Cathedrals of Culture (2014)

Cathedrals Of Culture

Based on an original idea by Wim Wenders, Cathedrals Of Culture is a portmanteau of six directors finding their own genius in architectural space.

Cathedrals of Culture

The Six Lamps by Mark Wilshin

If you think of cathedrals of culture, you may think of Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery or the Vatican Museums. Or maybe even the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau, New York’s MOMA, or the whole of Venice – as Ruskin did. But for Wim Wenders and the six producers of Cathedrals Of Culture, it’s geared towards a Modernist, second-half-of-the-twentieth-century kind of architectonics, revealing in glorious 3D the Berlin Philharmonic, Russia’s National Library in St Petersburg, Norway’s Halden Prison, the Salk Institute in La Jolla California, the Oslo Opera House and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It’s perhaps more revealing of the six directors – Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin and Karim Aïnouz – and their choices of influential edifices, rather than a structured exploration of the buildings that house the arts; one could well imagine an alternative series of temples dedicated to architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance and cinema. But exploring these enigmatic and personal cathedrals, we’re able to catch a glimpse of the construction behind culture.

There’s a similar tone to each of the six half-hour episodes, their cameras freely and curiously roaming through the spaces of their cathedral’s foyers, hallways and antechambers; a gloriously virtuoso use of 3D – doing for architecture what Wenders’ Pina did for dance. Each cathedral is also accompanied by a voice-over, often in the first person, to describe the building’s interaction with the world around it – its visitors, the city surrounding it, its purpose and the architects that made it. In Wim Wenders’ section on the Berlin Philharmoniker as well as Karim Aïnouz’s Pompidou Centre, there’s also archive footage to anchor the building in history – to illuminate the construction of the Berlin Wall nearby or to convey the shock of the new as Richard Rogers’ and Renzo Piano’s building is unveiled in 1970s Paris. History, architecture, music, cinema, performance – all come together in six unique but complementary stories.

Perhaps the most perplexing is Michael Madsen’s choice of Halden Prison – a high-security penitentiary with a reputation for good living. And as the prison’s psychologist leads us through its walls and into its cells, a beautiful building emerges, set in woodland, with a shop and a private house for night visits. It’s an intriguing study of a building’s relation to its inhabitants – the inmates who might hate it, hurt it, or desperately want to escape it, but also a refuge and sanctuary to those who are hurting. Equally thought-provoking is Robert Redford’s exploration of the Salk Institute. Designed by Louis Kahn at Salk’s request, it’s an inspiring edifice with a soul – constructed to create the best learning environment possible and inspire its incumbents. Passed on from Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, to the next generation of bio-scientists, it’s a place of great hope and meaning, and an example of the startling possibilities when two media – in this case architecture and science – come together.

Based on the concept of a building’s soul, Cathedrals Of Culture explores the genius loci of each location, which in Michael Glawogger’s film on the National Library in St Petersburg, finds its voice through the words and writings of Dostoyevsky, St Augustine, Gogol, Epicurus and Goncharov (among others) to illuminate the treasures in glass cases and tomes wrapped together with string. Similarly, Margrethe Olin’s film on the Oslo Opera House lets performance both inside and outside its walls sing, from the modern dance of Cygne to the simple enjoyment of a mime, a mask or a caped actor in full swing. But for Olin, it’s about the memory of a building, taking black and white snap-shots of the people who come and go. While Aïnouz’s Pompidou Centre revels in the delicious textures of a building’s nostalgia, once shocking but now left behind by more conservative times.

At times stunningly choreographed, at others frustratingly tortuous, Cathedral Of Cultures struggles with its format – in cinematic 3D but also divided into six conveniently TV-sized episodes – its chaptered structure of unconnected segments preventing any kind of culmination beyond the sum of its parts. All the same, there are enough moments of great beauty and clarity and enough ideas to fill a cathedral of any kind.

Cathedrals of Culture is released on 17th October 2014 in the UK

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