High Rising — Architecture, Urbanism, and the Cinema

High RisingApril is National Landscape Architecture Month. This got me thinking about an idea for a piece but, as often happens, I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of research tangents and decided I’d start with a post about architecture of the non-landscape variety. Apparently there is no “National Architecture Month” and Los Angeles proclaimed October “Architecture Month” but, well, whatever.

I’m sure that lots of kids played with blocks, in sandboxes, had Erector sets, &c but I don’t recall every hearing anyone speak of architects with the same reverence they did pop stars, actors, and professional athletes. My siblings and I enjoyed construction toys like CapselaLincoln Logs, Legos, and I had some sort of castle building brick set too. I also used to also draw blue prints for imaginary dream homes.  I dug a moat for Castle Greyskull near the gully because it seemed like a better setting than the floor of the family room. My sister and I built a plantation out of dresser drawers for two Easter bunny decorations to live within. We even built a crude hut in the woods out of sticks that my brother destroyed. For his part he built a “fort” out of chairs, sheets and cushions. When I asked him what it was called it he replied, “Mitch.”

I started started paying more attention to architecture when I started going to Jefferson Junior High. It was in town and we lived in the rural outskirts. Going to town meant that I could admire the tall-ish Oak TowersPaquin Tower, and especially the Tiger Hotel; the gothic Memorial Student Union; Morris Frederick Bell‘s grand Jesse Hall; the stately Maplewood House; and the domes of both the Islamic Center of Central Missouri and my school at the end of the bus ride. My mom had a coffee mug that depicted the silhouettes of many of them and looking at it used to fill me a sense of pride and hope that one day our fairly small town would grow into a proper city.

At university, architecture was touched upon in my Art & Art History class, seemingly as little more than an afterthought. I’m sure that I knew of Antoni Gaudí and Frank Lloyd Wright by then and I remember learning about Christopher Wren, I.M. Pei, Le Corbusier, Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. Although all are towering figures of the discipline, I sadly doubt that most would recognize their names — even if they’re reading this from within one of their structures.

When I first visited Los Angeles I wasn’t expecting it to be such a wonderful collection of architecture. Great architects who shaped the city and fueled my growing interest in architecture include A. Quincy JonesAlbert C. MartinClaud BeelmanEric Owen MossGreene and Greene, Gregory Ain, John B. Parkinson, John PortmanJohn Lautner, Lloyd Wright, Paul Revere Williams, Pierre Koenig, Raphael SorianoRichard Meier, Richard Neutra, Rudolph SchindlerS. Charle Lee, Walker & Eisen, andWilliam Pereira. Being exhibited by the American Institute of Architects | Los Angeles and referenced in an installation at the Architecture and Design Museum were both great honors and thrills.

Architecture, of course, isn’t limited to the urban environment but urban settings are by definition concentrations of architecture. Although I’m acrophobic, I’ve always been enthralled by tall buildings. Perhaps it’s because of my fear because the effect I get from them, even (and sometimes especially) the most generic, is sublime. The first buildings to be referred to as skyscrapers were erected in the 1880s and ‘90s in Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Tacoma. Back then the sky was located only about 40 meters above the Earth’s surface, apparently, and the tallest buildings in the world were mostly European cathedrals until 1908, when the 47 story, 187-meter-tallSinger Building was completed in Manhattan. American skyscrapers remained the tallest structures in the world until 1998, when Malaysia‘s Petronas Towers rocketed above Sears Tower. In 2010 I had a chance to see Taipei 101 in the flesh (well, glass and aluminum), which had been the tallest building in the world until Burj Khalifa had been earlier that year in the United Arab Emirates.

The 1920s were a key decade in the development of cities. The preservation movement kicked off, built around the notion that architecture and history were sometimes as worth preserving as wilderness and nature and an explosion of automobile ownership meant the freedom to go anywhere on land — but usually from parking lot to gas station to garage. The 1920 the census revealed that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than the country. Le Corbusier began writing his series, “1925 Expo: Arts Déco,” and Art Deco soon became one of the architectural styles most closely associated with high-rises.

