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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Three DVDs

Recently I saw a string of architecture-related documentaries, one on a famous building, one on a man straddling famous buildings, and one on the suburbs. Here's my thoughts on those three documentaries, all available on DVD.

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Radiant City is the first of this trio that I watched. It is a documentary on suburbia that is filmed in Canada (Calgary, Alberta) and made by Canadians, but its setting could be anywhere else in North America. Only the accents and occasional reference to "un-American" things belies the generic sprawl that is more often associated with Canada's neighbor to the south. The film is a mix of documentary and reality TV, with some of the usual experts and critics of suburbia (James Howard Kunstler, Andrés Duany) comprising the first and some families living in a subdivision in the suburbs of Calgary making up the second. Both the commentary and the statistics flashing up on the screen were second nature to this reviewer, but the actions of the parents and children of sprawl as they went about their bored and detached lives was particularly humorous, a more scathing critique than the retread lines of Kunstler. Like other books and documentaries on the suburbs, New Urbanism is the alternative that is proffered, though its deficiencies (I've critiqued NU elsewhere, so I won't go into it here) point to the need for another alternative...besides cities themselves.

Next I watched Man on Wire, the story of Philippe Petit's death-defying wire-walk between World Trade Center towers one and two in the summer of 1974. The film combines interviews with Petit and others helping on the stunt with scenes of training in France beforehand, footage of earlier feats in Paris and Sydney, and recreations of the hours before rigging the wires from roof to roof. The documentary does a great job of building the suspense, even though we know the unharnessed Petit survives; after all, he's interviewed in the film. Even though the film was released seven years after the events of September 11, they are not mentioned; in many ways they are not relevant or significant for the story here, except that his stunt cannot ever be faithfully recreated. The fit of fearless wire-walker and Twin Towers is so perfect it seems hard to imagine that it didn't happen, but watching this documentary it's even more amazing that it happened at all. Relatively insignifant events (a security guard pacing, a glitchy walkie-talkie) are painted as if they would make or break the stunt. But this film, the numerous photographs, and the book by Petit on which this film is based are testimony to the daring spectacle. Of course without these documents only stories or descriptions of a speck in the sky would be conveyed, hardly satisfactory relative to what Petit did. His actions tame those of his current-day predecessors, of the celebrities hyping and prancing about their supposedly death-defying stunts that are actually drained of danger. Petit did the opposite: he snuck into a building in the middle of the night and risked his own life nearly 1,500 feet in the air, doing what he loved and trained for all his life.

Lastly, The Edge of the Possible is a ten-year-old documentary on the design and construction of the Syndey Opera House, a masterpiece of architecture with a history almost as well known as its form. Almost everybody knows about the then young Dane Jørn Utzon (38) winning the competition in 1957; the rushed construction; the structural difficulties inherent in Utzon's design; and of course the architect's departure from the project in 1966, never to return to Sydney and see the project completed. But the details on the above tend to be blown out of proportion, particularly Utzon's resignation, which he describes here as amicable, not angry or bitter as is the norm in descriptions of it. Interviews with Utzon at his home in Denmark and archival footage of the construction make this documentary valuable -- and much more entertaining than a Wikipedia entry -- for those interested in the building. It was especially nice to see the various models made for the design, be it the roof structure, the house ceilings or the proposed plywood structure. While the quality and impact of the result is undeniable, the loss of Utzon at a crucial stage brings to the fore the need for a consistent guiding hand, a visionary if you will, but one more nuanced, more focused than today's "starchitect." Utzon moved himself and his office to Sydney in 1963; how many high-profile architects would do the same today?

(Note The Edge of the Possible is now available in a brand new Special Edition with an extended interview with Utzon, extra construction footage, and other bonus features.)


  1. Recently, Philippe Petit survived an interview, unscathed, with Stephen Colbert...almost as impressive.

  2. The Edge of the Possible should be interesting to watch, hopefully it's not to biased. The best description of the process I've read is the Ove Arup biography which has several chapters about the Sydney opera house from a different perspective; the engineers. That story, together with all the other stories surrounding the building based upon the architects view, should make a good base for a "true" story.

    It is, too often, only the architect who gets to write history, which of course is only one part of the truth.

  3. Patrik - Certainly Utzon is the "star" of the documentary, but members of the Ove Arup team are also interviewed here, aligning it more with the "truth."

  4. none of you thought Petit was portrayed as a completely self-obsessed weirdo whose quest for personal fulfilment ultimately resulted in his complete isolation?

    cause that's what I saw.

  5. Jack - I didn't think he was portrayed that way, though the result I can see, particularly with his girlfriend at the time. Seems they painted that isolation in a poetic way, both of them acknowledging the importance of the event in each other's lives.

  6. @John: I do think there was something poetic about the isolation (I don't think either of us are questioning the beauty of the act – just an amazing feat) but I did find something very depressing about how he was ultimately depicted alone – as though the power of his passion had cut somehow divorced him from humanity. For me, the thing I really took away from the film is that no matter how poetic your dreams, no man is an island, and a man enveloped by himself is indeed in a very small package.


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