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The Best Architecture Documentaries on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon

7 min read

Documentaries about architecture provide viewers with a profound insight into the minds of designers, the evolution of architectural movements, and the socio-political contexts that shape our built environment. These films often merge stunning visual storytelling with in-depth analysis—allowing for an exploration of both the aesthetic and the theoretical dimensions of architecture. From intimate portrayals of legendary architects to deep dives into transformative design movements, the best architecture documentaries shed light on the intricacies of the field—illustrating how spaces and structures influence and reflect broader societal narratives. Whether profiling individual pioneers or delving into broader design philosophies, these films offer invaluable perspectives for both enthusiasts and professionals alike.

All Time Favorites

My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003)

Directed by Nathaniel Kahn, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey” is a poignant exploration into the life and career of the influential architect Louis Kahn. This documentary provides a dual perspective—merging the professional accolades and architectural contributions of Louis Kahn with the deeply personal journey of Nathaniel Kahn as he grapples with the enigmatic nature of his late father.

Throughout the film, Nathaniel interviews his father’s colleagues, students, and lovers in a quest to better understand both the man and the architect.

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Abstract: The Art of Design (2017)

“Abstract: The Art of Design” is a documentary series available on Netflix—which delves into the creative processes and philosophies of designers from various disciplines. Directed by various filmmakers across its episodes, one standout episode profiles the renowned architect Bjarke Ingels.

Throughout the series, viewers are given a behind-the-scenes look at the design process, the challenges faced by designers, and the inspirations that drive their work.

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (2008)

Directed by Eric Bricker, “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman” chronicles the life and work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Shulman’s evocative photographs played a seminal role in promoting and disseminating modernist architectural designs, and his images have become synonymous with mid-century American architecture.

This documentary film explores the symbiotic relationship between photography and architecture and the role Shulman played in shaping the public’s perception of modernist design.

Oscar Niemeyer: Life is a Breath of Air (2007)

This documentary paints a vivid portrait of Oscar Niemeyer—one of Brazil’s most iconic architects—celebrated for his distinctive futuristic and sinuous designs. The film offers a blend of personal reflections, interviews, and a survey of his landmark structures—illuminating Niemeyer’s unique architectural language and his philosophy that “life is a breath of air.”

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016)

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” profiles the formidable journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. The documentary provides a detailed account of Jacobs’ opposition to the urban planning policies of Robert Moses—especially his top-down approach to redevelopment in New York City. Through archival footage and expert interviews, the film illustrates the ideological battle over urban development during the mid-20th century and underscores Jacobs’ enduring influence on urban planning theory.

Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future (2016)

Produced and directed by Peter Rosen, this documentary explores the life and legacy of the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen’s groundbreaking designs—such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport—exemplify his innovative approach to modernist architecture. Through a combination of archival footage, interviews, and contemporary filming, the documentary offers insights into Saarinen’s design ethos and the cultural impact of his architectural studio.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

Directed by Chad Freidrichs, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” delves into the history of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis. Once heralded as the future of public housing, the complex quickly fell into disrepair and became emblematic of the failures of urban renewal policies in post-war America.

The documentary employs archival footage, personal testimonies, and expert analysis to explore the socio-economic and political factors that contributed to the rise and eventual demolition of Pruitt-Igoe.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)

Produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, this two-part documentary provides an in-depth look at the life and work of prominent figure Frank Lloyd Wright. The film combines archival footage, photos, interviews, and expert commentary to explore the evolution of Wright’s architectural philosophy and design—as well as the controversies and challenges he faced during his career.

Ken Burns, known for his signature style of using archival materials to weave together historical narratives, creates a compelling portrait of Wright. The documentary delves into both the professional and personal aspects of Wright’s life—from iconic buildings like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum to the complexities of his personal relationships and struggles.

Eames: The Architect and The Painter (2011)

Directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, Eames: The Architect and The Painter provides an intimate look into the lives of Charles and Ray Eames and their remarkable contributions to various fields of design. Narrated by James Franco, the film delves into the professional aspects of their partnership and their hidden internal life. It combines archival material, interviews, and insights into their iconic designs and the Eames Office.

While the documentary focuses on both Charles and Ray, it provides valuable insights into Ray’s crucial role in their collaborative work. Given that Charles often overshadowed Ray in popular discourse, the documentary does a commendable job highlighting Ray Eames’s contributions and the dynamic between the couple.