The 1920s also gave rise to the city symphony, exemplified by films like Manhatta (1921), Rien que les heures/Nothing But Tim (1926), Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt/Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Études sur Paris/Studies of Paris (1928), Человек с киноаппаратом/Man With a Movie Camera (1929), São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole/Sao Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis (1929), and Bezúčelná procházka/Aimless Walk (1930). Architecture figured in them heavily, as it did in fiction films like Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916), Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Safety Last! (1923), Аэлита/Aelita (1924), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and Metropolis (1927). It was also the era of the Picture Palace, when developers of movie theaters paid almost as much attention to the buildings in which their screens were set as to what films were projected upon them. One of my favorites is The Vista, in Los Feliz. When design of it began Spanish Colonial Revival was all the rage, thus its exterior in that style. The discovery of Tutankhamun‘s tomb in 1922 ignited a craze for Egyptian design and explains the theater’s interior.

Public interest in architects seems to have lagged considerably behind their designs. Even in the last quarter of the 20th century documentaries about architects (and architecture) were rare. I know of The World of Buckminster Fuller (1974), Antonio Gaudí (1985), Kowloon Walled City (1989), The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner (1990), First Person Singular: I.M. Pei (1997), Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect (1997), and The Edge of the Possible (1998). As with the 1920s, there were fiction films in which architecture played a key role — although in that period widely characterized as one of urban decline, often a negative or at the very least ambiguous one. Consider Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Q (1982), The Black Tower (1987), and Die Hard (1988).

The 21st century has seen an exodus from the suburbs back to urban centers. Adaptive reuse, converted lofts, gentrification, have all gone hand in hand with a generation’s “discovery” of the joys of urban living (or at least the dull horror of life in the suburbs). For them, proximity to cultural institutions and access to public transit have overtaken “good schools” as their primary concerns when choosing where to live. Maybe that has something to do with the explosion in documentaries concerning architecture. Maybe it has something to do with the increased ease with which anyone can make a decent looking documentary too. Whatever the reasons, the fast fifteen years have seen the release of Architectures (AKA Baukunst) (2001-2005); My Father, the Genius (2002); Kochuu: Japanese Architecture, Los Angeles Plays Itself, and My Architect (all 2003); Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe (2004); Building Africa: The Architecture of a Continent, Lagos Wide and Close, and The Socialist, The Architect and The Twisted Tower, (all 2005); Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006); Great Expectations (2007); Architecture School, Bird’s Nest – Herzog & de Meuron in China, Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture, Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, Loos Ornamental, Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, and Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (all 2008); Architects Herzog and de Meuron: The Alchemy of Building & The Tate Modern, El Loco de la Catedral – The Madman and the CathedralFive Master Houses of the World, A Girl is a Fellow Here – 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Poor Man’s Follies (all 2009); Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City (all 2010); Eames: The Architect and the Painter, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Unfinished Spaces, Urbanized, and Vertical Expectations – The Shard (all 2011); Agoraphobia, Álvaro Siza: Transforming Reality, The City Dark, Coast Modern, Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions, Ordos 100, The School as City, and A Short History of Abandoned Sets (all 2012); Architecture Filmmedley, Design in Film: The Modern HouseGehry’s Vertigo, Inside Piano, Koolhaas Houselife, Reaching For The Sky, The Venice Syndrome, and Xmas Meier (all 2013); Cathedrals of Culture, Christiania, 40 Years of Occupation, Concrete LoveDouble Happiness, Megafactories: LEGO, María Elena, Los Angeles, the City in CinemaMumbai: Maximum City Under Pressure, Precise Poetry: Lina Bo Bardi’s Architecture, andRotterdam 2040 (all 2014); and The Infinite Happiness and Urban Poetry (both 2015).


Next week I’ll try to post about cinema and landscape architecture. Leave comments if you’ve got any suggestions!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing Boing,Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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