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Great Expectations

by Jesper Watchmeister, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2007
DVD, 52 mins., color
Sale/DVD: $390; rental/DVD: $75

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini
University of Wales, Newport


This documentary provides a fascinating journey through a series of visionary architecture projects that aimed to improve man’s life by changing the society he evolves in, his relationships to his surrounding and others. At the end of the 19th century, industrialization and rapid technological progress encouraged the development of a new spirit of ideas and creativity and the later consequences of two World Wars were an opportunity to test them out.

The series starts with the spiritual buildings of Rudolf Steiner constructed in 1919 and 1928 in Austria. He aimed at solving the daily problems of humankind by bringing together the scientific and the spiritual, applying his ‘anthropology’ concept to architecture projects. And it sounds as though his Goetheanum architectural models have a potential for the future in that they oppose the functionalism principles which have tended to reduce everything to terms of function. Small ‘Steiner’ villages are still being developed today.

The film moves on after the World Wars with the Unité d’Habitation of Le Corbusier that were built in 1952 and 1960 in France to cope with the shortage of houses. Efficiency and function were the chief preoccupations at the time——efficiency and functionalism not only in the actual construction of the habitat but also in the ways in which its inhabitants would live their life. For Le Corbusier it was a response to criticism made against the depressing tower blocks built in the USA. Addressing the same problems, Levitts & Son built between 1947and 1951 Levittown, in Long Island. These pre-fabricated houses gave for the first time the luxury to become house owner to the American lower social class. In 1958 Brasil, Oscar Niemeyer was building his functionalist city Brasilia that was planned for car users only. Influenced by Le Corbusier, he wanted to create a socialist city that would give to all its inhabitants equal access to a wide range of services.

The documentary then ventures with Peter Cook, member of the Archigram, who designed his Instant Cities between 1960 and 1974. This was an anti-puritanism act, opposing the functionalism that dominated the era. He carried on his atypical projects in 2001 with Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria. It houses a museum and has become and icon in itself thanks to its mysterious container like shape. The interaction between the building and the city is an important feature in this design. The documentary moves too briefly on to Buckminster Fuller’s lightweight Geodesic domes presented at the World’s fair Expo 1967.

Moshie Safdie presented at the same World’s fair his Lego like Habitat 67 of which the aim was to re-invent the apartment building by creating many orientations and, thus, bring a sense of uniqueness to each flat within it. However, like the previous functionalist projects, Sfadie aimed at a mass production and middle income families - not really achieved. Antti Lovag from the 1970s designed curved surfaces buildings such as the Palais Bulles in Theoule sur mer, France. He attempted to re-invent spaces in architecture by claiming the need to understand better those of the human being that are not naturally horizontal, vertical with right angles. He does not move away from functionality in that the furniture is integrated, but it is also customised for the house as Lovag acknowledges the uniqueness of each space created for a particular kind of individual(s). The 1972 principle of a Supersurface following, which gives an alternative model for life on the earth, is the odd project out in that it seems to have been included in this series with very little thought put into it.

From then on, the documentary enters a series of eco-architecture projects beginning with Nine earth houses designed in 1993 by Peter Vetsch in Dietikon, Switzerland. His rounded houses are integrated into, subordinate to nature e.g. the garden becomes a good insulator by covering the house. In 1970 Arizona, Paolo Soleri designed the Arcosanti a functional eco-city to maximise people interaction and minimise the energy consumption and land use e.g. multi-use buildings, living next to one’s job. Based on the idea that man belongs to something bigger than himself, it encourages the development of multi-function communities. Finally, the Venus project of Jaque Fresco materialises the cities of the future. Similar to Brasilia in that it aims to work on a whole integrated system, the Venus project is based on the organic forms and functioning of the human body and each house/flat is customised for its inhabitants thanks to a completely mechanised construction.

Equality and accessibility are key words used throughout the documentary, but as time goes by the uniqueness of each human being and its interrelation with nature becomes also a central concern. The selected projects date from the end of the 19th century until today; thus, the responses to man’s problems have evolved unfortunately the documentary does neither stress nor substantiate enough the ways in which these visionary ideas attempted to adapt to new needs throughout time. And it makes it difficult for the viewer to relate a particular project to an overall context, unless he is already knowledgeable about it.

The documentary covers all sorts of social and eco architecture projects, and it is comforting to see that Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum projects have not been omitted. Being built on an anti-functionalist model in an era dominated by functionalism, Steiner’s designs are often relegated to the shelves. This series gives no benefit of the doubt on the success of all these projects as no mention is made of their failures - e.g. it took years to populate Brasilia, a car driven city built in a poor country - their lifespan and reasons for not having been widely replicated.

The quality of the soundtrack and subtitles is rather poor; consequently, if viewers do not concentrate enough, they can easily miss out the name and title of a project. Archival footages link the various projects to a set of succinct historical, social, or geographical context.

All in all, Great Expectations is a very interesting documentary, but could be definitely improved.



Updated 1st April 2008

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