Top 10 Movies About Architecture

Digital Documentaries About Buildings and Architecture Themes

From inspiration to construction, architecture is a rich source of conflict, adventure, and high emotion. We love the documentary and educational movies in this list because they take us inside the dramatic world of building design. These are not the just-for-fun skyscraper thrillers of fiction. Instead, these films teach and entertain, telling the true stories of how great buildings are made. For more terrific documentaries, also see our list of Top Movies About Architects.

Note: Movies come in a variety of digital formats, including tape (e.g., VHS), disc (e.g., DVD), download (e.g., iTune), subscription streaming (e.g., Hulu, Netflix), video on demand (e.g., MUBI), and cable on-demand.

01
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Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings & Legacy in Japan

Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan
Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Karen Severns and Koichi Mori
Year: 2004
Running Time: 126 minutes

The word "obsession" seems always to be linked with geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's obsession with the East probably solidified in 1905 when the young 30-something architect visited the Far East for the first time. From 1917-1922, Wright lived and worked in Japan, designing more than a dozen buildings that influenced both the builders in Japan and America's own thinking about 20th century design. Buy from Amazon »

02
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Studio Gang Architects: Aqua Tower

Video cover of Studio Gang Architects: Aqua Tower
Video cover of Studio Gang Architects: Aqua Tower. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Tom Piper
Year: 2009
Running Time: 27 minutes

Aqua Tower in Chicago, Illinois is one of the most striking residential skyscrapers of 2010. This film inaugurated the building that has become a turning point for the career of Jeanne Gang and her Studio Gang.

Filmmaker Tom Piper has a collection of films for the Checkerboard Film Foundation, including

Source: Checkerboard Film Foundation [accessed December 5, 2013]

  Buy from Amazon »

03
of 10
Bill Nye The Science Guy: Architecture

Bill Nye The Science Guy: Architecture
Bill Nye The Science Guy: Architecture. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Bill Nye is not just for kids, although his energetic enthusiasm sometimes exhausts me. This educator's whirlwind examination of "the science and art of architecture" covers everything—infrastructure, planning, looking at things, types of drawings (elevation, section, and plan), and how pagoda design absorbs earthquake shocks. His reading of Three Little Pigs story is riotously funny.

Nye explains that architecture is "way more than just designing buildings," and that's the truth. The Science Guy's videos are often found in public libraries, but having Bill in your digital library might be great fun for you and the kids. Buy from Amazon »

04
of 10
Coast Modern

Cover of Coast Modern - Three Generations of Inspired Living - Digital Film
Coast Modern - Three Generations of Inspired Living - Digital Film. Video cover photo courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome
Year: 2012
Running Time: 55 minutes

From Los Angeles, California to Vancouver, Washington, these filmmakers explore what has come to be known as West Coast Modern Architecture. In southern California these sleek homes are often called Desert Modern. "Stepping inside the most inspired dwellings on the west coast," says the official website, "we feel how the light and space of a classic Modernist home can work in synergy with the natural environment." Very West Coast. Very Modern.

Source: Coast Modern website [accessed December 11, 2013] Buy from Amazon »

05
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Schindler's Houses

Video Cover of Schindler's Houses (2007) Directed by Heinz Emigholz
Schindler's Houses (2007) Directed by Heinz Emigholz. Video cover photo courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Heinz Emigholz
Year: 2007
Running Time: 99 minutes

Architect Rudolf Schindler (NOT the Schindler's List Schindler) is known for his modern architecture in southern California, including the Gisela Bennati House, an early example of A-Frame architecture. German director Heinz Emigholz has created a largely silent documentary, taking us inside dozens of Schindler houses in the Los Angeles area, allowing us to experience the architectural space without commentary.

This interesting filmmaker has explored the works of other architects and engineers, including Louis Sullivan and Adolf Loos.

