Midcentury Architecture Experiments on Film

Two short documentary films take on a pair of intriguing midcentury architectural anomalies: Buckminster Fuller’s dome and the National Art Schools of Cuba.

Recently brought to our attention: two short documentary films on a pair of intriguing midcentury architectural anomalies—an enormous Bucky Fuller dome in the woods of Louisiana (demolished in 2007; left) and a wildly ambitious art-school construction project in Cuba (abandoned in 1965 but now underway again after a four-decade hiatus.) Read on for more information, plus clips from the films.

A Necessary Ruin: The Story of Buckminster Fuller and the Union Tank Car Dome

In October 2004, the filmmaker and landscape architect Evan Mather went looking for a huge geodesic dome hidden somewhere in the woods north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was making a short film about the city—his hometown—and he remembered hearing rumors about the futuristic dome, which had been built in the mid-1950s as a railroad-car maintenance station for the Union Tank Car Company. Mather found the dome, by then abandoned and in severe disrepair, and spent a few minutes filming its rusted exterior. Three years later, it was gone, demolished amid public-safety concerns (a trespassing youth had fallen to his death while climbing the structure.)

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For his latest film, Mather has revisited this unlikely piece of architecture history. The film’s subtitle aside, the Baton Rouge facility was not exactly a Bucky dome—Fuller consulted on the design, but the engineering was actually handled by a local Union Tank employee named Dick Lehr. And some of the film’s best moments focus on the engineering and construction of the dome, which, when it was completed in 1958, was the largest clear-span structure in world. Mather was kind enough to provide one such excerpt for us:

A Necessary Ruin will have a theatrical run in Los Angeles April 16-22—the theater will be posting showtimes soon—and it will be screened at the Center for Architecture, in New York, on April 30. Read more about the film on www.handcraftedfilms.com.

Unfinished Spaces: Cuba’s Architecture of Revolution

Not long after he seized power in 1959, Fidel Castro had an idea for a magnificent new cultural institution in Cuba. The idea, which occurred to him while he was playing a round of golf with Che Guevara (seriously), was to build the best art school in the world, right there on the golf course. Construction soon commenced on the National Art Schools, an ambitious complex of curving and domed brick buildings designed by three idealistic young architects. (To the architects’ distress, the design, construction, and commencement of classes all took place simultaneously.) But government funding was withdrawn before the campus could be completed, two of the architects later fled the country, and the school gradually slipped into decay.

Now Castro has invited the architects back to renovate the school. Unfinished Spaces tells the story of their initial collaboration and this new opportunity to finally finish what they started. The film is currently scheduled for worldwide release at festivals in early 2011. Keep an eye on www.ajnafilm.com for the latest news.

Previously: Your Afternoon Time-Lapse Video Fix

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