Architecture + Film

Bay Area Filmmaker Richard Neill shares his quick picks on films that feature nostalgic scenes from the streets of San Francisco as well as other Bay Area-inspired architectural locations. Additional resources are provided for design aficionados thirsty for educational and engaging binge-watching amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Californians have a long history of dealing with disasters. With a past which has included earthquakes, fires, flooding, and even pandemics, designing for disaster is something our architecture c­ommunity has integrated in its practice over the years.

One opportunity presented by the long "historic moment” of this pandemic is to view our urban landscapes from a new perspective, rather than that of a pedestrian at street level or a worker in a highrise.


As a documentary filmmaker and curator, I closely track the ever-changing media landscape around urban design and architecture. Over the past decade, I've witnessed an explosion of design-focused media content, told from a wide range of perspectives. There are episodic shows like Abstract: The Art of Design, a Netflix original documentary series highlighting the most innovative designers in a variety of disciplines; PBS American Masters series which includes profiles of architects and designers; architecture and design museum channels such as The Louisiana Channel and Dezeen; and of course, the numerous design-themed feature films and documentaries screening in theatrical release and at design film festivals — now headed online. In short, there is a treasure trove of media about our built environment and the designers creating it just waiting to be explored.


The challenge is one of navigation: how do you find films aligned with your interests? When searching for a specific film, make sure to check across various streaming platforms. Due to the complexity of distribution for films lacking mainstream audiences, these films often pop up on multiple services at the same time with different rental costs. Another tip: once you find favorite filmmakers and channels, subscribe to their online newsletters to get advance notice about where their next project can be viewed.

View free films being screened during the COVID-19 crisis on the website of Gary Hustwit, New York-based indie filmmaker and photographer, who made his directorial debut with Helvetica (2007), the world’s first feature-length documentary about graphic design and typography. His latest VR documentary collaboration with filmmaker Sam Green, This Is What the Future Looked Like, explores the work and legacy of futurist and architect Buckminster Fuller.

Amazon Prime features many documentaries about architects and designers, including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Eero Saarinen, and Tadao Ando, among others.

Below are some of my waypoints for finding architecture-themed short films, documentaries and features online:

Gattaca (1997)

This futuristic 1997 science fiction film starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke has stunning art direction highlighting the beauty and mystery of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center in San Rafael. 

Blue Jasmine (2013)

San Francisco takes a star turn in this Cate Blanchett vehicle featuring locations across the city’s neighborhoods including the Mission, Richmond, and Sunset districts, as well as South Park and Mission Bay. Marin even gets into the picture for its sweeping scenic waterfront views.

The Game (1997)

Marin native David Fincher’s 1997 thriller leveraged San Francisco architecture better than any film from that era. It features many iconic downtown locations, the waterfront at night, and even the former Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio for an exciting action sequence.  

The International (2009)

Perhaps the most architecture-centric film of the last two decades, German director Tom Twyker’s thriller, starring actors Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, features iconic buildings in Berlin, New York, Milan, and Istanbul. As the director describes in a documentary about the making of the film, a sub theme of the film is about the role architecture plays in our lives on an emotional level, and how architecture has affected the landscape of our big cities. 

Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey (2015)

Directed by the Bay Area’s own Ray Telles, this insightful portrait of Mexican-American photographer Pedro Guerrero tracks the evolution of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work through superb black and white photographs, underscoring the creative role of photographers in telling the story of architecture and architects. 

e2 Design Series

This Brad Pitt narrated PBS design series was underwritten by San Francisco based tech firm, Autodesk, and takes viewers on a six-episode long ride of what was considered sustainable design in 2005. A good reference point for how far we’ve come (or not) since then in that realm. 

Richard Neill is a photographer/filmmaker focusing on design and urban resilience. He has curated film series for the annual Architecture + the City festival and was part of the Field Operations team for the Resilient by Design Competition.