Buy from Amazon »

06
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Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Reimagining Lincoln Center and the High Line

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Reimagining Lincoln Center and the High Line
Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Reimagining Lincoln Center and the High Line. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Muffie Dunn and Tom Piper
Year: 2012
Running Time: 54 minutes

Architect Liz Diller and the firm of diller scofidio + renfro have often "reimagined" structures that are already built, including these two major New York City spaces.

Also by Muffie Dunn

Jean Nouvel: Guthrie Theater, 2008, 28 minutes
Buy on Amazon

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota was designed by French architect and Pritzker Laureate Jean Nouvel, whom we call the Architect of Light and Shadow. This film takes you within the theater building to nose around the backstage areas and walk the cantilevered deck over the Mississippi River.

Source: Checkerboard Film Foundation [accessed December 5, 2013] Buy from Amazon »

07
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A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture

A Sampler of Alternative Homes - Approaching Sustainable Architecture
A Sampler of Alternative Homes - Approaching Sustainable Architecture. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Producer: Kelly Hart
Year: 1998; 2006
Running Time: 115 minutes

Your contractor tells you that wood frame construction it the ONLY way to build a house. Think again. Kelly Hart introduces you to alternative construction methods, like straw bale, adobe, and other earth architecture. Kelly and his wife, Rosana, are the kinds of adventurous people who have raised llamas, been perfectly happy living in a bus (they call it a "Rolling Shelter"), and built a home from bags. They are totally into the environment. Green architecture methods are constantly changing, and this DVD may need an update, but if you know nothing about the subject, Kelly will be glad to give you a heads up.

Sources: Hart websites -- Would You Like to Live in a Sustainable, Economical House? at Hartworks.com; Dream Green Homes; and Green Home Building[accessed December 5, 2013]

  Buy from Amazon »

08
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Urbanized

Video cover of the film Urbanized, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit
Video cover of the film Urbanized. Image courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Gary Hustwit
Year: 2011
Running Time: 85 minutes

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit's interest in design has spanned three films—Helvetica (a 2007 film about the ubiquitous font), Objectified (a 2009 documentary about product design), and now Urbanized, about the design of cities and the New Urbanism. Urbanized examines the subject in a way that The New York Times calls "fascinating" and "idea-packed."

"...have you heard about the bike lanes of Bogotá, Colombia? About the walkways threaded through the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town? About the new housing projects that are replacing the informal settlements in Santiago, Chile? All of that was news to me, but even viewers with deep knowledge of modern urban planning are likely to learn something from the carefully selected images and thoughtful interviews that make up most of 'Urbanized.'
—A. O. Scott, The New York Times, October 27, 2011

Sources: About the Film, official website of Urbanized: A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit; The Design of Cities, Intelligent or Otherwise by A. O. Scott, The New York Times, October 27, 2011 [accessed December 5, 2013]

  Buy from Amazon »

09
of 10
Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation

Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, A film by Stefan Haupt
Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, A film by Stefan Haupt. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Stefan Haupt
Year: 2012 (English subtitles)
Running Time: 90 minutes

If you didn't get a chance to see the magnificent story on the CBS 60 Minutes television show (God's Architect), you can take a tour of Antoni Gaudi's unfinished Barcelona cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, in this documentary directed by Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt. Buy from Amazon »

10
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Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture

From the film Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, the architect and the Auditorium Building
From the film Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, the architect and the Auditorium Building. Image courtesy Amazon.com

Director: Mark Richard Smith
Year: 2010
Running Time: 97 minutes

Okay, so Louis Sullivan is an architect and should be in our list of Top  Movies About Architects. But the influential Chicago designer IS modern American architecture. This award-winning documentary tells the story of the man who not only built America's first skyscrapers, but suggested that the new type of building have its own aesthetic, that the form should follow the function. Buy from Amazon »

And Just One More....

Even architects are making films these days. Angel Borrego Cubero's 2013 documentary called "The Competition" is about a 2008 design competition including starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel. The film reveals just how the sausage is made in doing architecture. Films like these are often found in architecture and design film festivals. We recommend you seek them out.