DVD recommendation: My Father, the Genius

Directed and Produced by Lucia Small

By contrast with Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his long-deceased father, architectural-great Louis I. Kahn, filmmaker Lucia Small tells the story of her architect father, Glen Howard Small, while he is still alive, able, and all too willing to speak for himself. In fact he has asked Lucia to tell the world about his work. His specific request was that she write his biography, presumably once he’s passed on. She was shocked by the request at first. She had had a fairly distant relationship with him since he divorced her mother when she (the middle daughter of three) was five years old, and she knew little of his architectural career. Admittedly a little flattered that he’d asked, she decides to make the project her own; it would be a film, not a book, while he is still alive, and it would explore all aspects of his life, not just the architecture. What follows is an often amusing, sometimes painful, always fascinating tale of a man, his ego, his dreams, and his family.

Is he a genius? She leaves that to us to “sort it out”. He believes that he is and has said as much to his daughters. We also hear from his two ex-wives, an ex-girlfriend, various friends, and colleagues on the subject. More objectively, we see Glen Howard Small’s projects on paper and in the flesh for ourselves and hear his descriptions of them. We learn that he considers the creation in 1965 of his Biomorphic Biosphere drawings (part of his master’s thesis) to be his big ideas. In archival footage from 1976 a young Glen Howard Small describes his colorful, futuristic vision saying, “It’s an exciting, groovy, gigantic, naturally vented greenhouse funhouse. It’s a cross section of nature and technology. Biomorphic Biosphere, rah, rah, rah.” Throughout the documentary the camera pans across Glen Howard Small’s exquisitely rendered illustrations of his imagined future vertical city of otherworldly sky-bound habitation in the midst of a complicated structural web that touches down ever so lightly on a green, floral, natural landscape. These drawings set Glen Howard Small’s career in motion and establish the visual language of Lucia’s film. Music by Kaoru Ishibashi interspersed with cuts of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” is delightful, timely, and humorous accompaniment.

Flash forward to Glen at around sixty years old or so, and you find him mired in the real world with his theoretical architectural work behind him. He is just scraping by with one residential client. He’s discouraged and tired. He stands on the bleak construction site and laments, “I wish I was doing the things that I want to do. In terms of using my ability, I really resent this whole way of making a living. I’m just being wasted, that’s what I feel, just being wasted out in the real world here.”

In his heyday, Glen Howard Small helped found the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-arc) in 1972. There he flourished for a time as a rebel educator and mentor, shaping young minds with the merits of experimental, hands-on, ecologically-minded design and building. Ultimately, though, his ability to alienate his peers led to his dismissal. Lucia includes footage from the 1976 panel on The Future of Architecture that he hosted at SCI-arc in which he introduced each of his notable architectural guests with a zinger. He describes Frank Gehry, for example, as “a man about town, hustler and opportunist, usually with a gimmick.” This made me laugh; to many, though, this was outrageous.

After SCI-arc, things began to unravel in his career, though they had long been unraveling in his first family. According to Lucia’s younger sister, Julie Small, her father once told her, ‘I could have been a genius if not for you kids.’ She sighs, “I should hope that genius would include a family.” Lucia’s older sister, Christine Small-Shook remarks, “Does it really matter if he’s the greatest architect of all time, to me, no, because I wanted the greatest father of all time not the greatest architect.” He simply wasn’t there for the most part when they were growing up. In his words, he “ran away”. He married his second wife Milica Dedijer while at SCI-arc and had a daughter, Yasmina, and son, Eric, with her. They too later divorced. Milica shares with an ironic laugh, “His primary identification with himself is as an architect rather than as a human being.”

Having one difficult relationship after another, he concedes that the work is “the only thing that is consistent”. He was busy trying “to save the world through architecture,” as he puts it. He admits to his dumbstruck daughter Lucia, “In general I find women very sort of controlling and yappy.” No, this is not likely to endear him to audiences, though to his credit he does recognize his weaknesses. He speaks of his devoted father who would sacrifice anything for him, allowing his son the freedom to concentrate on his vision. He acknowledges, “My drive is not the same as my father’s drive and yet, my kids want it to be, so that’s a quandary.”

Ironically, Julie Small, who is at times most critical of her father as a parent, sees the world and its unrealized potential much as he does. She describes her block of “ding bat apartments, scrunched up against a convalescent home, right off the freeway” with “gross strip malls” as case and point. “If somebody had planned this, we could have a very wonderful living environment where the people in the convalescent home would have a greenway instead of an alley way…and…a communal space, and maybe I’d get to know them. And the children…might have a safe place to be.” She’s on to something. I think her inattentive father would agree.

Here’s the thing, I like Glen Howard Small. He’s a maverick. I know; I know he’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but he’s an authentic character full of egotism and insecurity, who’s struggling to figure it all out. Through Lucia’s film he’s made better aware of himself and his relationship to his families and possibly even to his work. Near the film’s end he seems on the verge of finding some architectural opportunities that better suit his talents. He is particularly enamored with a new model he’s made for a hotel commission in Nicaragua. “It is so sensuous, and it doesn’t kick back,” he exclaims while he caresses it. You can’t help but roll your eyes while recognizing his bliss. He is who he is.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

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