In Wim Wenders’ latest project Cathedrals of Culture, he challenged 5 other directors to delve into the soul of some of Europe’s cathedrals of culture.

In My Architect, A Son’s Journey, Nathaniel Kahn’s superb documentary from 2003, he pays homage to his father Louis Kahn’s extraordinary career in architecture. When the filmmaker talks to master architect I.M. Pei, he comments on Louis Kahn’s special bond with his “best” client, Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical pioneer who developed the polio vaccine, one of modern medicine’s more important and groundbreaking discoveries in life sciences.

The scientist and the architect collaborated on the vision of building the Salk Institute for Biological Studies located in La Jolla, California. Today, the iconic structure, finished in the early 1960s, continues to house doctors, scientists and researchers in pursuit of creating prolonged, healthier lives for the human species. Pei says about Louis Kahn’s creation: “Architecture has to have the element of time. …That’s the measure. That’s why the Salk center will always be as perfect as it was when it was conceived.  The teakwood may fade away – it probably has – but the spirituality of that project will remain. That building will stand the test of time, no question about it.” Do buildings have timeless spirits? And if they do, how is that manifested in relation to the people that pass through them?

German filmmaker Wim Wenders commissioned five other top directors to collaborate with him on his latest project using 3D technology, a format he used to gorgeous affect in his film Pina about the great contemporary dance choreographer, Pina Bausch. His proposition for Cathedrals of Culture was to portray six structures to explore “the souls of buildings.” What would these structures say to us in auto-portraiture? The 3-hour, 6-part omnibus project had a couple of rules of engagement for its makers – the imperative, of course, to use 3D film technology as a tool for each director’s vision; the other, that each structure should “speak” in a distinct first-person voice.

The only director to break this last directive was Robert Redford, who chose to profile Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. He felt that the open environment of the Institute with its vast empty spaces, precise symmetrical wood and glass structures, and submerged crevasses that allow the natural light of Southern California’s coastal zone to enter the buildings, would be best served in a mosaic-like approach. We hear from the scientists and custodians that work there, mixed with montages of archival footage with Kahn and Salk themselves speaking about their dream for the building which was inspired by their mutual desire to have the Institute resemble a living organism, the melding of art and science into a structure that yearns to be an organic outgrowth of its natural surroundings. Vast swaths of sky and sea merge in wondrous shooting by Ed Lachman. The use of overlapping voiceover from the past and the present accompany a stunning visual exploration of the way the building inspires the scientists who work within it every day, an almost monastic-like retreat for its questing inhabitants.

The other buildings profiled in Cathedrals of Culture are the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany by Wenders; the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia by Austrian director Michael Glawogger; the Centre Pompidou in Paris by Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz (who is an architect by training); the Opera House in Oslo by Norwegian director, Margreth Olin; and, Halden Prison, also in Norway, filmed by Danish director, Michael Madsen. It is the last two that, for me, were the most emotionally engaging pieces besides Redford’s contribution. Here, the three dimensionality of the camerawork is on best display, creating a resonance of space and time that illustrates our mostly subliminal engagement with structures that will exist long after we pass on.

The films of Wenders, Aïnouz and Glawogger are all cinematically exquisite, to be sure. I appreciated the humor and innate apologia at its lack of a façade and exposed innards via the shy male voice of the Pompidou. Glawogger’s portrayal of the way the almost all-female custodial staff of the St. Petersburg Library ignore the whispering voices in the endless carrels and corridors, filled with the echoes of passages from the works of Gogol, Brodsky and Dostoevsky is both haunting and elegiac. Ultimately, however, they present rather mundane institutional tours rather than engaging portraiture, barely moving beyond a superficial relationship with the animus, or governing spirit, of these cultural palaces.

The magnificent Operahuset is the home of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, situated in the Bjørvika section of Oslo at the head of the Oslofjord. With its gigantic expanse of over a thousand rooms and its angled exterior surfaces covered in Italian marble and white granite, the structure looks like an iceberg emerging from the water, parked right smack in the city’s center. But this grand expanse’s voice is modest and it is sitting there waiting for us. “I am a house. They put me here. In this neighbourhood of arrivals and departures, among the broken-hearted, and the open hearted. They widened their circle and let me in. They gave me a seat. …I am a house. That’s all. Until you step into me, until you step onto me, until your voice echoes in my corridors, until I feel the lightness of your feet. Until then, I am a house.”

Intense but lithe and graceful figures move towards us and away, with playfulness, curiosity, beckoning us into their peculiar and magical world, Øystein Mamen’s camera dancing along beside them. And then they are frozen in medias res like statues. Shifting between the rigors of grueling rehearsals, endless makeup and costume fittings, against that of the opulence of the performances, Olin herself embodies the voice of this grand House, an affectionate, loving voice talking directly to the denizens that live both in and outside her fortress, emphasizing – not unkindly – that while the fragile human bodies within her will disperse with time, she will stay standing to welcome a new influx, decade after decade, time after time.

There are several deft shifts in timbre throughout the poetic text – co-written with Bjorn Olaf Johannessen – between that of a sense of longing in facing what a human body can experience with “your weightless moments, your impossible moves, your aching muscles.” There is stoicism in the face of our ultimate abandonment of her, as well. “For that is what a house can do, to stay when you go. How I wish I could travel with you. …27 bones in every hand, 43 muscles in a face, 100 thousand kilometres of blood vessels, 3 billion heartbeats before it stops and leaves me without you. And then – another you, because you created me to outlive you.”

In the case of Halden Prison, Michael Madsen says that he had to do a bit of convincing when he proposed his idea of filming a high security prison as his chosen “cathedral of culture.” Madsen was interpreting “cathedral” as an entity that can shape and mold its inhabitants, ultimately creating an isolated and imaginary community.

Do buildings have timeless spirits?

Who would have thought that a maximum-security facility deep in the forests of Norway – albeit a “humane prison” – would provoke a fascinating architectural discussion? Madsen introduces his film with a query from philosopher Michel Foucault from Discipline and Punish: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals – which all resemble prisons?” All of these places have proven to be rather unfriendly, even downright hostile, to the human spirit. But through Madsen’s lens and the narration from the prison’s lead psychologist, Benedicte C. Westin, we get access to an inner sanctum that many of us would otherwise not be able to penetrate. Westin’s voice traverses a liminal scale, something between human and robotic with its precise spacing, oblique, indefinable accent and monosyllabic lexicon.

It is almost as if this voice is speaking to a child, giving him a personal tour of a possible future. “Inside of me there’s a whole community of its own. Everything, cells and kitchen and schools and workplace, forest gardens, you have everything, even a little shop where you can buy things. It’s like a little village.” But then without any change in tone, she also says, “Before you pass through [my gates] you can be whoever you want to be. But once you have passed through me you become a prisoner or a prison officer. I’m the one who defines who you are. I’m the difference between being a prisoner – and being you.” She goes on to say that she can see and hear everything that goes on and that she knows all about everybody that resides or comes to work within her walls. The tone is eerie but playful, straightforward, and then sly. It’s a wonderful bit of directing on Madsen’s part, both visually and aurally, the floating camera wafting through the environs like a curious ghost.

This is the audience’s privilege on these journeys – through sound and vision, voice, light and shadow, we can be sojourners through the annals of time. The Oslo Opera House tells us: “…what I can offer in return is to remember just this one thing. To remember you.”


Directed by Wim Wenders, Robert Redford, Michael Madsen,

Michael Glawogger, Margreth Olin, Karim Aunouz,

Germany, Denmark, 2014, 165 minutes

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