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What Was So Great About Dad Anyway?

A daughter of architect Glen Howard Small, whose ego hurt his career, puts together the pieces of her estranged father's life.

March 28, 2002|DIANNE BATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bad attitude has derailed many careers. Take the case of odd Los Angeles architect Glen Howard Small, the subject of an award-winning documentary, "My Father, the Genius."

The film has no distributor or commercial release date in L.A., but it will screen tonight as part of the American Cinematheque's Independent Film Showcase. Small was a young lion of Southern California architecture in the early 1970s, influencing culture as dynamically as Spielberg and Lucas did with their films. Small was one of the seven founders of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, in 1972. His architectural visions were, in keeping with that time, sweeping, abstract and ecologically friendly.

His Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructure, Green Machine and Turf Town concepts enthralled a generation of architecture students caught up in burgeoning eco-activism movements. But while other founders Ray Kappe and Thom Mayne went on to figure prominently in Los Angeles and world architecture, Small's ego and questionable social communication turned his career into a scrapbook of lost promise and his family into strangers.

Filmmaker Lucia Small is one of those strangers. Her relationship with her career-obsessed father was distant at best when he approached her more than a decade ago with the idea of writing his biography. Small had left Lucia's mother for a younger woman in the late 1960s when Lucia and her two sisters were very young. Her memories of her father were of a weekends-only dad, and there was admittedly some bitterness at his cavalier dumping of one family to raise another one with his new wife. (Small eventually left that wife too for another woman.)

Still, the thought of learning more about the career of a father who had always referred to himself as a genius intrigued Lucia Small. Having racked up some production credits on PBS programs and directing credits on video shorts, she told her father she would make him the subject of her first feature documentary instead of writing a biography.

The idea apparently appealed to Small and "My Father the Genius" was born. To Lucia Small's credit, the film is neither a fluff piece for the architect or a bitter account of a wayward father. Instead, she has used animation, archival footage, and extensive interviews with family, friends, clients and former students to craft a humorously disconcerting film that could be about anyone's father who is more interested in fixing the world than connecting with his family.

The project, which has won awards at Slamdance and the New England Film and Video Festival, is definitely not the biographical film Glen Howard Small envisioned.

"He likes it, I think," she said in a recent phone interview. "He's proud that people are receiving it well. But he says there's another film yet to be made about his career." For all his ups and downs, Small retains his unbridled ego.

The career that started so promisingly when Glen Small left an assistant professor position at Cal Poly Pomona to help start SCI-Arc wound up riddled with controversy. Lucia found former students who spoke glowingly in the film about the young professor's zeal and inspiration in those early years. Footage of Small and his students erecting huge tent-like structures and riding around Los Angeles on bicycles to show off their architectural art projects portray a whimsy and freedom of spirit that permeated the late '60s and early '70s. While many of Small's architectural projects were noble in intent, they proved impossible to build. Beautiful, soaring drawings look great on paper, but viability wasn't Small's specialty. Many look like they belong in the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Interspersed with career footage are home movie clips showing Small and his first wife and little daughters, sometimes building makeshift structures at the beach using driftwood.

"My father wasn't an ogre," Lucia Small said. "He did have a family side to him. But my mother had been sold this bill of goods that she would have this perfect marriage and family. Her American dream was shattered"--by a husband who seems to have more than a little difficulty with women.

Lucia gets good comments from two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend, who speak mostly with more sad affection than malice. Ex-girlfriend Jan Mardian laughs as she tells the camera that Glen's idea of a perfect working situation would be a long worktable with a pretty girl waiting at the end.

Small, on the other hand, refers to women as "controlling and yappy." Women seem to exist just to help him realize his artistic vision. If this sounds like a Picasso or a Howard Roark (in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"), well, Small probably wouldn't disagree.

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