes its rich architectural legacy to an enlightened industrialist named J. Irwin Miller and features buildings by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier and more recently, Deborah Berke. The film moves too slowly for people seeking a fast-paced narrative but at just the right speed for those wanting to soak in the beauty of Saarinen’s classic Miller House and other Modernist gems.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Cities, said Jane Jacobs, “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Matt Tyrnauer’s film celebrates the work of the renowned Greenwich Village resident, activist and urbanist, with a look at Jacobs’ epic struggle with Robert Moses, New York’s powerful “master builder.” Tyrnauer is so devoted to his heroine that he overlooks the positive civic contributions of Robert Moses, and doesn’t take on the negative consequences of Jacobs-inspired resistance to unwanted development, such as NIMBYism. But this is a compelling primer on top-down versus bottom-up approaches to city building and is highly relevant to today’s struggle over growth and liveability in our revitalized but costly cities.


This HBO documentary about the epic life of Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli, legendary industrialist, playboy, and “prince” of Italy, unfolds like a Vanity Fair article come alive — not surprising given that the executive producer was the magazine’s editor in chief, Graydon Carter. Directed by Nick Hooker, “Agnelli” oozes with glamor, gossip and non-stop drama. The scion of the Turinese Fiat-owning family is depicted as a jet-setting man of action, superlative taste (setting eccentric trends for men, like wearing ones watch over the sleeve) and irresistible charm who also confronted personal and political crises as his life and that of Fiat intersected with the arc of 20th century Italy. The documentary is worth watching simply for a reminder of the time when no one questioned a married CEO’s right to have a “garconierre” (a bachelor pad on his family estate to meet his mistresses) nor the deleterious effects of the automobile.