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Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Manfred Kirchheimer
Directed by Manfred Kirchheimer
VHS, color and b&, 82 min.
College - Adult
Architecture, Film Studies, American Studies

Reviewed by Betsy Butler, Special Collections Librarian, The Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 12/20/2004

Say “skyscraper” and you’re inclined to think of a trim, sleek structure with a revolving door, designed to house urban commercial endeavors.

Looking beyond those endless windows, however, you’re also bound to see gargoyles, terra cotta decorations, and other artistic elements adorning what Manfred Kirchheimer refers to as the “architecture for angels and aviators” in his film, Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan.

Focusing on the skyscrapers of the late 1860s to the early 1920s, Tall tells the tale of how Chicago architect Louis Sullivan stretched old building styles upward. Employing the belief that form follows function, Sullivan and his competitors created a new architectural sensibility that “made a spiritual thing of a grubby thing.”

Decorative ornamentation is the hallmark of these early skyscrapers, and Tall provides abundant examples. Closeups of Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo, together with the Carson Pirie Scott department store and the Tacoma Building in Chicago, prove Kirchheimer’s point. Interior shots of the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin and other examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work also demonstrate the profound effect that Sullivan had on his young draftsman and mentee.

Novice architectural students will appreciate how Kirchheimer provides a clear description of the four essential building principles and how they are applied in skyscraper construction techniques: posts supporting horizontal beams; cantilevers; multi-use arches; and trusses. Students of business will concur that technological developments like the Otis elevator facilitated building bigger buildings that reflected economic forces at work in cities like New York and Chicago.

Finally, historians will admire how Tall is a product of thorough research. Archival postcards and photographs depict structures like Pulitzer’s New York World headquarters, the Woolworth Building and the Chicago Water Tower. Original architectural drawings and period music complete the picture for this film that premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2004.

Tall’s procession of familiar landmarks is a treat for the eye, although the absence of the Rookery in Chicago is regrettable. After watching the film, the viewer is anxious to learn more about the modern skyscraper era, particularly the Empire State Building and other defining structures of the twentieth century.

Clever juxtaposition of moving and still images, clear presentation of information, and convincing examples of the artistic integrity these skyscrapers possess make Tall a fine story for students of architecture, business and economics, and history to enjoy.