Architect Glen Small, feeling unappreciated, with no books or significant critical studies of his work in print, drafted his will and testament with a special request: He bequeathed to his middle daughter Lucia the task of writing his biography. His hope was that she would document his achievements and thus firmly establish his professional reputation once and for all. He wasn’t sick; he was just bitter, and wanted the story to be finally told.
The assignment was strange for other reasons as well. Glen Small was closer to his oldest daughter, and his youngest daughter was a writer. So why had he chosen Lucia?
Despite having no answer to the question, she took him up on the offer with the hope that the project might bring the two of them closer together. But she had two caveats: that she make a film rather than a book, and that it cover the man as well as the work. With some hesitation, her father agreed.
The result, My Father the Genius, is amateurish, but in the best sense of the word: It’s a very personal film, with the feel of a home movie. With the exception of a few animations, there is little flourish or flare. Instead it presents a simple, eye-level portrait of a man and how his obsession with his work has affected his personal relationships.
Glen Small was, by most accounts, a visionary architect in his younger years. He was a founder and faculty member of the Southern California Institute of Architecture and one of the principal proponents of ecologically sound design. His fantastically futuristic Biometric Biosphere combined eco-architecture with science fiction to create an arresting vision of the city of the future, a structure that would touch the ground in only a few places but could house 100,000 people.
His more modest designs—the ones that actually got built—include houses, museums and commercial buildings that usually feature dramatic sweeping lines. “Sensuality,” as Small puts it, is his intent.
But despite his talents, Small was brash, arrogant, rude, and at times downright stupid. He alienated his colleagues, jeopardized his career, undermined his own financial stability, and all but abandoned his wife and daughters. And, as we see in the film, he has apparently learned little from his mistakes.
Small is presented as an aptly named man, one so self-centered and tunnel-visioned that he repeatedly fails as father, as friend, as husband and as lover. His world view allows for little that does not center on himself and confirm his self-image. Granted, when a camera is in your face you’re inclined to behave as though you’re the center of attention, but we get the feeling that Small believes there should always be a camera in his face, that he is just that interesting and important. And the irony is that this is precisely what makes him compelling, if not personable, as a subject.
It is surprising and a bit disappointing that Lucia Small was unable to get better access to some of the buildings her father designed, and that there is little discussion of the merits of each structure, other than from Glen Small’s own perspective, which we at times suspect is an inflated view. But if you go into this film with only architecture in mind, or with the hope of finding an in-depth portrait of an artist, you’re bound to be disappointed, for My Father the Genius is only superficially concerned with these matters. Ultimately the film is not about whether Small is great or what he is like as a man; it is really Lucia’s story, the story of a daughter given a strange assignment, her willingness to take on that assignment, and the effects that assignment has on her relationships with her sisters and with her father.
MY FATHER THE GENIUS (2005)
Written, directed and produced by Lucia Small. Featuring Glen Small. 84 minutes. $29.95. www.myfatherthegenius.com.
Photograph: Architect Glen Small, posing here with an early design for a solar-powered mobile home community, is the subject of his daughter’s documentary My Father the Genius.