You won’t see any chase scenes or canoodling. No scatological jokes, and hardly any women. For the most part it’s just wrinkly old white men talking about fenestration and foundation walls. Design documentaries may not be sexy, but they’re enjoying a surprising surge on the indie film circuit.
Why design? The documentaries riding a wave of interest in the field, and designers are, almost without exception, charismatic figures who know how to court the camera.
The trend began six years ago with My Architect, an effort by Nathaniel Kahn to uncover the hidden life of his father, the enigmatic Louis Kahn. Nathaniel was born out of wedlock, and he barely knew his father, whom many consider the greatest architect of the 20th century. Kahn, who died badly in debt in a Penn Station men’s room in 1974, maintained three families for years in almost total secrecy. His son’s angry and unsettling account was nominated for an Academy Award.
Who could have imagined that a film about a font would earn a following? Two years ago Gary Hustwit released Helvetica a feature length-documentary about the world’s most common typeface and the globalization of visual culture. He traces the font’s origins back to an obscure Swiss foundry in 1957 and shows how it became the favored imagery for street signs, corporate logos, transportation maps and government forms. Some of the graphic designers interviewed castigate it as the face of corporate and governmental authority, even comparing it to the Nazi imagery of the 1930s.
Earlier this year Hustwit debuted Objectified, a documentary about our preoccupation with everyday objects and the people who design them. “The story of America for the past 60 years,” Hustwit says, “is essentially tied to the story of our stuff.”
Design documentaries tend to work best when they tell a specific story. The Greening of Southie recounts the painfully difficult campaign to build the Macallen Building, Boston’s first green residential project. As if building with untested green products wasn’t hard enough, the 11-story condo went up in South Boston, a blue-collar neighborhood with a history of fighting gentrification. This is an impartial view of green building, and it reveals drawbacks you won’t hear about in most coverage. Example: One of the project’s environmental consultants acknowledges that shipping green materials from China, Bolivia and elsewhere required more energy than the building will consume in its lifespan.
We read endless appraisal of modern architects, but what about the photographers who helped bring modernism to the masses? Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, follows the 97-year-old photographer as he travels the country visiting landmarks by Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and others that he helped make famous with his particular visual style.
Long before there was any thought of Architecture for Humanity, Samuel Mockbee was building modern housing for poor families in the rural south. Snakebit, to be aired in the fall, is a 60-minute documentary about Mockbee and Rural Studio, the design-build program he started as a training ground for what he called “citizen architects.”
Read more of Michael Cannell’s blog on Fast Company