“It’s almost shocking how little films have dealt with architecture”, reflected Wim Wenders when asked about his new collaborative project, Cathedrals of Culture in a recent article of The Independent: “overall, movies used architecture and buildings as backdrops, but failed to enter ‘their souls’, as we are now trying to do”. This is due, one suspects, to the conflict between the natures of the two art forms: where architecture is decidedly static, film is predicated on movement. Where the two forms converge, however, is as a visual representation of human thought and Cathedrals is a project which attempts to employ one to lend a voice to the other.
In addition to Wenders, Cathedrals boasts a bill of five other acclaimed directors who contributed to its three hour runtime. Tasked with creating a short film around a building which means something to them, the filmmakers (Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz) have employed their craft to make the ephemeral “soul” of their chosen structures tangible. Much like earlier projects by avant-garde directors such as The Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer, the collaborators of Cathedrals use the camera as a mediator between man and object, using the time-based art to draw out the latent thoughts and emotions contained within the stationary objects.
Though the project brief suggests that the buildings chosen are “physical manifestations of the mind of man”, their cinematic representations are rather more subjective than the documentary format implies they might be. This is to be expected, of course, given that the choice of buildings which have elicited some personal response; their films are thus reflections of individualised readings of the spaces on screen. These spaces (the Berlin Philharmonic, National Library of Russia, Halden Prison, Salk Institute, Oslo Opera House, and Centre Pompidou) are exhibited with a reverence befitting their assignation as “Cathedrals of Culture”; viewers should expect many a serene tracking shot, point-of-view meanderings, and static long-shots.
These buildings are, of course, impressive in their own right but the filmmakers locate their architectural souls in the intersection between form and function. Their structures are thoroughly examined both for form and functionality, but as might be expected from any attempt to show the merits of a cultural hotspot, the resulting films do come dangerously close to feeling like commissioned advertisements. Yet one could suggest that, as monuments of culture which depend on and encourage public usage, these “Cathedrals” are both cultural and commercial. For a film celebrating the souls of these “culture engines”, then, is it not fitting that they are promoted as well as celebrated?
In response to his observation that architecture is rarely foregrounded in film, Wenders and his collaborators filmed the project entirely in 3D with the intention of lending a greater sense of depth to their films and thus enabling the audience to gain a more acute sense of the spaces on screen. The technique, however, is not particularly effective, and the intention of allowing the spaces to speak for themselves is rather undermined by the tendency of the majority of the directors to endow the buildings with a narrative voiceover. This may be an effective method of conveying information, but it can quickly become tedious and overwrought. Although Redford’s look at the Salk Institute, which makes use of archival footage and interviews is perhaps more conventionally documentary in its approach, it is more effective and engaging than Madsen’s filming of the Halden Prison, which features a rather awkward voiceover from the prison’s resident psychologist.
Cathedrals may have its flaws, but it should be noted that successfully capturing such an ephemeral subject as the “soul” of a building on film was always a difficult brief. If less grandiose than promised, the project should still be commended for its loving portrayal of such a collection of remarkable buildings.