Cathedrals of Culture is a 165-minute 3D film with six chapters that had its first iteration as a television mini-series aired in Europe, each segment helmed by its own director and giving voice to a different iconic building. It screens starting this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as two part, big screen experience that can be viewed either as a whole or in parts with separate ticketing.
Beginning with Berlin Philharmonic Hall, directed by Wim Wenders, a loose pattern for the rest of the series is quickly set. The camera gives us beautiful, depth-filled shots of the structure, while first-person narration gives the building a voice. It’s interesting that Wenders gives the Hall a female voice, but the narration isn’t really as important as what’s on screen. Choosing to use the most flattering wide shots possible outside the building before switching to a Steadicam to trail individuals on their paths throughout the inside of the T.A.R.D.I.S.-like Hall (it’s bigger on the inside), it quickly becomes obvious that this film is architecture porn. Floating through the building, every shot is a lingering glance at a different aspect of the iconic structure. My architect friends will love this.
The second chapter, National Library of Russia, is helmed by Michael Glawogger, and is ambitious but confusing. Instead of using narration to voice the library’s thoughts, we instead hear a male voice reading excerpts from different books, first in Russian, then overlapped with the English translation. These have no context, and after a while create a sort of cognitive dissonance that can be hypnotizing. Especially while the camera floats through all the narrow maze-like aisles of books, lights flickering on as we reach new areas. We lose all track of where in the building we could possibly be. Perhaps it’s meant to hint at the spectral presence of the essences of all those works of literature? It’s unclear at any rate.
Halden Prison quickly wakes us from our hypnotic state, though. Directed by Michael Madsen (no, not the actor) and narrated by Benedikte Westin (the prison’s psychologist), this chapter is a reflection on prisons as small villages and the different kinds of people who live there. Some of the novelty lies in the beauty of this pristine white structure, which comes complete with its own wooded areas and is very different from the prisons you see here in North America. But it’s also the thoughtfulness and compassion of the piece, with the prison caring deeply for the inmates within its walls. It points out that the building is the only one who sees the prisoners when they cry alone in their cells. These inmates need help following the rules, and their humanity is central to everything. There’s a sense of gentleness to it all.
After a brief intermission, the fourth chapter, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is the one to break the most from the pattern. Yes, the cinematography is still beautiful, giving life to a building that strives to keep everyone else alive, but its narration is completely different. Every other chapter uses the narration as a kind of voice for the structure, but this one is instead an aural collage of excerpts culled from interviews with the researchers who work there, combined with archival recordings of Jonas Salk (the founder of the Institute and the man who discovered the cure for polio), all talking about the philosophy behind the buildings’ layout. Complete with a soundtrack by Moby, this democratically-narrated episode directed by Robert Redford (yes, the actor) is about as American in tone as the others are European. It’s also the first where the narration is just as important as the images onscreen.
Next comes Oslo Opera House, directed and narrated by Margreth Olin, and we return to the concept of a sentient building. Yet, at the same time, while the narration talks about how this structure is very much a house, this section chooses to focus more on the people who inhabit the building than the building itself. In one particular subplot, we follow the creation of a performance from orchestra rehearsal, to dance rehearsal (complete with emotional breakdown), to costuming and makeup, and finally, the finished product. Meanwhile, the building reminds us that it remembers and savours these details, even as one dancer or singer grows old and is replaced by a new, younger one. This is the cycle of life and of art.
Finally, Centre Pompidou, Karim Aïnouz’ reflection on the iconic French museum and performance house returns to the original pattern, with the building expressing its relief at finally being accepted by Paris and its citizens, all while the camera gives us a tour of the building and its fantastical structure.
All in all, this will be devoured by architects and lovers of the form everywhere, while also being appreciated by lovers of luscious cinematography and those curious to learn about places they’ve never experienced. But, unless you value 3D as just that — the addition of a third dimension to the film experience, understanding that the subtle inclusion of depth here emphasizes how these structures embody their space — you may tire of wearing those glasses for so long. In the end, it’s a beautiful art film, but if you’re someone who might get restless at the lack of a concrete throughline, you may want to spend those 165 minutes (plus intermission) elsewhere.