Vincent Van Gogh. John Keats. Oscar Wilde. Galileo Galilei. Johannes Vermeer. What is common among these talented people? Their work was recognized and got its due fame only after their lifetime. Architect Glen Howard Small, feared for such a fate, requested his estranged middle daughter Lucia Small to write his biography, which eventually turned out to be the documentary ‘My father the genius.’ While the original intention of his request was to show his work and talents in the positive limelight, Lucia Small added her spin to it by digging into all aspects of his life – his precarious career and thorny private life.
The documentary runs for 1 hour and 10 minutes consisting of interviews with the protagonist himself, his peers, clients, former students, children, ex-wives, and old girlfriends interspersed with astonishing archival footage, animation, startling models and drawings of Small’s work.
When tasked with making a film about her father, Lucia had to navigate through her rather difficult emotions while trying to remain objective. She had found it amusing that the self-proclaimed genius futurist visionary Architect could never plan for his future as he was always broke or almost on the verge of it. He attributed the reality to his uncompromising attitude for refusing to play politics and staying true to his vision, the vision the world isn’t ready. At 31, he showed promise and was declared a ‘rising star.’ At 61, he could barely make his ends meet. Subtly, the documentary tries to answer what went dramatically wrong in his life.
With a lifelong passion to ‘save the world through Architecture,’ Glen Small’s preoccupation with his unconventional ideas adversely affects his family. Lucia Small elucidates this beautifully at the beginning using old photographs with a voice-over narrating her perception of familial dysfunction. Envious about the copious amount of attention Glen gave to his profession, Lucia had never bothered to know or learn about Glen’s designs. In the quest for making this film, Lucia unravels all his projects- the ones stuck on the drafting table and a few of the projects that saw the light of the day.
His ‘dreams for a better world in the face of reality’ are introduced through the outlandish ‘Biomorphic biosphere’ idea reminiscent of the Archigram Movement intended to create an ecological paradise. Glen believes in universal beauty and the sensuality of his designs. He admits to feeling like he is building a monument every time he gets a project commissioned. While on tour to document his built designs, Lucia is conflicted. Is her dad truly a genius he claims to be or a man with an insufferable ego?
Dotted and financially supported by his father, Glen had little care for the world than his sense of purpose towards Architecture. This freedom had inherently made him feel entitled and selfish. Having obtained his undergraduate graduation from the University of Oregon, he pursued his masters at Cranbrook Academy of Art with the funding from the Eero Saarinen scholarship.
As he began to work, he found his family stifling and called out to them the ‘ball and chain that ruined his life.’ He left his first family for a fellow Architect and threw himself in work.
He co-founded and mentored the internationally reputed SCI-Arc with contemporaries Ray Kappe and Thom Mayne. When Architects of his time and age leaned towards Postmodernism and Deconstructivism, he stuck to his sustainability and biomimicry ideas. His radicalism and stubborn affinity with his eco-friendly utopian designs got him fired from the university he had co-founded. His environmental works marginalized, and his thoughts left on the very table they were conceptualized.
Meanwhile, his eccentricity and indifference led to yet another divorce. His brutal honesty, criticism, and impolitic nature got him alienated from the Architecture fraternity. Glen’s dream project ‘Green Machine’ was an attempt at low-cost housing that came close to fruition but halted. He vehemently declared that Architecture has evolved as a profession for ‘serving the rich.’ Debt-ridden, Glen was forced to move in with his eldest daughter and her husband. The interviews with her sisters Christine and Julie, reveal the grudge they carry since their father’s abandonment.
As one is engrossed in the film, one can understand how it turns out to be a daughter’s journey to get closer to her dad. Lucia dissects her father’s life and proceeds to come to terms with the man. The wounds he left behind are visible as his family reacts to the past in the present- especially his first wife, who had to raise three young daughters single-handedly. She recalls the painful transformation of Glen from being a loving husband to becoming a self-righteous Architect detached from the family. Adding insult to injury, Glen also awkwardly attempted to merge his first family with his second. The viewers can empathize with Lucia when Glen agrees with Frank Lloyd Wright’s statement – ‘I like my buildings more than my children.’
Glen’s primary identification of himself as an Architect and his goal to change the world when he is unable to have meaningful human relationships makes one ponder if this is what genius entails. In the end, the dreams for which he forsook his family, remains unfulfilled. Maybe it is the honest anti-hagiographic personal take on Glen’s life that struck a chord with viewers. The film went on to win several accolades, including the ‘Best documentary’ and ‘best editing’ at the Slamdance film festival. Perhaps the best outcome of making this film is the close examination of Glen’s chosen lifestyle and providing a long-needed family catharsis.
The thought-provoking documentary makes one realize the importance of a holistic, balanced life. The mindset and attitude can make or break one’s career. Social and emotional intelligence needs to be taken as seriously as technical skills for a pleasant and successful journey in almost every profession, especially Architecture.