Cathedrals of Culture 04.02.15

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  • Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, which was filmed by Robert Redford

  • Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmoni

  • The National Library of Russia, filmed by Michael Glawogger

  • Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House, filmed by Margreth Olin

  • Halden Prison in Norway by Erik Möller Arkitekter, filmed by Michael Madsen

  • Centre Pompidou in Paris by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, filmed by Robert Redford

Wim Wenders lets the architecture do the talking in his latest project. It's just a shame the buildings don't have a better script, says Isabel Stevens

Wim Wenders' films have always been attentive to architecture, albeit ruins and no-man's lands: the motels and street signs of the American West in Alice in the Cities and Paris, Texas; faded dream palaces in Kings of the Road and, of course, the edgelands of a divided Berlin in his "vertical road movie" Wings of Desire. Just as the angels in that film endlessly witness human activity but have no part in it, so do the buildings in each of the six half-hour segments of Cathedrals of Culture, a portmanteau film produced by Wenders. Their feelings and desires are imagined by voiceovers, just like the intimate reverie of ordinary people's thoughts that the angels listen to.

This first-person anthropomorphic narrative is supposed to let us into the soul of Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic, the 18th-century neoclassical National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, Erik Möller Arkitekter's' Halden Prison in Norway, Louis Kahn's Salk Institute in California, Snøhetta's Oslo Opera House, and Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's Pompidou Centre. Most of the films (each of which is by a different director) succeed as an immersive visual tour and are a welcome change from prevalent chatty, career-survey documentaries that focus on architects rather than in-depth explorations of their creations. But the narration is too child-like and too eager to show everything, while imagining very little.

Wenders' contribution as director aptly captures the utopian and ocean-liner-like aspects of Scharoun's revolutionary concert hall, which was the first to place the orchestra at the centre, and Wenders does, thankfully, pay tribute to small details of the building's upkeep. But with its staged moments of user interaction, and with Scharoun's statue coming to life, the film feels like a promotional exercise, more suited to the Philharmonic's lobby than cinemas across the world.

Margreth Olin's histrionic interpretation of Oslo Opera House is the most redolent of the Wings of Desire angels: struck by the permanence of her existence and far more absorbed by the theatre of her transient performers and visitors. The building itself receives very little attention beyond touristy glimpses and artificial behind-the-scenes interludes (if only there were more off-guard moments of acrobatic window cleaners and dancers rehearsing before going on stage).

Michael Madsen's choice of Halden Prison is the most unusual and enticing – "the most humane prison" in the world, with rehabilitation rather than revenge written into its design. His film is again hampered by its voiceover ("I see people growing, I see sick people"); if only he had junked this and the sentimental piano score and just let his camera roam the smooth, monochrome corridors and cells of this minimal experiment.

Seeing behind the scenes at the Pompidou offers nothing surprising and Robert Redford's vision of the Salk Institute (shot rather magnificently by cinematographer Ed Lachman) is the most conventional offering, dodging the voiceover and delving into the institute's past with archive footage. But like all the films, it's too in awe of its subject. Do these buildings really have no flaws? And if they could speak, would they really be so humourless and wannabe-philosophical?

There is one exception that shows them all up: the late Austrian director Michael Glawogger's essay on St Petersburg's Library. His narration is culled from books on the shelves, weaving Gogol, Dostoevsky and many more together into a multi-stranded narrative. In many ways, his tour recalls Alain Resnais's 1956 documentary about the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Toute la mémoire du monde, in that it gives an overwhelming sense of all the knowledge and stories packed in to this repository and the impossible task of being able to master it all.

As Glawogger's camera glides down narrow alleyways of shelves, crumbling stairwells and huge, grand, chandelier-lit reading rooms, he makes the library feel like a city. Refreshingly, he starts and finishes his film outside on the street, showing a very humdrum, un-airbrushed St Petersburg of commuters and shoppers, all oblivious to the metropolis of books they're passing by.



Isabel Stevens


Cathedrals of Culture
directed by Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Karim Aïnouz
Neue Road Movies, 2014

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Do these buildings really have no flaws? And if they could speak, would they really be so humourless and wannabe-philosophical?

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