Film Review: ‘City Visions’ #1

OlsoOH-300x133Magdalena Melon | 29 September 2014

‘Cathedrals of Culture’

If buildings could talk, what would they say about us? Under the direction of Wim WendersCathedrals of Culture attempts to throw light on this question by offering six renowned filmmakers a chance to select a building that means something special to them, and allowing them to pose as the narrators who communicate the soul of their buildings.  This could have proved aesthetically and intellectually stimulating.  In reality, however, while sometimes visually alluring, after a very long three hours, the conceit of the film sometimes appeared more ridiculous than revealing. Sadly, I was not fully convinced with the answers provided.

The choice of buildings promised an array of observations on human activity centered around, broadly speaking, culture. We have the Berlin Philharmonic, Russia’s National Library in St Petersburg, the Opera House in Oslo and Centre Pompidou in Paris and this selection appears to be a very good starting point to reflect on our need to congregate in special structures and experience art forms of all sorts. The two remaining buildings are very different functionally, but still are exemplars of truly human experiences – Halden prison in Norway and the Salk Institute in San Diego. Almost all filmmakers chose to provide a first-person voiceover to their 3D visuals, to anthropomorphise the buildings and provide an insight to their “soul”. This is where the interesting artistic premise of the film becomes shattered as the voiceover is the weakest element of the movie – in the words of the filmmakers, most of these fascinating buildings have little to say and the answers shy away from the tricky question asked in the first place. It is also noteworthy that all voiceovers are done in a very similar manner, as a slow-paced and almost bored (I imagine on purpose, to perhaps emphasise the gravitas of Culture) inner voice of the building accompanying the director who guides us through its guts.

Unfortunately, in case of the Russian National Library, the excellent visual journey through the narrow and dusty corridors is spoiled by the quite pretentious addition of classical books excerpts read by a Russian gentleman. The choice of literature seems to be rather random and does not add much to the intimate portrait of a building that is definitely not well-known and frankly not really noteworthy architecturally. But I feel it would be the strongest piece of all, as it managed to communicate the not obvious beauty of the clearly run-down building holding Russia’s most precious books. The atmosphere of contemplation inside is contrasted with hectic city life outside and I think it is exactly what is the soul of any library.

One of the most interesting pieces is the Oslo Opera House short by Margreth Olin. Both her take on the answer and the visual representation are quite stunning. Similar to Wim Wenders’ portrayal of Berlin Philharmonic and Karim Ainouz’s view of Centre Pompidou, Olin offers viewers the chance to experience a day in the life of the building, showing the various preparations in advance of the evening shows. Paired with slightly surreal pictures of Oslo’s locals making use of the iconic slope that makes the roof of the Opera House and a heartfelt commentary on the role of the building in bringing joy of the spectacle to people, this movie is successful in conveying a convincing message about architecture for culture. Olin offered a very personal statement on this institution, highlighting architectural features such as fully glazed walls that allow the artists and staff to look at the prospective audience and vice versa.

Another strong image is the one featuring another example from Norway, the Halden high-security prison. Michael Madsen chose to juxtapose the almost lyrical imagery (with a few disturbing exceptions, when showing isolation cells) of the inmates and guards sharing the facility that is very pleasing aesthetically, with psychologist’s commentary that stresses the not-so-pleasant aspects of life in confinement. The prison, which made it into many glossy architecture magazines when it was completed, is shown as a very efficient machine in the way it does its job – that is to isolate and to reshape people who committed most atrocious crimes. It is a good reminder that beautiful buildings may also serve a less delightful, if necessary, purpose.

The remaining films were less compelling, with too much focus on architects that created the buildings and too little reflection on how the buildings actually contribute to human experiences. Wenders’, Ainouz’s and Redford’s pieces were interesting visually but a bit too dry in terms of the commentary, making it feel like an excerpt from history book. All stressed the importance of innovative spatial concepts and included archive footage of design or construction work. But they failed to show what makes a particular building be itself and how it affects its users and is affected by them in return. Redford’s piece was the least interesting, as the director decided to show mainly the iconic courtyard of Kahn’s building. It would have been much more engaging if we could see the messy labs in more detail, as only a short glimpse was provided. Perhaps then testimonials from scientists would be more convincing.

All in all, it is a movie worth seeing…. if you have three hours to spare. The use of 3D filming technique allows the viewers to experience the spatial qualities of the buildings almost as well as when visiting in person and the added bonus is the opportunity to see the off-limits areas. But I feel the whole movie falls short of a constructive commentary on architecture, and in some cases fails to get near answering the main question posed. I would certainly welcome some more critical reflections on the role of specific buildings serving culture in human life and the validity of architectural expression in each case.

Cathedrals of Culture is part of the series City Visions at the Barbican in September / October 2014

Magdalena Melon is an architecture graduate from Warsaw, Poland. She was part of the project team for the British Pavilion for 14th International Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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