Cathedrals of Culture

If Only Buildings Could Talk

Just imagine what they have seen, those stone giants of urban history. Concert halls, libraries, prisons, opera houses, museums, or universities. They have survived generations of visitors, held tonnes of knowledge and listened to the people inside them quietly whispering to each other or clapping their hands as loud as they could. They have seen so many people come and go, all with different purposes, ideas and expectations. So many lives, and so many stories. Wim Wender‘s documentary Cathedrals of Culture tries to capture their rich histories, the marks people left on them and the reasoning behind the breathtaking architectures. The documentary consists of six short films, each of them focused on a different cultural institution and created by a different director. The Barbican had the honour of hosting its European premiere, and surely, no other location would have been more suitable.

Centre Pompidou, a remnant of the are of the steam-engine.

Centre Pompidou, a remnant of the are of the steam-engine.

The concept is interesting. Each director has been asked to choose a city and an institution and create a 3D film around it in which the building takes the leading role. Most of the six films are narrated from the viewpoint of the building, an effective way to give the institution a personality and gender. Looking at its visitors as tiny ants swarming around their foyers it explains about its inner workings, its development and challenges, its pride and fears. In some way it reminds me of Gary Hustwit’s documentary Urbanizedwhich also tries to give concrete urban structures a breathing soul. I suspect The Great Museum and National Gallery (both part of the London Film Festival this October) might be two other gems in the same genre – especially as the latter is a creation by Frederick Wiseman, the master of institutional portraiture. And finally the documentary reminded me of Iwona Blazwick‘s texts on the effect of having cultural institutions located in landmark buildings, a trend that has been developed by many modern art museums in the world. The six organisations chosen for this film illustrate the current debates in the field of urban institutions in beautiful ways.

THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC, an icon of modernity after a long dark period in German history. Built right after the war, it expresses lightness – it’s got a double ceiling to make sure the outer one could look like as light as a tent canvas – and spaciousness to give a sense of freedom. The film follows a lady reconstructing the foyer’s mosaics, which have been punctuated by many women’s heels, and a conductor with a nervous face, getting ready to walk up the stage for his next performance. The concert hall is the most striking, for it places the conductor exactly in the middle and has the audience sitting on all sides of him, even behind the orchestra. Every block of attendants holds exactly as many seats as the orchestra, and although they are spread across different heights and angles, audience members can reach all of the blocks without having to leave the hall. It was a first step towards modernism and the concept has been copied vigorously afterwards. The narrator, a German woman probably about sixty years old, impersonates the Philharmoniker very well and gives the institution a strong voice.

The reading room in the Library of Russia

The reading room in the Library of Russia

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF RUSSIA in St Petersburg is a maze of dark, narrow corridors with books piling up on both walls, covering each bit of space up until the ceiling (with the exception of the grand reading room). In the dim light the rooms are more like caves, in dark corners old Russian women are leafing through stacks of dusty books or categorising them according to their labels. They know the shelves like the back of their hand, easily locating the books in the dark and dusting their every page, one by one. Even those sitting next to a window have turned on their desk lights. Underneath the public corridors is a dark basement floor, where the archive is kept in long rows of storage cabinets and drawers, but it also holds the books that needed to ‘disappear’ throughout history. Over the years some of them have resurfaced, when their contents are safe to be requested at the public counter above. It is a beautiful setting, a maze of unlimited knowledge and information, much like what heaven would look like for the curious. The narration solely exists of lines from the great of Russian literature, starting with a quote from Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect short story and regularly coming back to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

HALDEN PRISON, the world’s most humane prison, is located in Norway. The short film starts with a view of its walls, massive concrete structures of over five metres high. A monotonous voice stresses its most important rule: those who come in are changed. It seemed quite a stretch to call a prison a cultural institution, but with that statement it suddenly makes sense. The prison works as an elaborate organisation, a mini-village if you will, which holds everything, from supermarkets to arts workshops. Outside these walls is an invisible world; the prisoners know it exists, but the changing style of the clothes and cars of their visitors are the only sign of time passing. The more is shown of the prison, the more I start to think it’s quite a nice place to live, until the monotonous voice starts drilling into my eardrums again, reading out the script as if it’s a list of rules.

The minimalist design of the Salk Institute

The minimalist design of the Salk Institute

SALK INSTITUTE for biological studies is a private centre of breakthrough science in the south of California. Soon after the short film starts one of its staff walks into the picture and starts talking about the amazing things that happen in the laboratories, much like in a commercial video. He mentions that the architecture of the building is inspired on nature, but with its concrete walls and geometrical forms, it is hard to see his comparison. Looking at the building from the outside, it looks like a group of small apartments, but once inside the spaces seem to be connected and form great halls – which in turn can be split up into smaller ones to suit the needs of the various laboratories. The architect worked with a ‘form follows function’ goal in mind, where the design is completely depending on the projected use of the spaces. Embellishments and decoration are absent, which gives the place a minimalist look. In some of the abundant time-lapse shots the institute has a certain ghost town quality over it. While clouds are floating over the roofs on fast-forwarded speed, a lone bird washing itself in the central fountain is the only living being in the shots.

THE OSLO OPERA HOUSE is a vast white building situated at a quay, looking out over a bright, brisk sea. It seems to be buried in a white-tiled square, making its large square a fluid surface that subtly alters between being a room and a floor. A little girl dressed in pink presses her nose against one of the glass walls and on the other side a mime player copies her. It is a great public sphere, where opera singers, dancers, tourists and children gather and interact with each other.  It is a place for everyone, and it holds everyone’s stories. The stories of all those feet in point shoes tapping the shiny black stage floor, or the feathers of the Swan Lake costumes flying along one of the all-wood corridors. The story of the costume designer, laying a last hand on a giant skull mask, or a singer’s baby staring at the mask as its owner gets ready for the rehearsal. Finally there is the story of the window cleaner, softly stroking the building with his long wiper stick as if she were his dearly beloved.

The white exterior of the Oslo Opera House.

The white exterior of the Oslo Opera House.

THE CENTRE POMPIDOU in Paris looks – according to many visitors – like a great playground for children. With its coloured tubes and flashing gallery signs it is not a surprise. When it was built, the Centre Pompidou shocked Paris, as it wasn’t even close to what architecture looked like at that time. It looks like a big steamboat docked in the middle of an nineteenth-century Hausmann city, it just doesn’t seem to fit. Or like a large airport hall, with its visitors booking their tickets at the counters in the main hall and strolling about to see where they’re headed. The Centre, voiced by the director of the Design Museum in London, explains how it hates to see its visitors come and go. Showing an artwork being packed for shipping to Japan, it says: “It makes me jealous. The work is travelling to the other side of the world, and I am stuck here, right where I have always been, and always will be.” Buildings could have so many feelings and stories, if only someone would listen to them.

The 3D documentary shows all dimensions of a landmark institution’s life, amplifying its inner thoughts and recording its interactions with the outside world. The ‘cathedrals of culture’ are as much of a cultural manifestation as the culture exhibited in them. London’s interpretation of the concept would take the shape of the Barbican Centre, which has always been a promoter of innovative culture and architecture. It could be a perfect follow-up project for Wim Wenders, I’d say.

— The Cathedrals of Culture premiere marked the start of the ‘City Visions’ programme at the Barbican, which includes a long range of great films, talks and exhibition on urban design and city architecture. See the full programme here

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