Vanity and Validation

Films celebrating the design and construction of projects by celebrity architects are now ubiquitous. But do we actually learn anything from them?

Remember those “making of” documentaries—the ones that chronicled the filming of a major motion picture? It was a genre that promised to give fans the back story, an “inside look” at the nuts and bolts, a glimpse of the truth behind the legends, maybe even a peek at Liz, Liza, or Julia before the makeup went on. That formula has discovered architecture. The now ubiquitous “building doc” celebrates the design and construction of prominent projects by celebrity architects. These films are often part of a new building’s marketing campaign (sometimes with their own budget lines). But since the same people commissioning the buildings tend to commission the documentaries, don’t expect any hidden truths to emerge.

Building docs tend to be unabashed tributes. It’s as if a finished museum isn’t enough: it requires a tremendous story to justify its tremendous cost—a creation myth. Films have been produced about the Getty Center, the new Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, the Miho Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and many others. Several building docs are currently in the works, including Mr. Gehry Goes to Washington, a look at the planned expansion of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which received a $15,000 NEA grant for research. The museum has already produced a short Gehry tribute, which it uses for fund-raising. Filming on Mr. Gehry Goes to Washington will resume when the Corcoran raises another $50 million to actually complete the building.

These films tend to follow a familiar dramatic arc. The process is depicted as tough but triumphant, the architect is “visionary,” the trustees who funded his work courageous, and the public overwhelmingly grateful for the new building, which is often presented as a “gift” from its creator. It’s clear everyone involved benefits from these vanity productions (except perhaps viewers without a direct connection to the project). Museums can reward patrons of a trophy building with a supporting role in the accompanying trophy film. They also get an infomercial to bring visitors (and donors) through the door. The celebrity architect can take the film to potential clients with a “here’s what you get—if only you have the courage” pledge.

The genre’s prototype is The National Gallery Builds, the story of the construction of I. M. Pei’s East Building. The film is just 13 minutes long and was made back in the mid-1980s, but all of the core elements of the typical building doc are in place: a gentleman architect, a supportive museum director serving as diplomat, a design that bewilders construction workers (who rise to the challenge like the “Mighty Ducks”), a weighty narrative tone, and a happy ending. Add trumpets, some urgent piano lines as the concrete starts pouring, stir in crane and helicopter shots, edit well, and serve.

More documentaries are on the way. Two installments of a planned trilogy on Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum expansion have been completed. Selection of an Architect shows Libeskind (dressed in business casual rather than his cosmopolitan Zen priest outfit) charming locals with motivational speeches in an effort to win the job over Thom Mayne and Arata Isozaki. A city official says he’s eager to “walk through his building” and calls meeting the architect a “religious experience.” In volume two, Spatial Dance, Libeskind enlightens earnest, awestruck members of the public with his usual brand of verbal pyrotechnics. The three films will cost $150,000, a minimal amount given the building’s $62.5 million budget.

As always, the exceptions show what these films could be. In The Once and Future Pariser Platz—A Square in Berlin Comes Back, released in 1999, director Michael Blackwood provided an intriguing look inside the jury charged with selecting an architect for the U.S. embassy. Blackwood usually finances his films independently to avoid being consumed by an institution’s publicity machine. When he pitched a documentary about the Renzo Piano–designed New York Times building to the Times, which proposed funding it, discussions stalled when the newspaper insisted on editorial control. “I told them, ‘That wouldn’t do much good because then it would just be a New York Times film,’” Blackwood says. “They said, ‘Then why should we do it?’ So the thing kind of died.”

Concert of Wills—directed by Susan Froemke and the surviving member of the legendary Maysles Brothers documentary team, Albert—is a surprisingly intimate look at the making of the Getty Center. For twelve years the filmmakers served as project “archivists”; two years prior to the museum’s opening, they began turning the countless hours of raw footage into a documentary. The Getty agreed to fund it—at a total cost in excess of $1 million, including archival footage—but insisted on final cut. The result is an unexpected jolt of “transparency” (institution-speak for candor). The film is more conflict than cooperation, with the Getty deflating Richard Meier’s hauteur by hiring Robert Irwin to design the asymmetrical garden and then drafting Thierry Despont to design the interior finishes. Amid all the conflict, however, Concert of Wills still conveys the official Getty message—that its new home is wonderful (despite the difficult Meier). “They hired us because they wanted a Maysles film,” Froemke says. “At first they were nervous about it, but they let it live.”

The building doc is now common enough to have produced an odd subgenre: a look inside the unbuilt. The most ambitious example here is the newly-released A Constructive Madness—Wherein Frank Gehry and Peter Lewis Spend a Fortune and a Decade, End Up with Nothing, and Change the World (directed by Jeffrey Kipnis, Thomas Ball, and Brian Neff). Partially bankrolled by Lewis, the film explores big questions like the genesis of art, which it follows grandly from Jimi Hendrix to eight years of experimentation on the unbuilt Lewis house outside Cleveland, which narrator Jeremy Irons augustly tells us begot the shapes and courage that inspired Bilbao. Never too far from the frame is client Lewis, who is called the “most interesting insurance executive in America in an otherwise lackluster field.” The film winds ambitiously through meetings and models (Philip Johnson is a constant presence throughout—we’re never told why) until finally, a decade and a few large ocean waves later, we reach Bilbao.

So what do these building docs teach us? Not much (although you will learn in Making the Modern, the new $750,000 paean to Tadao Ando’s Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, that the architect has a dog named Le Corbusier). I’ve come to think of them not as films but home movies, institutional metaphors for the family trip to the Grand Canyon. The family just happens to be your hometown’s civic elite, chronicling the making of its newest monument. They can also be seen as official histories, latter-day filmed monographs. Clearly these home movies are intended to be critic-proof. But if you’ve seen enough home movies, you know it’s hard to watch them for too long if you’re not a close relative. That hasn’t stopped people from making them—and probably won’t stop the museum trustees either.

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