Visions of Space is documentary about the role of architecture in politics, modern cities, and religion, as seen through the works of three specific architects.  It's hosted by Australian art critic Robert Hughes, and was originally shown on BBC4 in 2003.

Why write a about something that's five years old?  For a full line of reasoning, read the companion piece Why Review Old Items?.  But briefly, I'm writing this article because I just got done watching this series for the very first time, and there are almost no reviews of it anywhere on the Internet.

The Good

As Hughes implies in the first episode, architecture is the only art form that physically affects us on a daily basis.  And in a world where very few documentaries about architecture exist, this is a fantastic series on a number of levels.  I'm very glad I spent the time to track it down and watch it.

In terms of the basics, the technical execution is top-notch.  The series comes in a great widescreen presentation, with rich colors and soaring cinematography.  Computer effects and recreations are used only when necessary, and are very tastefully integrated.  It all looks very professional and expensive, but obviously content is what makes or kills a series, and in that regard Hughes chose the subject matter for the three episodes quite well.

The Albert Speer episode (Size Matters) deals with Hitler's architect, and it makes a good companion piece to the 1989 documentary The Architecture of Doom.  It benefits from audio snippets from a 1979 interview with Speer, and covers the often overlooked subject of urban planning and architecture under Hitler's regime.

Speer's aborted designs bring a fascinating insight into the manipulation of style, space, and size to achieve political and ideological goals.  After watching this episode, the intelligent viewer will undoubtedly become more aware of instances in daily life where grandiosity (physical or otherwise) is used as a subconscious means of fostering collectivism and avoiding criticism.  Indeed, Speer's attempts to cover up a big lie with big buildings is no different from modern authoritarians who, not having Hitler's budget or supply of slave labor, instead push their agenda via big titles and big numbers.

The Mies van der Rohe episode (Less is More) is an exploration of International Style through the career of one of its most famous founders.  There are great on-location interviews at the Farnsworth House, Seagram Building, and Barcelona Pavilion.  The various walkthroughs deliver a sense of three-dimensionality, detail, and space that's miles better than the zillion static photographs that we're used to seeing of these landmarks.

Mies' focus on attention to detail, clean lines, simplicity, and so on are likely to resonate with visitors to this site, but the drawbacks of the modernist philosophy are also covered, including the prioritization of style over comfort and van der Rohe's somewhat hypocritical preference for living in a traditional environment.

The Antoni Gaudí episode (God's Architect) gives us a guided tour through the legacy, methods, and inspirations of the Catalan visionary.  Gaudí's biomorphic forms and religious fervor make for a thought-provoking counterpoint to the more clinical German aesthetics of the other two episodes.

Unlike most commercial guided tours of Barcelona, this one does not fixate on Gaudí's best-known unfinished creation.  Instead, it's very well balanced, giving roughly equal time to each of his major works.  And it's in the less touristy places that the viewer can find Gaudí's most breathtaking moments, with certain details and styles being absolutely magical (as well as fifty years ahead of their time).

God's Architect also features many interviews with both local experts as well as people whose life and outlook were significantly affected by living in Gaudí's creations.  The extensive testimony adds a human touch, but tends to feel a bit slow and repetitive.  Overall, though, the episode easily surpasses any static guidebook in terms of visually explaining why Gaudí was such a genius.

The Bad

Having an imposing personality such as Hughes at the center of the series is a double-edged sword.  Some might might prefer a more anonymous and objective presentation.  Others might be put off by some of his more controversial opinions.  Not me!

I happen to share most of his viewpoints, and was relieved to hear him, for instance, dismiss the façades at La Sagrada Familia and instead focus on Gaudí's more under-appreciated creations such as the Colonia Güell Crypt and Casa Milá.

I also think that for a potentially dry and static topic such as architecture, it helps tremendously to have a passionate and opinionated person such as Hughes as your travelling companion and tour guide.

Don't get me wrong, I was dumbfounded to hear him argue that the Seagram Building wasn't built using similar principles as van der Rohe's other works.  And the completely superfluous segment in Montserrat where he goes through the religious offerings had me looking at my clock with a mixture of boredom and embarrassment.  But these were tiny flaws, and easily ignored in the context of three hours of great material.

The Bottom Line

Visions of Space is somewhat complicated to get a hold of.  It has never been released commercially, so you'll have to look for it on file-sharing networks.  Is it worth your time and effort to obtain and watch?

The answer is: it depends.  If you're interested in architecture, you'll find the entire series quite captivating and a worthy addition to your video collection.  Needless to say, this is the category I fall into, and I've already burned myself a nice DVD with the three episodes.

If, on the other hand, you're only interested in one of the featured architects, or particular topics such as modernism, WW2, or sights to see in NYC/Barcelona/Chicago, you should probably only download the specific episode that covers your topic and leave the others as optional.

Additional Resources

Posted on Thursday, January 31, 2008
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Comments on this post

# re: Visions of Space

I happened upon the episode 'God's Architect' as part of a supporting materials DVD on Antoni Gaudi and was impressed by the production, and especially the photography. Having never before heard of Hughes, I had no expectations and was also delighted by the views of the host. Except for when he allowed his own anti-Catholic bias to come through (the segment at Monserrat, for example). Although I share his opinions, it was an unnecessary deviation from the artistic theme of the show.
I am now searching for the other two episodes and expect to be equally pleased.
Left by michael-leonard on May 19, 2009 1:03 PM

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