Architecture is not merely the design and construction of buildings; it’s a testament to human creativity, innovation, and the shaping of our environments. Great architects, throughout history, have left indelible marks on our landscapes, pushing the boundaries of design and imagination. Their works, often iconic, stand as both functional structures and artistic expressions. If you’re fascinated by the world of architecture, the stories behind these architectural marvels, and the minds that brought them to life, then you’re in for a treat. Architecture documentaries are a great way to learn, as you can gain knowledge while enjoying a relaxing and enjoyable viewing experience.
Today, we recommend some documentaries about architects. These documentaries introduce the design philosophies and working processes of some great architects, and we believe that you will gain a lot from watching them. Please note that some documentaries may not be popular, and you may not have come across them in other documentary recommendation lists.
10 Must-See Documentaries about Great Architects & Their Works
贝聿铭与一座古城 M. Pei and His Old Town
About: This documentary introduces the life of Ieoh Ming Pei, who was born in Guangzhou on April 26, 1917, to a prominent Suzhou family. In 1935, he embarked on a journey to the United States to study, pursuing his passion for architecture at Pennsylvania State University.
The documentary explores Pei’s involvement in the design of the Suzhou Museum and delves into the challenges and stories that emerged during the design process.
Why you should watch: In this documentary, you can see how Mr. Pei thinks, designs, and, most importantly, communicates with the client. His dedication to architectural design truly impresses the client. He seeks innovation, change, and is skilled at persuading the client. Fortunately, Suzhou Museum didn’t use bricks and tiles for its roof; otherwise, it would have looked much more inconsistent. Thanks to Mr. Pei’s unwavering commitment.
梁思成 林徽因 Liang Sicheng & Lin Huiyin
About: Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, this pair of architectural scholars and spouses, have gradually come into the public eye many years after their passing. Together, they traveled from Cornell to University of Pennsylvania, then to Europe, Northeast China, and finally to Beijing. In their lives, they traveled ten provinces to survey ancient wooden structures spanning a thousand years, and facing the difficulties of moving south during the fires of war.
People tell stories of their extraordinary family backgrounds and knowledge, legends of her beauty, talent, and love, and lament the infatuation and attachment he had for an ancient city half a century ago.
Why you should watch: In this documentary, we will see the education and life inspiration provided by the older generation to their children. We will be moved by the steadfastness of these two architectural scholars in their pursuit of life’s interests and ambitions. We can also catch a glimpse of that turbulent era. If we look back on the history of twentieth-century China, it’s not hard to see that it was an astonishingly wasteful century. The land was broken and chaotic, and even with the talent and superior social status of Liang and Lin. It seemed they would vanish without a trace in the maelstrom of Chinese society.
建筑慢慢 The Mindful Architects
About: The documentary uses the examples of Chinese architects from Taiwan, including Jiang Wenyuan, Liao Weili, Huang Shengyuan, and Zeng Zhiwei, to reflect on their architectural perspectives and explore some larger issues.
Jiang Wenyuan’s urban mountain-building challenges architects to pursue a spiritual dimension and technical breakthroughs, even in the inevitable era of urban density, without breaking the connection with nature. While in Liao Weili’s architectural works, we find a complex yet modern Taiwan, providing perspectives on Taiwan’s chaos and possibilities for the coexistence of the sacred and the secular. Under the guidance of Huang Shengyuan, we discover how architects can be so socially conscious. He refuses to let architecture become a commercial operation serving a minority, Huang Shengyuan aspires to leave various possibilities for different social strata. At the same time, inner tranquility and stability have always been the long-term pursuit of Zeng Zhiwei. Therefore, his experimental and unconventional architecture aims to help people experience the healing and stability that nature can provide.
Why you should watch: Architects do more than just build houses. They integrate the functions of a city, connecting people with each other, with nature, and with the city itself, making the physical structures of architecture a vessel for people’s daily lives and spirits. In this documentary, you’ll learn that beauty doesn’t necessarily have to be new or grand; it can be old, bearing the accumulation of time; it can be empty, providing freedom; it can open our senses to feel the wind, light, and scents. Without showing off skills, without leaving a trace, allowing people to naturally and gracefully live within it, each enjoying their own pleasures, this is the charm of the ‘slow architecture (建筑慢慢)’ that they represents.
Tadao Ando: Samurai Architect
About: Unexpectedly, the renowned architect Tadao Ando, known for the Zen-like qualities of his work, in his seventies, starts the conversation with a burst of energy, revealing his unique way of training the mind and willpower. He offers a fearless interpretation of youth: ‘Anything is possible.’ Without having attended college, deeply immersed in boxing and self-taught in architecture, he shares his journey from a moment of enlightenment at Nara’s temples. Then, he presents his bold ideas: buildings on water, beneath lotus ponds, hidden within islands. He transforms small houses into vast worlds, creating an ideal kingdom where humans breathe with nature. Despite facing opposition from millions, he persists with every conviction, much like a warrior in battle. Finally, he comes to Shanghai to build a theater, challenging the limits of difficulty and economic feasibility. The warrior cannot be defeated, as his motto goes, ‘We only live once.’
Why you should watch: After watching this documentary, you’ll love Tadao Ando even more. He’s such a vibrant person, filled with ideals and willing to invest effort in them. He’s also refreshingly humorous and interesting, with genuine curiosity and courage. He says that once a building is completed, it comes to life. And he emphasizes the importance of integrating architecture with nature, using sunlight to give buildings a sense of life. You can feel that sense of life while watching. Every one who watched this documentary would be curious if Ando would eventually dismantle the glass of the Church of the Light.