For architecture lovers interested in the Eameses’ work and personal life, this documentary is an essential watch to better understand their design philosophy, work ethic, and the influence they’ve had on modern design.

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio (2010)

Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas, “Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio” delves into the life and work of the late architect Samuel Mockbee and his dedication to creating socially responsible architecture. The documentary movie focuses on the Rural Studio—an architectural program Mockbee co-founded at Auburn University.

This program’s mission is to provide students with real-world experience by designing and constructing projects that serve impoverished communities in rural Alabama. Throughout the documentary, viewers are introduced to Mockbee’s vision of “citizen architecture”—where architects have a duty to use their skills for the greater societal good.

Through interviews, on-site footage, and exploration of the final design projects completed by the Rural Studio, the film underscores the transformative power of architecture when paired with social responsibility.

Recently Released Architecture Documentaries

Making A Mountain: The BIG Journey

“Making A Mountain: The BIG Journey” provides an in-depth exploration of the visionary architectural approach of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The documentary primarily chronicles their audacious project in Copenhagen, where the team transformed a waste-to-energy plant into an innovative recreational ski slope—integrating sustainability with urban recreation.

It offers viewers a unique window into BIG’s design process, ethos, and commitment to pushing architectural boundaries. Those interested in sustainability should also consider the film First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture (2009).

Renzo Piano: The Architect of Light (2018)

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Carlos Saura, this documentary delves into the life, philosophy, and creative genius of the esteemed Italian architect Renzo Piano. The film’s primary focus is on the design and construction of the Botín Center in Santander, Spain. Through insightful interviews and visual documentation, the documentary captures the meticulous attention to light and space that defines Piano’s work.

The New Bauhaus (2019)

“The New Bauhaus” offers a compelling narrative of László Moholy-Nagy, a trailblazing figure from the Bauhaus movement. After relocating to Chicago, he established The New Bauhaus school in the late 1930s, pioneering a holistic approach to design education that combined art, craft, and technology. The documentary showcases Moholy-Nagy’s enduring impact on design pedagogy and his visionary approach to integrating various disciplines.

Superdesign: Italian Radical Design 1965-1975 (2018)

“Superdesign: Italian Radical Design 1965-1975” delves into a transformative decade of Italian design. While not exclusively about architecture, the film provides a deep dive into the radical design movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Italy. Featuring interviews, archival footage, and a showcase of iconic designs, the documentary highlights the revolutionary ideas and bold visions of designers who sought to challenge the status quo.

Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story (2020)

This documentary celebrates the life and achievements of famous architect Paul Revere Williams. Recognized as the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects, Williams designed an extensive range of structures in Los Angeles and earned the moniker “Architect to the Stars” due to his clientele. The film offers a comprehensive look at his remarkable career, the challenges he overcame in a segregated America, and his enduring architectural legacy.

City Dreamers (2019)

This documentary spotlights the careers and contributions of four pioneering female architects and urban designers: Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, and Denise Scott Brown. Through a blend of interviews, archival footage, and analysis of their projects, the film underscores the profound impact of these successful architects on architecture and urban design in the face of gender-based challenges in the industry.

Documentaries About Women in Architecture

Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture (2014)

Directed by Alice Shure and Janice Stanton, this documentary focuses on five internationally recognized female architects: Annabelle Selldorf, Marianne McKenna, Kathryn Gustafson, Farshid Moussavi, and Odile Decq. Honoring some of the most innovative designers today, the film provides insights into their work, influences, and perspectives on the profession.

Gray Matters (2014)

Directed by Marco Orsini, this documentary sheds light on the life and work of Eileen Gray—an influential 20th-century architect and designer. Gray’s designs were ahead of her time, and the film explores her legacy and the challenges she faced in her career.

Zaha: An Architectural Legacy (2017)

Though not a documentary in the traditional sense, this short film by the Architectural Review pays tribute to the groundbreaking work and influence of Zaha Hadid—the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. It touches on her iconic designs and the challenges she faced in the world of architecture.

Sharon Sutton: The Making of an Activist Architect (Filming)

This documentary-in-progress, as of my last update, focuses on Sharon Sutton—an influential African American female architect and educator. The film is set to explore her journey and the challenges of race and gender in the field of architecture.

Which Films Will You Watch?

Which films from our list will you watch? Are there any icons of architecture or interior design who you would love to learn more about? Let us know in the comments below!