Great Expectations is a documentary about the 20th Century’s most visionary architectural conceptions. To be clear, visionary is by no means synonymous with aesthetically pleasing, practical for humanity, or even a good idea. Rather, it means boundary-pushing and awe-inspiring, and those are qualities the works featured in Great Expectations have in abundance.
The Great Expectations DVD also includes a 53-minute “bonus film,” Kochuu. Despite being billed as an extra, I actually found this documentary on the relationship between Japanese architecture and Scandinavian design to be the more captivating and thought-provoking of the two. Plus, frankly, I preferred its architecture.
But first, the feature film. Great Expectations is a learning opportunity; more a jumping-off point for discussion than a movie, with more attention given to the ideas contained in the film than the act of filmmaking. The documentary cuts from one project to the next, a cycling lecture on such contemporary works as Buckminster Fuller’s geometric domes, Oscar Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia, and Jacque Fresco’s utopian Venus Project.
Some of the projects, such as the tract houses of Levittown, remind us that visions do not always serve the public in beneficial ways. There is a Brave New World quality to some of these works—for a future in which such architects are free to dictate their ideas for society in concrete and glass, with little input from the people themselves, could quickly devolve into a world devoid of individuality and freedom.
Having lived in Montréal and often seen Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 apartments, this project seemed less alien and unnerving to me than some of the others profiled in Great Expectations. However, perhaps it is not so much familiarity with the work that put me at ease, as the mindset of Safdie as an architect. For, he was the only architect who actually considered how his building would affect the real people who would thereafter live in it. Instead of using homogeny as a mere architectural tool for his own personal statement, he hoped to use his design to enact change in society.
Kochuu marks a vast departure from the eerie architecture of Great Expectations to habitats of calm, peace, and simplicity. Rather than a focus on the material world, the built environments of Kochuu embody the spiritual and philosophical realms.
This bonus documentary examines several beautiful Japanese works of architectural art, such as the Imperial Katsura Palace and the Todai-Ji Temple, and reveals how Japanese architecture surprisingly had a great impact on Scandinavian architects.
In a way that is not necessarily true of the architects in Great Expectations, the architects in Kochuu may be guided by philosophical principles such as a connection to nature or Buddhist ideas of emptiness, yet they are able to create buildings that remain aesthetically pleasing instead of merely thought-provoking. Instead of forcing people to fit themselves into a certain concept of architecture, Japanese and Scandinavian design adapts its style to gently embrace humanity, like the Taoist ideal of water gliding around rocks instead of forcing its way through them.
Much of the so-called visionary architecture featured in Great Expectations is not aesthetically ideal. The trend in art and evidently architecture has been away from pure aesthetic quality to works that are intended to be pondered. Contemporary art cannot be taken solely on its visual form; rather, the culture of the artistic movement, the intentions of the artist, and what the components of the work symbolize all coalesce to create something to be talked about, not just looked at.
Yet, the architects profiled in Kochuu remind us that beauty can still shroud something of great intellectual value, and perhaps pushing the boundaries of the conventional does not necessarily require creating something shocking, but may instead mean a return to peacefulness and naturalness.