About: As every architecture enthusiast knows, Bjarke Ingels is a prominent Danish architect known for his innovative and groundbreaking architectural designs. He is the founder and creative director of the architecture firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), which has gained international recognition for its distinctive and ambitious projects. This documentary follows Ingels over a period of several years, providing insights into his architectural philosophy, design process, and personal life.
Why you should watch: In BIG TIME, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some of Ingels most iconic projects and see how he and his firm, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), approach complex architectural challenges. The documentary explores his vision for sustainable and innovative architecture and how he navigates the world of contemporary architecture. Just as he says: “The greatest thing about being an architect is……to build buildings!”
My Architect: A Son’s Journey
About: The film is a personal exploration by Nathaniel Kahn, the son of the renowned architect Louis Kahn, who died when Nathaniel was just 11 years old. The film is essentially Nathaniel Kahn’s journey of discovery as he seeks to understand his father, whom he barely knew. It’s a film about love and art, as well as a story of betrayal and forgiveness. From the underground corridors of Pennsylvania Station in Philadelphia to the bustling National Parliament House in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, amidst these magnificent and enduring works, the audience seem to witness the astonishing creativity of this architect, recognized by many architectural historians as one of the most influential geniuses of the late 20th century.
Why you should watch: This film offers a unique opportunity to gain insights into his design philosophy, creative process, and the impact of his architectural creations. “My Architect” examines how architecture shapes lives, families, and legacies. It underscores the profound impact that an architect’s work can have, not only on the built environment but also on the people who interact with it. Besides, the documentary is a beautifully crafted piece of filmmaking, combining stunning visuals of Louis Kahn’s architecture with emotional storytelling.
Mies on Scene
About: “Mies on Scene” is a documentary film that focuses on the renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his iconic work in Barcelona. It likely delves into his influence on modern architecture and his significant contributions to the field. The film is about The Barcelona Pavilion, a masterpiece conceived by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in 1929 to showcase their groundbreaking ideas, forever altered the course of architectural history.
Why you should watch: First of all, this film has splendid pictures filling with stunning scenes. If you’re an architecture enthusiast, you can’t miss this film. The Barcelona German Pavilion is a grand artistic statement, one that contains a profound declaration about architecture and its traditions that cannot be found as deeply in any other building of the 20th century.
Rem Koolhaas: A Kind Of Architect
About: This documentary chronicles the journey from Rem Koolhaas’s graduation project Exodus, his stunning work Delirious New York, the founding of OMA and AMO, and the introduction of various architectural works. A significant portion of the film is dedicated to the CCTV building, interspersed with interviews with various partners and architects. Most of the time, the documentary approaches Koolhaas’s life and work from a more indirect perspective, rather than directly focusing on his identity as an architect. The film is imbued with OMA’s distinctive collage and unconventional aesthetic, which is in line with Koolhaas’s own preferences. It’s no wonder that Koolhaas himself has declared it as his favorite documentary.
Why you should watch: “Architecture isn’t necessarily defined by the exterior of a building…in that shape was an inevitable consequence of a set of circumstances.” Many designs in modernism often focus solely on functionality, the architect’s life philosophy, and aesthetic pursuits. This sometimes becomes overly utopian. True architectural design, like that of Koolhaas, should be forward-thinking and require a deeper understanding of the city and society. There is an urgency in addressing the current state of affairs. Architecture is about city.
A Day with Zaha Hadid
About: It’s a film purely about Zaha Hadid discussing her work while touring a retrospective exhibition of her work Zaha Hadid has Arrived at Vienna’s MAK.
Why you should watch: Although Zaha Hadid herself is one of the most famous architects in the world, in this film, she didn’t use sophisticated terms to explain her designs. As a result, this documentary is highly recommended to those who are interested in architecture and design but don’t have a solid knowledge. However, it is still a masterpiece for anyone, as long as you appreciate her works.
About: This film captures a group of visionary designers and artists who create their ideal dwellings. Starting from an eco-friendly perspective, they aim to build smaller living spaces with smarter designs. The smaller the house, the less burden it places on people. The goal is to address housing in modern society while prioritizing sustainability. Some of these structures, compared to traditional “homes,” resemble avant-garde art installations, full of endless surprises.
Why you should watch: The film documents several designers who create microspaces for people to reside in. They have unique insights into how microspaces are valued in society compared to larger living spaces. Microspaces are not just about the physical volume; they can also represent an understanding of the distance between people, relationships between individuals and society, a form of resistance against mainstream society, or even a completely new way of living. One of the most memorable moments is when someone wears an inflatable suit, highlighting that the definition of home can be as simple as a layer of plastic sheeting separating the outside world from oneself.
These ten documentaries offer a captivating journey into the world of architecture, showcasing the vision, creativity, and dedication of renowned architects from different eras and corners of the globe. Whether you’re a seasoned architect, an aspiring designer, or simply someone with a passion for the beauty of human-built spaces, these films provide an insightful and inspiring look at the minds behind some of the world’s most iconic structures.
If you have any questions about these documentaries, or have more films to recommend, please feel free to leave your comment. In any case you need 3D rendering services for your architectural design project, please also don’t hesitate to contact us.