Monday, January 15, 2018

Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but she understood American architecture. While most people recognize the protagonist of The Fountainhead was transparently inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, fewer understand his mentor, Henry Cameron was largely based on Wright’s first boss and formative influence, Louis Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s uniquely American aesthetic was overlooked in favor of his great rival’s hodge-podge eclecticism. Sullivan’s life and the development of multi-story steel-frame buildings are chronicled in Manfred Kirchheimer’s Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (clip here) which opens this Friday in New York.

Tall starts by inviting the audience to look up and then explains how those buildings got so high. We get a nutshell explanation of traditional (and not so traditional) building techniques—post-and-lintel, arches, cantilevers—in order to establish the significance of steel frame building techniques.

Sullivan was definitely an early adopter. His skyscrapers (modest by our standards, but lofty in their day) also featured tasteful decorative elements that clearly shaped Wright’s aesthetics. Sullivan contributed significantly to the growth of Chicago, but his rival Daniel Burnham sabotaged his rise, by marginalizing his contribution to the World’s Columbian Exposition. To his credit, Kirchheimer is even-handed in his assessment of Burnham, praising some of his work, including the good old Flatiron Building (which you could argue is his most Sullivanesque building).

In Tall, Kirchheimer gives viewers context and insight to better appreciate the cityscapes surrounding them, which is a gift. Frankly, this film is getting its belated premiere theatrical run at a time when it is sorely needed. We are increasingly in danger of losing our collective cultural memory for music, literature and films that were previously considered classic. Architectural awareness has always ranked even lower in the collective consciousness. Yet, how impoverished are those who pass by the work of Wright, Sullivan, and Burnham, without understanding their artistic and functional significance.

Kirchheimer assembles a collage of striking architectural images, many archival, but a good deal were also captured by his battery of cinematographers: Zachary Alspaugh, Peter Rinaldi, and Taiki Sugioka. Tall also sounds great, thanks to his tasteful music choices, including selections of Miles Davis and Count Basie, as well as constantly-working character actor Dylan Baker’s warm but authoritative narration. The film is not biography per se, but it definitely establishes the tragic nature of Sullivan’s life and greatly humanizes Wright, who is often portrayed as a distant genius, staring off into the lofty heights, as icons are likely to do.

Tall is a highly accessible documentary, but it is also clearly the product of a thoughtful craftsman. It should definitely spur an increase in the understanding of and interest in architecture with general audiences, which would be enriching, since architecture is all around us. Very highly recommended, Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan opens this Friday (1/19) in New York, at the Metrograph.