Self-taught Architects and Builders

Self-taught Architects and Builders

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Adrienne Breaux
Nov 4, 2009

We often applaud the work created by licensed architects, but what about those who are self-taught? Filmmaker Zack Godshall explores the intriguing and similar motivations behind the building of five very different but very interesting structures around the country in a new documentary film...

What started as a travel grant to research self-taught architects and builders around the South turned into a full-fledged film project after filmmaker Zack Godshall and collaborator Emilie Taylor discovered that many of the self-taught builders claimed their ideas came from divine inspiration. The film is an in-depth look into five structures built without blueprints or end goals. We got the chance to preview the film, and we think if you're interested in architecture, folk art or religion you'll find these structures and these architects quite intriguing. We asked Godshall some questions about the film:

Did you go into the project with any preconceived notions or expectations?
Initially I was very impressed with the more mysterious aspects of the builders and their work. The fact that each man professes divine inspiration and influence really attracted me. Many people nowadays tend to dismiss these kinds of claims, and so I was interested in meeting the men where they stand and listening to what they had to say and profess. But once I got into the shooting and editing, I began to really respect and love the builders themselves. Their personalities began to shine through in the footage. And so in editing the film, I recognized that my interactions with the builders really revealed a deeper truth about the men and their work, a greater truth than I had in mind at the beginning. And so as it is now, the film is a lot more direct and personal than I had imagined at the beginning, and I believe this evolution was a good thing for the movie, and for myself.

What surprised you most about talking with each one of the architects?
While some of the builders are deep thinkers and others are more practical and matter of fact, each builder has some important wisdom to share, at least to my mind. But more than this, I was blown away by how funny the builders are. They each have a rather wild sense of humor, and much of that has ended up in the film. Some of them really are comedians.

Do you think there's a difference between the passions and motivations that drive these men versus the ones that drive licensed architects?
These men do not worry about codes and laws. They build according to intuition and without blueprints. Neither do they concern themselves with the practical concerns that most contracted architects must consider. While the title of the film refers to the men as architects, I think "builder" seems to describe them a bit better. They don't really concern themselves with the process of pre-visualization as does a traditional architect. So aside from the perspective of a designer, the builders in the film work in a way that is more purely intuitive and immediate. As Shelby Ravellette, the mason, says, absolute precision is not a concern of the mason. In the case of a traditional architect, precision is key.

In Godshall's words, this film is really about "inspiration and dedication to a project, no matter how bizarre or ridiculous the circumstance may seem. And that is something everyone can relate to." You can find out more information about this movie at the website. If you're in Austin, you'll be able to catch a screening of the film as well as purchase DVD's on Wednesday, November 11th at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar location. More information at AIA Austin.

What do you think about self-taught architects and builders? Have you ever visited a structure created by someone self-taught? Are you yourself a self-taught builder? Let us know!

(Top Image: Flickr member [OlgaKaynow] licensed for use under Creative Commons; other images screen captures from the God's Architects)

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