Of all the buildings featured in the art-documentary Cathedrals of Culture the only one I’ve personally been to is the Pompidou Centre in Paris. I was fifteen and obsessed with Francis Bacon, so when I discovered that there would be a Bacon exhibition at the Pompidou Centre the weekend I would be in Paris with my family I had to go. The thing is, while I have a vivid memory of the exhibition I don’t remember all that much about the building. In a way, that’s the central conflict that this film sets out to explore; is a building defined by its architecture or its purpose?
Cathedrals of Culture is a series of short 25 minute short films, all by different directors. The directors each take a particular building as their subject and endeavour to uncover the soul of that building through a variety of means. It reminded me a little of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, in that each of the films takes a different stylistic approach to similar subject matter.
The film opens with Wim Wenders’ slightly fantastical exploration of the Berlin Philharmonic, narrated by the building itself (interestingly, a number of the filmmakers use this device and, with the exception of the Pompidou Centre, the voice of the building always belongs to a woman). We see the staff of the building carrying out their maintenance duties, we follow Sir Simon Rattle as he prepares for and then performs a concert and we are introduced to the ghost of the original architect who wanders the halls unseen, much like the angels in Wings of Desire. The overall effect is interesting and enlightening, and the ‘story’ of the concert gives it enough narrative drive to keep the pace moving.
From Wenders we move to Michael Glawogger’s film about the National Library in St. Petersburg, in which we glide between endless shelves overflowing with beautiful, antique books, only to come to an abrupt stop when we zoom into the screen of a tablet computer. Then it’s onto Danish director Michael Madsen’s tour of Halden Prison, a building so beautifully designed in places it’s easy to forget its true purpose, until a filthy solitary confinement cell reminds us that even humane incarceration can have an ugly side. Robert Redford’s film shows us the Salk Institute in California and contrasts archive footage and audio of the original designers and scientists who worked there in the beginning with the scientists who work there today. Then we’re off to Oslo, where Margreth Olin gives us an affectionate exploration of the Opera House and makes a poignant comparison between the performers on the inside and the people on the outside, going as far as to suggest that the performers only truly exist when they’re inside the building. And finally there’s Karim Ainouz’s film on the Pompidou Centre, taking a day in the life of what the narrator refers to as a ‘culture machine’.
Overall, I had a mixed response to the film. There are moments of great beauty and stunning design contrasted with slow tracking shots of rooftops and hallways that are so repetitive it feels like you’re seeing them for the thousandth time. Sometimes the lack of information about the buildings themselves and why and how they were built is frustrating; sometimes I found myself less interested in the soul of the building than I was in how it came to be there. The more narrative sections are easier to engage with than the more abstract pieces that seem a little directionless at times.
Where the film really shines is in the performance sections of those buildings used for the performing arts. The concert in the Berlin Philharmonic and the sections of performances in the Oslo Opera House are exhilarating and do more to express what it feels like to be there than all the shots of walkways and hallways put together. This takes me back to the question I started with – does a building exist to be beautiful or to facilitate something beautiful? And now I’m fifteen years old again and I’m back in the Pompidou Centre looking at Francis Bacon paintings. The building was invisible to me then because I was only interested in the art, and while I feel like the film is trying to tell me there is more to a building than what we find inside I’m not sure I’m fully convinced. But then, I was just a tourist and as Deyan Sudjic says in his narration for the Pompidou section – ‘The tourists are performers. They make their own worlds out of me.’ This is a film that attempts to take the audience on an intimate journey far beyond the kind you would experience as a tourist, and though it’s not entirely successful there are some interesting insights along the way.
Cathedrals of Culture is released on DVD in the UK on 10th November from Metronome Releasing.
Review by Chris Regan