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‘Architects on Film’ at the MFA
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After living through decades of Big Dig construction and disruption, the average Bostonian has developed a keener design knowledge and sensitivity. Today, with the Central Artery moving toward the finish line and a number of prominent architectural projects recently completed, in progress, or in the works, we’ve become more informed citizens of the architectural conversation, and in some cases the debate. The Museum of Fine Arts is expanding, the Institute of Contemporary Art is moving to new quarters, and a Museum of the City of Boston has been proposed. Institutional projects at universities and hospitals have added to this building boom.

Will these projects be appropriate or disharmonious? Will they be physically contentious or heroic or just visually insignificant? Will there be design delight or edifice envy? With new forms being added to old and new architecture, is Boston in danger of losing its physical essence? This essence can be described as a sense of history, a sense of human scale, and a patina of civic livability. Most would agree that Boston should not look like Chicago.

About 10 years ago, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I saw Judith Pearlman’s Bauhaus in America, part of a film series about architecture and design. Films about Frank Lloyd Wright and other prominent architects have always been well attended at the MFA, but a film on the Bauhaus was something else.

This German school (1919–1933) stressed the unification of art, design, and industry through modernism and functionality. Considered since its inception to be almost a holy grail of design, it has been the subject of many books and articles but few documentaries. The response to the Bauhaus in America was overwhelming: the MFA had to schedule several showings, and more than 1000 people came to see it. According to MFA film and concert program head Bo Smith, it was the first film on art or architecture at the MFA to have repeated showings. And it proved that there was a pent-up demand for design topics.

This makes a lot of sense, since Boston is one of the great centers of design in the US, with a large regenerating community. The graduate programs at Harvard and MIT produce a yearly crop of building architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. There are programs in undergraduate architecture or industrial design at Northeastern, the Boston Architectural Center, Mass College of Art and Wentworth Institute. Graphic design is studied at Boston University, Suffolk University's School of Art and Design, and many other colleges. Architectural firms and design consultancies add to the designer population.

Over the next month, the MFA is presenting a series of nine films documenting the works of important 20th-century architects. Many of these architects are shaping the institutional landscape of Boston. Norman Foster is designing the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts; Diller + Scofidio are creating the new Institute of Contemporary Art; Moshe Safdie designed the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and will be working on the Museum of the City of Boston; Frank Gehry recently completed the Ray and Maria Stata Center (2004) at MIT. Michael Blackwood has made more than 100 films on art and architecture since the late 1960s; he directed six of the films in the series.

Major architects (Frank Gehry suggests that there are perhaps 50 in the world) did not get to be major by being easy-going, loveable individuals. Most have huge egos, are eccentric at best, and often are difficult and even outrageous individuals — except, of course, to their clients. The problems of balancing large-scale creative achievement in a functional world while running a global business somewhat explain the personality difficulties. These documentaries smooth out some hard edges and make their subjects if not likable then at least understandable.

Donald Winkler’s Moshe Safdie, the Power of Architecture kicks off the series (January 12 at 8 pm; February 5 at 1:45 pm) with a rather over-warm look at the life and career of the Israeli-born, Canadian-raised American resident whose major office is in Somerville. He achieved fame at an extremely early age (29) by creating the then revolutionary Habitat for Expo ’67 in Montreal. The film follows him through the decades in Israel, Canada, and the United States. Unfortunately, the Peabody Essex Museum, one of his most resolved and beautiful projects, is given short shrift.

Frank Gehry: An Architecture of Joy (January 13 at 5:45 pm; January 21 at 11:30 am) focuses on Gehry's iconoclastic organic sculptured architecture during the 1990s. Visiting key works including his great Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and projects in Minneapolis and Berlin, Gehry joyfully discusses his approach. The film ends with the preliminary discussions at MIT that eventually resulted in the controversial and over-budget Stata Center.

Aberrant Architecture? Diller + Scofidio at the Whitney Museum (January 14 at 10:30 am) is about a couple — Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio — whose work has focused on architecture in an art-world setting. Considered intellectual even for architects, they exclude a futurist/techno approach with media-based work that attempts to expand conventional architectural boundaries. The film focuses on a tour of their retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Projects for the Eyebeam Atelier, the new art and technology museum in New York City, and the new Boston Institute of Contemporary Art are elegant solutions to difficult problems. Their new ICA will be a major landmark for Boston.

Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe (January 14 at 11:45 am; January 18 at 7 pm) looks at the contribution of the man who made "less is more" famous. One of the founders of Modernism and a former director of the Bauhaus, the German-born van der Rohe (1886–1969) is best known for his minimalist designs and great influence during the 20th century. His Seagram Building set the standard for glass-box modern structures during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The two-part documentary The State of Architecture at the Beginning of the 21st Century (January 15 at noon) records the meeting of major architecture figures including Rem Koolhaus, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl (architect of the MIT Swiss-cheese dormitory), and Elizabeth Diller at the retirement celebration of Bernard Tschumi, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. The discussion focuses upon a range of architecture and urbanism topics.

Iranian-born, English resident Zaha Hadid is considered the major woman architect in the world today, and she’s on every list of major architects. A Day with Zaha Hadid (January 19 at 3:10 pm; January 22 at 10:30 am) finds her at an exhibition in Vienna discussing her work of the last decade: art museums in Rome and Cincinnati, a BMW plant in Leipzig, a ski jump in Innsbruck, a science center in Wolfsburg.

Richard Meier in Rome: Building a Church in the City of Churches (January 19 at 2 pm; January 28 at 10:30 am) is about his white modernist Jubilee Church in a working-class suburb of Rome. Looking oddly like a brother of Frank Gehry, Meier does a walking tour of his favorite churches and squares in Rome’s neighborhoods that’s interspersed with a detailed visual description of his sail-inspired church. Álvaro Siza Transforming Reality (January 26 at 6 pm) is about Portugal’s most renowned modernist architect. After the fall of Portugal’s dictatorship, the melding of indigenous architectural forms with international ideas resulted in the Oporto School; Siza is its leading figure.

Mark Kidel’s Norman Foster (January 25 at 8 pm; February 2 at 4 pm) explores the life and work of the British master modernist up to the mid ’90s. Foster’s firm has completed a wide range of projects including the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, Stansted Airport in Essex, England, and the dome of the new Reichstag in Berlin. Besides Foster himself, the movie includes interviews with his partners and colleagues. The film demonstrates how Sir Norman’s firm is involved in technological innovations and forms dedicated to architectural detailing and craftsmanship.

Watching films about great architects gives us all the opportunity to evaluate the creative process. This MFA film series affords us a detailed picture of some of those who have been and will be shaping the Boston skyline.

Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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