What does our built environment say about us, our civilization, our history, and our relations with our fellow citizens? A variety of documentaries have attempted to address these questions over the years, whether through animation, historical research, biography, or even storytelling. We have listed some of our favorites below.

1. High steel

Throughout the 19th century, many community leaders were employed to work on large construction ventures around the world. High Steel records the progress of Manhattan skyscrapers, with dizzying beams dropping to the sky-corners of unfinished buildings under construction. This film tells some unknown stories of industrial architecture in New York and highlights the value of teamwork, communication, and cooperation to support effective building projects.

20 Must Watch Documentaries to Understand History of Architecture -12. A is for Architecture

This 30 min documentary offers a panoramic view of ancient towns, palaces and temples, the splendor of which enlightened mankind. The film goes along the series, showing how each of them represents the emotions and ideals of their day, from the vast temples of the Pharaohs to the skyscrapers of today.

3. The Pyramid Code

One of the seven wonders of the world still standing, the Great Pyramid of Khufu has fascinated people for centuries. Tracing the origin of the legends of secret chambers hidden in the heart of the pyramid, this film will reveal what lies within, solving a 4,500-year-old mystery.

4. Nubia, The Forgotten Kingdom

Known for the rich deposits of gold, this film explores the rise and collapse of this early African civilization. Archaeologists Julie Anderson and Salah Ahmed discover a 2,000-year- Nubian town in Sudan, hidden under mounds of red brick rubble. Nubia is thought to have acted as a trade route between Egypt and tropical Africa long before 3100 BC.

5. Ancient Megastructures – Rome

The program highlights the natural and cultural wonders of UNESCO World Heritage sites. They explain how ancient cultures, many years before the technological revolution, constructed some of the most remarkable Roman buildings on the face of the Earth, such as the Coliseum, Parthenon and many others.

20 Must Watch Documentaries to Understand History of Architecture -26. Mysteries of Asia: Lost Temples of India

The sophisticated building technique of an ancient temple architect remains a mystery to this day. Michael Bell helps audiences to learn more about how these ancient buildings evolved and why they were constructed in this 3-part series.

7. Secrets of China’s Forbidden City

For over 500 years the Forbidden City was China’s political and ritual center. After its completion in 1420 during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors, their families, and servants. With a special emphasis on two aspects: the transport of materials and how it withstood natural disasters, this series investigates how such a large fortress was built at a time when only the most primitive resources were available.

20 Must Watch Documentaries to Understand History of Architecture -38. The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time

Pompeii was destroyed by the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The circumstances of their destruction have preserved their remains as a unique document of Greco-Roman life. The film investigates the mystery behind the monuments and how the burial of the city helped to shield them from vandalism, looting, and the devastating effects of climate and weather over the next 17 centuries.

9. Cities of the Underworld 2007

The program discusses the subterranean world and the culture under various civilizations. This study explores submerged structures across the globe in cities such as Paris, New York, Rome, and Shanghai, which once acted as the key roles of ancient aqueducts for underground societies.

10. The Great Moghuls

India flourished in architecture and had very prosperous cultural and political years under the Mughal rule. There were several religious territories split all over India before the rulers of the Mughal Empire arrived. Through this program, we’re walking into the past of the Mughal empire.

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11. Iran: Seven Faces of a Civilization 2007

Iran is home to one of the largest and oldest civilizations in the world, with ancient and current settlements dating back to 7000 BC. Through this show, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, Farzin Rezaeian, reconstructs and examines seven great architectural wonders of Iranian history, created from ages of Cyrus the Great (Achaemenid Emperor) to Shah Abbas, King of Safavid.

12. The Great Wall of China 2007

Shaped like a huge dragon, the Great Wall runs up and down across deserts, mountains with an estimated length of 21,196 kilometers from east to west of China. This film explores how the building of a wall by the Thirteen-year-old Emperor Muzong during the war crisis later became one of the biggest and most visited attractions in the world due to its complex architecture and rich history.

13. Secrets of the Parthenon 2008

Located on the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon was built at the height of the Greek Empire. Starting in 447 BCE, it took nine years for the structure to be completed and another six years for all the decorative elements to be finished. While we refer to the Parthenon as a temple— and it looks like an architectural one — the building doesn’t function as much as one might think. This documentary reveals some of the facts and myths surrounding this iconic piece of Greek architecture.

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14. The mystery of the Maya 1995

This adventure documentary gives needed insight into the practical purposes of the structures that remain in several Mayan ruin sites. One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical climate. The series asks why civilizations that have produced highly advanced irrigation, astronomy, and construction techniques, as well as complex social systems, had rapidly fallen apart.

15. The Living Stones of Sacsayhuaman 2015

The former capital of the Inca Empire, Sacsayhuaman, is one of the most stunning Inca ruins on the northern outskirts of the old town of Cusco, Peru. It includes long stretch lines of stone, with an individual weight of up to 300 tons. How have these blocks been exported and forced to fit in with such exactness? The team of Russian geophysicists will try to find answers during the summer of 2012.

16. Baalbek Megaliths 2019

Situated near the capital of Beirut, the Temple is famous all over the world for its size and megalithic architecture, but the monument remains unsolved with an impressive number of problems, including the precise date of the phases of construction. The Romans certainly built the final phase, boosting huge 20 mts high columns, around AD 60, but who began the construction is unknown. This film will give an exact idea of the theories behind these tremendous blocks.

17. Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Inca 2007

This explores the journey of Hiram Bingham in 1911, where he investigates the stonework at the site and examines ancient texts to uncover the’ real’ meaning of Machu Picchu. Why did the Incas build it on such an inaccessible site? Who lived among its stone buildings? There have been numerous hypotheses about this Lost City of the Incas, but it remains an enigma.

18. Seven Wonders of Ancient Greece 2006

The film includes the history of Greece portrayed through the structures of Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome. The historical buildings seen include the Palace of Knossos, the Oracle of Delphi, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lost City of Atlantis.

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19. Warrior Empire: The Mughals 2006

At a certain period in history from the middle of the 1500s to the beginning of the 1700s, the Mughal Empire controlled almost the entire Indian subcontinent. It stretched from the edges of the Indus river basin, down to the Deccan plateau in the south. This series discusses how Mughal rulers Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb-changed the face of India with their political, military, and artistic achievements.

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20. Engineering an Empire 2007

This 2005, Emmy winning program includes many of the Roman Empire’s great engineering achievements beginning with the reign of the Caesars, It talks about how different structures have been built despite their shortcomings in the following episodes: Rome, Egypt, Greece, Greece: Age of Alexander, Aztecs, Carthage, Maya: Death Empire, Persians, China, Napoleon: Steel Monster, Byzantium.

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Sneha Kannan
Author

Sneha Kannan, a young architect, Interior designer based in Chennai. Her work involves creating spaces with strong visual and social identity. As an architectural writer and graphic designer in practice, she believes graduation is just a start to life. Developing a strong interest in aesthetics and management, she is working her way towards becoming a multi-faceted individual.

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