Entertainment and Education Meet in These 11 Fascinating Design Documentaries

(banner image from “Urbanized”)

Everyone is pressing “play” on documentaries. In recent years, the genre has taken off like never before. Of course, documentaries have been around since 1922, when “Nanook of the North” was released – but often, they are viewed as in-school required viewing; not something the average person watches for fun. In 2019, a CBS News article deemed the current decade the Golden Age of documentary filmmaking, and the numbers line up. Documentarians quoted in the article partially credit the wave of popularity to streaming platforms – websites like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Prime push documentary titles on those who do not usually watch them, and it has worked. From viral hit “Tiger King” to high-grossing biopic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” documentaries are, undeniably, in demand.

If you haven’t jumped on the documentary train yet, this is your chance. Sure, most of the big documentary hits we hear about are crime or music based, but there are a selection of fantastic design documentaries out there, too, from biopics to behind-the-scenes explorations of city planning. We encourage you to take a night in and watch one of these fascinating, real-world films. 

Photo from IMDB

Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things (2015)

Directed by Matt D’Avella

Simply put, this documentary’s title speaks of itself. Documentarian and YouTuber Matt D’Avella tracks the journey of two self-proclaimed minimalists, previously known best for their books on living minimally. As the pair, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, travel across the country talking with professional minimalists, they uncover motivations behind the movement, such as a dissatisfaction with consumerism, care for the environment, and mental and social self care. In the country, the pair meet minimalist architect Frank Mascia, and discuss the impact of home architecture and design on our lives. In this clip, Mascia discusses the principal of “just enough.” Though the entire film is not based around architecture, the ideas and discussions throughout can be applied to all walks of life, including our buildings, homes, and decorating habits. 

WHERE TO WATCH: Netflix

Photo from Gary Hustwit

Urbanized (2011)

Directed by Gary Hustwit

“Urbanized” is probably the most expensive documentary on city planning out there. The documentary discusses the development, maintaining, and evolution of cities around the world. Featuring design icons such as Rem Koolhaas and Oscar Niemeyer, it is an exploration of the economic, social, environmental forces that create a modern city. It shares inside looks at urban planning studios and development, from sketches to models, and looks at footage of huge cities, from New York to Bogotá, and examines the histories, cultures, and stories behind the urbanization of these areas. .

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Vimeo

Photo by Salt Galata

Unfinished Spaces (2011)

Directed by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

When the National Art Schools in Cuba were commissioned and funded by Fidel Castro during his period of socialist leadership, the three young architects working on the project never expected that they would be working on it forty years later. In 1965, four years after the project began, the USSR, who became increasingly close with Cube during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deemed the buildings extraneous and opulent. When all funding ceased, the architects were out of work and scorned. For years afterward, two of the campus’ buildings were in use, while the others were poorly maintained and unfinished. In 2000, Castro himself invited the three original architects, Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto Gottard, back to Cuba to finish what they had begun. The film is a testament to the power of architecture, the dedication of architects, and the politicization of design. For those looking for an option that explores history and architecture, “Unfinished Spaces” may be the one for you.

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo by Gary Hustwit

Rams (2018)

Directed by Gary Hustwit

Funded through Kickstarter, this passion project from director Gary Hustwit is an intimate life into the life and thoughts of Dieter Rams, the legendary functionalist industrial designer. In it, Rams talks candidly about his work, his life, humanity, the future, and consumption. This beautifully shot film is a rare look at an extraordinary life, paired with a score by ambient musician Brian Eno.
WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo from PBS

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Directed by Jason Cohn

Narrated by actor James Franco, the Peabody Award-winning “Eames” tells the story of design power couple Charles and Ray Eames, known best for their contributions to modernism through industrial design. Although both subjects have passed, their story is told through interviews with colleagues, grandchildren, and historians. For admirers of the Eames Office, this is quintessential viewing. 

WHERE TO WATCH: free on Vimeo

Photo from NPR

Pina (2011)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Call it a documentary, call it an art film. Whichever way you categorize it, “Pina,” one of Wayne’s favorites, is an ode to German dancer Pina Bausch. The titular choreographer passed away during the creation of the film, but her legacy is brought to life by her dancers, interviews, and incredible locales and sets, including the German Wuppertal Suspension Railway, with scenes filmed in its railways and cars. Director Wim Wenders’ harmonization of architecture and dance makes for a mesmerizing and emotional piece of work. 

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo from HotDocs

City Dreamers (2018)

Directed by Joseph Hillel

This documentary looks at the lives of four prominent woman architects and city planners: Phyllis Lambert, Denise Scott Brown, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, who all entered the field after World War II and made significant contributions to the field despite its patriarchal nature. They were ahead of their time in urban planning, sustainability, and inclusivity. While this film is not as gripping as some of the others on our list, it is one of the only architecture documentaries that focuses solely on the accomplishments of the amazing women in the field, who are often overlooked.

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo from Domus

Barbicania (2016)

Directed by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine

In London’s Barbican Estate, one of the primary Brutaist buildings in the world, documentarian duo Bêka and Lemoine keep a visual diary of the lifestyles and personalities of the many residents of the iconic apartment complex. This film is a light and quirky depiction of an architectural wonder and the people inside.

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Vimeo on Demand

Photo from The Guardian

REM (2016)

Directed by Tomas Koolhaas

Compiling footage from four years of international travel with his father, Rem Koolhaas’ son Tomas directs this portrait of his father traveling around the world, overlaid with voiceovers from Koolhaas himself. The film purposefully does not dig too deep into the ins-and-outs of Koolhaas’ architectural world. But more so focuses on him as a person and his philosophies, thoughts, clients. In the film, Tomas checks in on tenants of Koolhass’ private residences, and those who visit his public structures. Like many instances of children documenting their parents, the film can be too sentimental for some, but an interesting watch for Koolhaas admirers nonetheless.

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo from Chicago International Film Festival

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

This renowned documentary by Syndey Pollack, Academy Award winning director of “Out of Africa” (1985) and over twenty other films, is an exploration of the life and career of rule-breaking architect Frank Gehry. Because Pollack was a close friend of Gehry’s, and connected in the art world, he is able to capture Gehry’s day-to-day processes and thoughts on camera, and discuss with Gehry – and his celebrity admirers – the impact of his work, worldview, and approach. While he doumanty focuses more on adoring opinions than critical analysis, it is a charming insight into a celebrated architect, told from the honest point of view of a close friend.

WHERE TO WATCH: rent on Amazon Prime

Photo from The New York Times

Big Time (2017)

Directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder

Following superstar Danish architect Bjarke Ingels as he designs the new World Trade Center in New York City, this film is an uncensored look at the life of a design celebrity. Cameras follow Ingels from studios to events to site visits to brain scans, as he deals with societal pressures, his personal life, a concussion, and more, in footage from 2009-2016. 

WHERE TO WATCH: buy on YouTube

Photo from Diseno Yucatan

(HONORABLE MENTION) Interior Motives (2019)

Directed by Natalie Shirinian 

Up and coming director Natalie Shirinian explores the intersection between fashion and interiors, with interviews from Rick Owens to Miles Redd of Oscar de la Renta home. This 30 minute watch is notably one of the only pieces of media to explore the conversion of these two industries in depth, and gives an eye-opening look into designer home collections. 

WHERE TO WATCH: free on Vimeo