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"Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum": Bravura Example of an Architectural Documentary - Wright's Guggenheim Done Right
A look at great architecture as the product of the dance of the designer's intellect in an architectural film that doesn't miss a beat.
By Norman Weinstein
July 22, 2011
How many documentaries about architects deeply penetrate the design of a single building? Consider the example of Frank Lloyd Wright. Without counting the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s crazed hagiography of Wright, there are 17 documentaries about Wright and his architecture available currently on DVD. After having viewed around half of them, let me assure you that Wright’s biography trumps in-depth analysis of his architecture by an alarming ratio. Even in the case where ostensibly the design analysis is front and center, say the Fallingwater documentary narrated by the site’s impeccably knowledgeable director, Lynda Waggoner, the drama of Wright’s communication with client Edgar Kaufman seems the leitmotif keeping the documentary’s storyline rolling. As Wright insisted that Fallingwater was “of the hill, not on the hill,” a Wright documentary has long needed to be overwhelmingly a film of his architecture, with lesser focus upon being on the architect’s tumultuous bio.
That is why I’m so impressed by “Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum,” the collaborative film from architecture critic Neil Levine, author of The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and filmmaker Timothy Sakamoto [also available in Special Edition]. Levine weighs in for the film’s 90 minutes as the sole talking head, a likely recipe for disaster since most of Levine’s career has been in Harvard’s staid classrooms. But from the opening minute you become immediately aware that Levine takes himself lightly, Wright at his word with a proper grain of salt, and constantly helps you navigate the Guggenheim Museum through stages of its construction and recent restoration with panache. Levine’s manner of interpreting the Guggenheim is best summed up by identifying Levine as a “kuchleffel.” That Yiddish word translates literally as “cooking ladle,” but often means in conversation “a person always stirring the pot.” Rather than simply and pedantically underscoring Wright’s possible design rationales, the bane of many architectural documentaries, Levine raises some usefully bothersome questions. How did Wright re-design the Guggenheim in response to the severe strictures imposed by NYC’s zoning regulations? How was Wright able to transcend his oft stated disdain for the museum’s art collection and work so assiduously and lovingly to showcase the likes of abstract Kandinsky? Even more daunting, for a professed hater of New York City, how was Wright able to so seamlessly invite and integrate the city street life into the museum?
When Levine does assert his sureties about Wright’s design, he underscores his points by walking the museum in a way that Sakamoto’s camera sensitively and imaginatively captures. Rather than locking himself into Levine as static talking professor against the museum as backdrop, Sakamoto uses jump-cuts, ghost-images, slow and accelerated action to create the illusion that Levine is enthusiastically walking/prancing/near-dancing in syncopation to his seemingly improvised narration. As Levine shares his excitement about the Guggenheim’s design, starting at the top floor – as Wright wished all museum attendees to do when viewing exhibits – you feel pulled along by the swerving force of gravity and Levine’s excitement to the ground level lobby. The energy-field of Wright’s design, the gleaming ramped vortex uplifting both art and ourselves as art appreciators, is re-created so the dynamic experience of moving through the architecture is nearly palatable.
Since the DVD format might soon become passé, designers of architectural websites would do well to study this pluperfect documentary. An architectural walk-through on film need not be as sterile as a BIM animation. An academic lecture need not be a turgid clash of professorial ego and architectural ego. Look at great architecture as the product of the dance of the designer’s intellect, and an architectural film reflecting that stance won’t miss a beat.
Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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The star of “Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum”
“Frank Lloyd Wright's