Architectural Digest – November 12, 2020

Director Lauren Levine tells AD the actor’s voice was “a poignant way to weave in Frank Lloyd Wright’s presence”

By Kristine Hansen
November 12, 2020

There is truly something for everyone in the new documentary Unity Temple. The film tells the story of the craftspeople and historians behind the extensive $25 million restoration (unveiled in 2017) of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, with narration by none other than Hollywood heartthrob and architecture buff Brad Pitt.

It’s no secret that Pitt has long been enthralled by the built world. In 2006, he and his now ex-wife Angelina Jolie arranged for a private tour of Wright’s famous Fallingwater house in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. In 2008, Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation built dozens of eco-friendly homes in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in concert with starchitects like Sir David Adjaye—though years later the project faced a class action lawsuit.

Directed by Lauren Levine, the 55-minute film unspooling the concrete temple’s two-year restoration is currently available for preview screening through November 23, with an official, wider release date still to be determined. For Levine, who grew up in Buffalo and was already familiar with Wright’s projects in that city, it was an opportunity to dive deeper into her appreciation for his architecture and build on her friendship with Heather Hutchison, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation’s former executive director.

“To restore such a complex building to its original beauty felt like a debt of gratitude to Wright’s intentions,” says Levine. “I put a crew together just before the construction team erected fencing and scaffolding. My mantra was to ‘keep shooting’ because on this type of project you can never have enough footage in the editing room.” Because of her quick efforts, the film includes footage of the building’s prior condition. Since its 1908 completion, Unity Temple has served as a place of worship for the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, who commissioned the project from church member Wright—his first public project—in 1905. Along with seven other Wright buildings, the temple is one of only 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States, an honor received in 2019.

Pitt was invited to narrate the documentary as a result of Hutchison’s relationship with the copresident of Plan B, the Oscar winner’s production company. In the voiceover session, says Levine, Pitt revealed he’d been a fan of Wright since college. “Having recently returned from Japan, where he’d seen amazing temples, he expressed his deep appreciation for the beauty shots of Unity Temple he saw while he was doing the narration,” says Levine. Wright, of course, was deeply influenced by his travels in Japan and was commissioned to design Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1915. It was demolished in 1968, and the lobby and reflecting pool moved to Museum Meiji-Mura.

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Levine and Pitt during a recording session for the film. Courtesy of Lauren Levine
“When we got the yes from Brad, I felt confident that his voice would be a poignant way to weave in Frank Lloyd Wright’s presence,” says Levine. “I loved his performance in James Gray’s Ad Astra. The quality of his voice was so perfect for Wright’s quotes describing his inspiration and process during this pivotal time in his career.”

Levine says making the film helped her better understand Wright, whom she calls “complex.” She was especially struck by “his relentless pursuit of the exact right material or the exact right design element,” she says. “For example, the color and texture of the concrete, his decision to create a translucent quality in the paint colors, or his many iterations of the columns. Wright’s status as an iconic transformational figure in America leaves lots of room for more stories. I’m exploring two other films that would focus on pivotal stages in his career in a similar way.” No word yet on whether Pitt or another A-list architecture buff will lend their voice.