The 7 Best Documentaries About Architecture, Ranked

Visual Cult Magazine is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

It’s common knowledge that many successful designers trace their roots back to the works of their predecessors.

Films and documentaries on architecture provide fascinating insights into the creative processes of renowned architects, the history of architectural trends, and the big ideas behind today’s most innovative buildings and urban planning. They leverage comprehensive interviews to tell ‘real’ tales about the planning, development, and building processes to demonstrate how the end product was created.

Our top recommended documentaries for architects and architectural aficionados include a wide range of topics and styles, so there’s sure to be one that suits your needs and interests.

If you are in a rush here are the top 3 of the best documentaries for Architects.

Last update on 2024-04-08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

See below for more details on the released documentaries and how to watch them.

1. My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003)

How would it feel to have such illustrious parents and be constantly overshadowed by their fame?

The film’s director, Nathaniel Kahn, is also the son of Louis Kahn, the renowned architect whose work includes the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the Phillips Exeter Academy library in New Hampshire, and the National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh. To paraphrase Vincent Skully, an art historian and close friend of Kahn’s, his pieces are incredible because of their symmetry, order, geometric clarity, and enormous weight.

Kahn’s father was a prominent architect with a less-than-ideal private life — he bore children with three different women and was severely in debt. The film chronicles Kahn’s earnest desire to discover more about his father. In 1974, Louis would die away from poverty and isolation, but not before leaving an impressive legacy in the world of architecture.

This film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, features interviews with Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, and Philip Johnson, as well as members of the many families produced by the womanizing Louis, and footage of all of Kahn’s masterpieces, including the Yale Center for British Art and the Salk Institute.

My Architect is intriguing since it provides background information on a well-known architect whose work is stimulating. However, the shooting approach comes across as excessively like a form of personal psychotherapy.

See more info and buy on Amazon.

2. Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011)

Architect Charles and painter Ray Eames are well known for their iconic Eames chair, symbolizing modernism among suburbanites.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter is a well-made, uncomplicated, and enlightening documentary about the collaboration and multifaceted careers of Charles and Ray Eames. It examines the couple’s partnership and varied careers; among other things, they are credited with reimagining the chair concept and reintroducing playfulness to modernism.

The film maintains, however, that their signature blend of function and form can be seen in almost every facet of modern life.

Like an advertising firm, they took on projects from big brands like IBM to create quirky promotional flicks that humanized the companies they were advertising for and now look like the most sincere but engaging educational films responsible for being played in US high school classrooms.

Their penchant for the eccentric is displayed as ceiling murals and a tumbleweed. They designed furniture, made movies, and organized complex exhibits, all with the slogan “The best for the most for the least,” and it showed. Charles Eames explains the creative duo’s point of view by saying they seek beauty and value a society in which “everything connects.”

See more info and buy on Amazon.

3. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

Based on the postwar fantasy of rebuilding slum residences with contemporary, inexpensive high-rises, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” relates the tale of a public housing project in St. Louis that debuted in the mid-1950s. Pruitt-Igoe fell into such degradation by the 1970s that it was ultimately demolished; its razing was shown on television, giving rise to the idea that subsidized housing is always a catastrophe and a prime instance of political overreach. Charles Jencks, one of the project’s architects, even declared the termination of the end of the Modern design.

The film’s director, Chad Freidrichs, and his wife, producer, and screenwriter Jaime Freidrichs, tour us around the Pruitt-Igoe property. However, the filmmakers depend heavily on commentary from former inhabitants who claim that life at Pruitt-Igoe was not without benefits.

However, others report terrifying incidents of vandalism, arson, theft, and homicide. However, they claim that the initiative was successful initially and would have remained so with adequate funding and management.

Newspaper clippings are spliced together to show that some people considered Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition “the death of Modernism.” At the same time, the video avoids discussing architectural design issues. It may be argued that The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is more of a lamentation than a discussion. A concluding sentence mentioning that rebuilding is progressing on the long-abandoned property raises the possibility that significant portions of this narrative have yet to be recounted.

See more info and buy on Amazon.

4. How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (2010)

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is adept at syncing its visual tactics and cadence with the philosophy and output of its hero, British architect Norman Foster. This piece is one of the few documentaries that successfully celebrates an exemplary individual without crossing over into flattery.

The filmmakers spend over eighty minutes painting Lord Norman Foster’s biography, from his humble beginnings in Manchester to his rise to fame as an architect and subsequent struggles (the loss of his first spouse and the near bankruptcy of his business after the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank project).

However, the film focuses on Foster’s achievements; his wife, Elena Ochoa, produced it for the Art Commissioners (UK) and Aiete Ariane Films (Spain).

