Cathedrals of Culture (2014)

Of course, buildings cannot have souls. We are cannot even install them in computers. But a new 3D film by six directors, which began life as a TV series, sets out to demonstrate the improbable.

You have to admit these are personable buildings. The roving cameras are accompanied by first person voiceovers which bring us into the action as effectively as our stereoscopic specs.

It should be noted, this film got a really bad review in the Guardian, where architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright found it “sickly sweet . . . syrupy schmaltz”.

And while it is true that some of these buildings come off better than others, and that the results are an immersive advertisement for each given destination, there’s plenty of visual jouissance.

The star of the show, the leading architectural cast member, is Halden Prison in Norway. Here the film captures all the humanity you could ever hope for from one of these institutions.

Sun shines on the basketball court, marital quarters are tastefully decked out, the prison shop is well stocked, even the isolation cells look cool and, despite the dirty protest, somewhat inviting.

Wenders himself films the Berlin Philharmonic, a crazy structure based on overlapping pentagons. Yes, the praise is gushing. But this is a real life sonic cathedral, so what’s not to love?

Perhaps for those already familiar with, say, the National Library of Russia or the Salk Institute, this film is a bit of a yawn. Director Robert Redford maybe overdoes the time lapse photography.

Indeed, the thirty or so minutes spent in the company of the Centre Pompidou in Paris were none too interesting. Having spent a few days riding those escalators, something more was hoped for.

And yet the film which gave the least info was also the most dynamic. Director Margreth Olin chose to focus on the performers who use the Oslo Opera House, allowing the building itself to also dance.

At 165 minutes, this cathedral service is a lengthy one. It drags at times. But why should action movies have the monopoly on 3D? Architecture, no matter how sugar coated, is surely as exciting.

Cathedrals of Culture was screened at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton, on 30 December 2014.

2 thoughts on “Cathedrals of Culture (2014)

  1. As your companion at the viewing I pretty much agree with you. My favourite was also the Halden Prison section because I thought the narrative– written by the director Michael Madsen but based on the perceptions of the prison psychologist– were the most interesting of the lot. ‘Before you go through these walls, you can be… anybody you want to be. But once you go through, you’re a prisoner, or a prison guard”. That stuck with me and has made me think about how it’s easy to take for granted and squander the freedom one has. Extra points to Madsen for not doing the voice-over himself. As an actor known for playing gangsters and cops in films, his gravelly voice would have tipped it too far into Noir. Instead it has a brilliantly balanced tone between contemplation, beauty and unease. My second favourite was the library in St Petersberg, with the inspired random quotations from great Russian literature– though this is the section, in the confined and dimly-lit circular halls, where those 3D glasses came closest to giving me a headache. Absolutely agree about the blandness of the voiceover for the last section, on the Pompidou, it was uninspired and boring– I think some of the directors might have done better to cast aside the ‘voice-over of the building itself’ premise they’d been given.

    1. Hi Jay, thanks for your thoughtful comment and dilligent scouring of local cinema listings. Fully in agreement with you over the decision to use the prison psychologist. This was definitely the best episode. Your second pick would have engaged me more had I been astute enough to realise the VO was all based on classic texts from Russian Literature, as it stood, the Russian accent was a bit thick for me and I began to tune it out. For reasons we’ve both stated, it’s a shame that they ended with the Centre Pompidou. It’s also a shame that the CP provided the only example of an art gallery. It certainly didn’t do the venue justice.

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