"The glory and pride of exultation must be in it," Chicago architect Louis Sullivan insisted of his passion, the skyscraper, not long before the turn of the 19th century. Sullivan reached as high as the buildings he designed, like the flowered terra-cotta shaft of the Bayard–Condict Building at 65 Bleecker, one of New York's first steel-frame skyscrapers -- one of the first buildings in America with exterior walls that were a thin protective skin rather than the means by which the structure conquered gravity. The iron and steel skeleton of a building like the Bayard allowed cities to ascend. Just going tall wasn't enough for Sullivan, though. He declared, "It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation, that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line."
Usually, of course, the skyscraper isn't that at all. The copy-pasted glass boxes of today don't exult, and the lines of the ones that sprang up in the decades after the Bayard don't just dissent from Sullivan's ideal -- they filibuster, some cloyingly and some spectacularly. Tall, Manfred Kirchheimer's gently cranky urban rhapsody, argues that Sullivan had hit on an American innovation as profound and singular as jazz or the movies -- and that his countrymen ignored him in favor of skyscraper designs that aped the old world.
His arguments -- delivered in declarative voiceover by Dylan Baker and scored to music from Maurice Ravel and Dmitri Shostakovich, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis —have power, but what stirs the mind and the heart, here, is his photography and editing. His montage work is magnificent, especially an opening suite focused on the faces of contemporary skyscrapers.