Architect Glen Howard Small wanted his daughter, Lucia, to write his biography. Instead, she made a documentary about him. The result is “My Father, the Genius,” an utterly engrossing portrait of a world-class eccentric and his family’s struggle to understand the man.
Small’s life and work took off along fairly conventional lines, but by the late ’60s he had walked out on his wife and three daughters, fully embracing the revolutionary ethos of the time. His obsession for much of the next decade was the “Biomorphic Biosphere,” his design for a utopian eco-community whose gossamer beauty was matched only by its complete impracticality. (“Practical things bother me to no end,” he laughs.) Small’s first ex-wife dismisses the thing as “Buck Rogers stuff,” and many of the conceptual drawings resemble nothing so much as vintage Yes album covers. The Biomorphic Biosphere was indeed visionary but also impossible, much like its creator.
Frustrated that society was nowhere near ready to accept this life-defining project, his quest “to save the world through architecture,” Small managed to alienate himself not only from his family but from the entire profession. In amazing video footage of a 1976 panel discussion, we watch Small commit career suicide before our eyes, disparaging every other architect in sight including the great and powerful Frank Gehry, whom he kisses off as “a hustler and an opportunist.” It goes without saying that Small’s career never recovered. Designing actual spaces for real people – a perfectly respectable way of making a living which he calls “serving the rich” – seemed totally beyond his realm of thinking.
The women in his life are another issue the film tackles with unvarnished candor. Three ex-wives and three daughters all weigh in with complaints; Small mostly just seems befuddled by them, eventually sighing, “In general, I find women sort of controlling and yappy.”
Yes, he’s a bit of a bastard, and his filmmaking daughter would likely be the first to agree. But Glen Howard Small is also a hell of a character, worth every minute the film spends trying to come to terms with him. You end up really rooting for the old fool, and somehow he actually ends up making good on his own terms. He’s bitter and he’s crotchety and he may in fact not be the genius he thinks he is. He is a true American dreamer, though, and you gotta love that.