It’s a tired cliché, but this Norman Foster feature is unadulterated architectural porn. The elegant elegance of bridges and structures that have influenced the development and ecology of design is shown in awe-striking sweeping cranes and helicopter images.

Foster himself regularly adds insightful commentary, and the film has short interviews with several renowned architects and authors discussing his work. But the structures themselves are the best proof of Foster’s argument throughout the film: that good architecture can improve your quality of life.

See more info and buy on Amazon.

5. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988)

The film by William H. Whyte has significantly impacted the fields of architecture and urban planning. Whyte offers an intuitive assessment of urban environments and suggestions for improvement by watching the organic arrangement of places and how individuals traverse them.

The film’s overarching goal was to serve as a blueprint for the New York City Planning Committee and takes a detailed look at the situation in the plaza outside the Seagram Building.

Whyte employed methods of firsthand observation to characterize human behavior in urban environments during his 1969 tenure with the New York City Planning Commission. Whyte presented the content of urban public life objectively and measurably with the help of study associates armed with still cameras, video equipment, and notepads.

They were successful in setting up a number of time-lapse cameras to record the plaza and track the flow of pedestrians. The primary method is to conduct physical surveys of the areas to be mapped. The mapping highlights the wide variety of uses put to these public areas, including reading, dining, playing games, and more.

These studies led to Whyte’s book City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), which in turn inspired the “Street Life Project,” a continuing study of pedestrian behavior and city dynamics. Whyte draws findings regarding various urban problems, including jaywalking, schmoozing tendencies, the effectiveness of urban plazas, and the width of sidewalks. This work is still relevant since it is grounded on observation and challenges established ideas, such as the need for a physical barrier between pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

See more info here.

6. The Architecture of Doom (1989)

It is generally acknowledged that Adolf Hitler had old-fashioned, fairly bland tastes in art (kitsch paintings). It’s also common knowledge that he and numerous of his government officials were artistic failures.

Peter Cohen’s unique perspective makes his horrific documentary, The Architecture of Doom, so interesting. Cohen illustrates how Hitler funneled his creative failures and partisan ambitions into a unified doctrinal machinery whose self-styled aim was to increase “beauty” worldwide.

An engaging and dreadful documentary, The Architecture of Doom, examines the National Socialist aesthetics and how pursuing an Aryan ideal led to the deaths of millions of people. Hitler’s “Aha!” moment while watching Wagner’s “Rienzi” opera, the emergence of the homo-erotic Grecian/Nordic ideal, the comparisons of the ‘degenerate’ Cubist and Dadaist artwork and those who were mentally ill or physically disfigured, the Nazi devotion with purity and order, and the debasement of the Jewish people are all discussed.

In The Architecture of Doom, previously unseen video footage of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship reveal the underbelly of the Third Reich. Throughout the visual arts, construction, and mainstream culture, it sheds light on Nazi design. This groundbreaking film follows Adolf Hitler from an inept artist to the creator of a world of pompous kitsch and terrifying horror, from Nazi party rallies to his dying moments in the bunker.

See more info here.

7. The Competition (2013)

Anybody who has even a sneaking notion that the dubbed “starchitects” of the world are hiding ominous, fruitless methods behind their glitzy facades will find the new video by Spanish architect Angel Borrego Cubero to be utterly fascinating.

Through the Competition, the worst in the global field of popular architecture is laid bare. The request for submissions included those who had received the Pritzker Prize “or similar qualifications,” which brought in architects such as Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and even the Pritzker-less Dominique Perrault.

Teams seem desperate as they search fruitlessly for innovative designs, attempting to anticipate the needs of a client they haven’t met before, in a setting they haven’t seen before, and on behalf of a hypothetical future audience they know nothing about.

Fatuous forms are dressed up with only enough information to be believable for the panel’s exhibition, and enticing visuals are created to massage the ego of a cultural minister, revealing this entire procedure to be a ludicrous undertaking.

Teams eat late-night pizzas, take dejected smoke breaks while waiting for their diva captains to arrive, and trash their tireless efforts. Many people consider The Competition an indefinable work of art, variously being described as a riveting thriller, an anthropological documentary, and a cult film on modern architectural icons.

See more info here.

Final Words

The proliferation of media has provided audiences of all ages with a plethora of options, including many programs, films, and documentaries. It’s not only confined to mainstream media either. Some films and documentaries on architecture, design, and urban planning are also available.

We’ve already done the legwork for you by selecting a handful of documentaries that we believe you’ll find interesting and informative and listing them above. This is the right tool if you want to learn something new but don’t feel like reading 300 pages. Enjoy!