Review: ‘Tall’ Is a Little Movie About How Buildings Got So Big

Posted January 17, 2018 10:56 p.m. EST

“Tall” is a compact history of the American skyscraper, an unassuming (though hardly unambitious) examination of a grand, at times grandiose, subject. Divided into clear, concise chapters and conducted in a style that might be called street-corner Ken Burns, this documentary, directed by Manfred Kirchheimer, is more essay than epic, preferring coherence to comprehensiveness. In looking at a smattering of buildings in two big cities, and focusing on the work of a handful of major architects, Kirchheimer sketches the skyscraper as a feat of engineering, a work of imagination and part of an ongoing cultural argument.

All of a sudden, toward the end of the 19th century, it became possible to conceive of ordinary urban commercial and residential buildings whose height would surpass the limits of human stamina. The invention of the modern elevator by Elisha Graves Otis was crucial, and so was the development of iron and steel frames that enabled lighter, higher and slimmer constructions. As often happens (see also: the internet and the automobile), technological advances created aesthetic challenges. What were these gigantic new buildings supposed to look like?

One answer: like the old buildings, only bigger. Kirchheimer associates this idea with Daniel Burnham, the Chicago planner and architect who is in some ways the villain of “Tall.” Burnham, whose legacy includes the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 — part of the backdrop of Erik Larson’s true-crime historical best seller “The Devil in the White City” — adapted ornate European styles to new uses and proportions.

Burnham’s foil, and Kirchheimer’s hero, was another Chicago architect: Louis Sullivan, a brilliant draftsman and theoretician often identified as the father of the modern skyscraper. (“Tall” comes with the subtitle “The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan.”) Famous for declaring that “form must ever follow function,” Sullivan tried to find an organic, authentic identity for modern tall buildings. While hardly averse to ornament, he envisioned each structure as a dialectic of utility and beauty. His great disciple, Frank Lloyd Wright, would extend Sullivan’s philosophy in his own writings and architectural projects.

That philosophy is understood in “Tall” to be quintessentially American, partaking of the same democratic spirit that breathes in the writings of Emerson and Whitman. Sullivan appears as a prophet without much honor in his own country, denied the celebrity and the lucrative commissions enjoyed by the Europe-besotted Burnham.

According to Kirchheimer (whose lucid and erudite narration is read by actor Dylan Baker), the glass-and-steel boxes of the post-World War II international style are part of Burnham’s legacy rather than Sullivan’s. “Tall,” though it was completed in 2006, ends its story several decades earlier, before the advent of postmodernist styles that might have complicated its tidy argument. But the film is useful in part because it is so frankly argumentative. The critical appreciation of art is always advanced more effectively by partisanship than by neutrality.

And good criticism often exists in a state of tension with itself. “Tall,” with its graceful, thrifty camera work, is a profoundly beautiful film, and its beauty is sometimes at odds with its polemical intentions. Its form, you might say, departs at times from its function. There are sequences that seem intended to emphasize the ugly, alienating qualities of skyscrapers that ignore or distort Sullivan’s principles. But those rows of blank windows and unvarying girders and columns, the unadorned stone carapaces and glass skins, take on their own sublimity.

This may be because they are more pleasing than Kirchheimer supposes. Or it may be that his own Whitmanesque spirit — evident in earlier films like “Stations of the Elevated” and “Canners” — cannot help but endow everything it beholds with aesthetic dignity and interest. He communicates his enthusiasm effortlessly, so that you leave “Tall” with an awakened intellect and wide-open eyes.

Additional Information:

‘Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan’

Not rated. Running time: 1 hours 22 minutes.