'Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan': Film Review

Courtesy of A Cinema Guild/Streetwise Films
An idiosyncratic, engaging look at a turning point in architecture's history.

Manfred Kirchheimer's doc charts the literal rise of tall buildings in America.

The latest of NYC documentarian Manfred Kirchheimer's films to be given its theatrical premiere several years late, Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan is officially a 2006 film but was under construction, as it were, for around 16 years. The most broadly appealing of the bunch, it offers an eccentric but accessible look at American high-rise history. Even architecture students for whom this is old news should appreciate the wealth of archival stuff here; the rest of the doc art house crowd should enjoy it even more.

With a movie whose one-man-show assembly spans a generation, one might expect some stylistic quirks. Tall feels of a piece, but like the kind of idiosyncratic educational film one might have encountered in the '60s or '70s. It begins in unhurried fashion, with a tone poem-like montage of silent, nearly empty urban vistas that suggest a city that was constructed from scratch before the people moved in. Slowly, we start to get glimpses of the inhabitants of all this glass and steel and brick — and then the pic begins in earnest, with narrator Dylan Baker quietly rhapsodizing about "castles in the air, reaching for heaven."

Though Louis Sullivan — the "father of modernism," who popularized the credo "form follows function" — will be a presence throughout the film, this is no narrow biography. We begin with some insight into what made tall buildings possible. Before 1850 or so, five stories was about as tall as a building could get, for the simple reason that nobody was willing to climb higher on a daily basis. Once elevators were introduced (it took surprisingly long for builders to see their potential), property owners realized they didn't have to discount their upper floors anymore to compensate for the climb. Soon, they were adding as many extra floors as they could manage.

By the last quarter of the 1800s, New York City newspaper magnates were one-upping each other to see whose headquarters could rise higher. But over in Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed so much property it practically guaranteed the city would be a showcase for the new kinds of buildings made possible by elevators and steel construction. Sullivan arrived on the scene, and in a few years partnered up with Dankmar Adler. Their firm became known for vast theater buildings, like one that housed the Civic Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A rival Chicago firm, Burnham and Root, helped flesh out the style of what would come to be called The Chicago School. In the film's telling, Daniel Hudson Burnham becomes something of a nemesis for Sullivan — a man more willing to compromise his vision when clients wanted to get in on the design process. Burnham left behind some glories (he designed NYC's Flatiron Building and helped shape the National Mall in Washington), but his involvement with the Chicago World's Fair helped muddy up the emerging American architecture. Kirchheimer looks at the many dressed-to-impress buildings of the Fair and sees innumerable wrongheaded allusions to the Old World. Such kitsch would spread across the nation, competing with the more original ornamentation associated with Sullivan.

Sullivan endured hard times after his early successes, and eventually came to rely on the kindness of Frank Lloyd Wright, the onetime employee who continued to revere him, even after he became far more famous than his master. Kirchheimer watches as Art Deco and the International Style rise up to replace the Chicago Style — the latter, in the view of Tall, a plague of cheap prefab grids that oppress city dwellers where Sullivan's street-level adornments entranced them.

Production company: Streetwise
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Director-screenwriter-producer-director of photography-editor: Manfred Kirchheimer

79 minutes