What if the walls had eyes? What if a building could see, listen, reflect and speak for itself? Four directors attempts to give us the answers if this were to be true.
Tin Phan, member of the Web Editorial.
Image credit: MerFilm AS
During a press screening at Filmens Hus in June 2014, I got the honor of attending an edited version of Cathedrals of Culture (4 out of 6 episodes screened in total). The movie opened with Wim Wenders' contribution The Berlin Philharmonic, Michael Madsen's (not to be confused with the American actor) Halden Prison, Robert Redford's The Salk Institute and at last, the Norwegian contribution Margreth Olin's The Oslo Opera House. It seems like Wim Wenders gave only a few guidelines on how to contribute to the series. The buildings was to be of cultural significance and its soul personified through a voice. This review focuses mainly on how the relationship between architecture and human is conveyed on film and to what degree it is true to its roots and concept.
The first act, The Berlin Philharmonic is a seamless blend between documentary and film. Naturally enough if a building had a voice, it would have a deep connection to its infancy, in this case, its extraordinary context in the backdrop of the Cold War. Wenders shows the same narrative strength of capturing a sort of zeitgeist as he did in his critically acclaimed Wings of Desire (1987). By going in details how the Opera performs, a special and strong trait becomes apparent to otherwise an open ended and artistic concept. By showing the performance of a building, one get to see a living organism working both off- and center stage and the everyday audience 24/7. Wenders also shows small details, both wonderful and strange, one can easily miss by just strolling past the building. Such as the daily practice of second hand tickets, in which I was unfamiliar with.
The second act, Halden Prison, Madsen shows the true potentials of the concept. He manages for a second to put aside the poetic language set by Wenders and dig deeper into what one may consider the ugly sides of the persona/building. The narrator here look upon itself as a keeper of secrets, guarding and confining its inhabitants. Although presented as the worlds most humane prison by Time magazine, Madsen also shows with ease the duality of beauty and ugliness, the sane and insane, among the inmates and prison guards. By testing the outcome of the buildings performance Madsen expands the possibilities of Wenders concept. His concept may have been stronger if he had gotten the rights to film in one of the more conventional prisons in Denmark rather than the all-too-spectacular Halden.
The third act, Salk Institute, is the unlikely wild card of the series, With the well seasoned actor-turned-director and academy award winner Robert Redford at the helm it should have been a sure thing. Narrated posthumously by the researcher Jonas Salk and the architect Louis Kahn and some other scientists. Visually and technical aspects the director shows finesse, aided by Moby's soundtrack. On the contrary, the segment felt as the weakest link, mainly because of the lack of ingenuity to invent a voice or soul. The narrator is just a compilation of interviews neatly edited together with fancy shots and an ear deafening soundtrack. Let it be no doubt, it is a celebration of the visual aestethics of the building most certainly, but nothing new other than a visit on site or a quick search on Wikipedia. In order words, Redford fails the only and most important task issued by Wenders by not even trying.
The fourth act is by our very own, Margret Olin, famous for work such as Ungdommens Råskap (2004). Her choice naturally fell on the Oslo Opera House. The building talks only briefly about its history (a wise choice since Bjørvika is still in its infancy), but focuses mainly on its performers feeding the soul or voice through their dances, vocals and acting. Olin does not hide the fact that she is more fascinated by the performers and not so in the building. The narrator takes a step back on many occasions and let the performances on and off stage do the talking. In the end, although an exciting take with a lot of metaphors and poetry, this segment felt as a bit of a drag. Mainly because the message was very simplistic in comparison with the amount of screen time Olin had gotten.
Overall, one could argue if the series could have shown us more of the ugly sides as mentioned, aside from the poetic or romantic sides. A few examples could be introducing themes such as more of the maintenance work or the many secrets of the past piling up in each building etc. Also if one takes the trouble of telling history why cite directly from the history books? Wenders issues a high regard for artistic license, so there are opportunities of integrating more of the soul's perspective into the history. It would also be interesting to get the full range of the good and bad days of the each personifications, in a degree what Madsen did with his take. To be more specific, maybe what I miss is a more explorative approach to the concept. There is great possiblities of creating unforeseen stories and aspects and not run-of-the-mill poetic, artsy and "personal" iterations. It also boils down to the overall choice of buildings, which felt very predictable as the typical iconic cultural buildings exhibiting the regular extravaganza, except Halden Prison, which Madsen again took me by a surprise.
The inventive and interactive method of presenting documentaries with a soul may very well redefine the genre. Mainly because the agenda of the documentary automatically gets sharpened and precise on a subjective note without being accused of heresy. I am also amazed by how well the cross genre between fiction and documentary works, as fiction becomes a tool of reinventing history. Most cross genres today seems to be created out of curiousity rather than of necessity, such as the action movie claiming of inventing the genre, Aliens & Cowboys (2011).
In the end the voice of each building is very successful in presenting architecture as a functioning living organism, through its specific program and people. As mentioned, the voice/soul/persona presented is a very potent device of presenting something personal as fact, but can lose its integrity if it becomes overly self-indulgent. One can say architecture itself comes in a very finite package, it is a complete physical, measurable, three dimensional object. It is very easy to dismiss and reject a building at first glance, even for a student in the field. When a building gets a voice we get to learn and understand all of its nuances, maybe creating an open-minded and genuine appreciation for architectural work. I would go to a certain extent and claim Cathedrals of Culture as more of a gift to the architectural field of conveying and understanding it, rather than a gift to pure cinematic entertainment. Although it was invigorating to see the depths of architecture being presented on the big screen.
Cathedrals of Culture is set to premiere as a miniseries of 6 episodes this month on NRK 2 around the 30th of October (exact date not yet determined). The trailer can be seen here and previews of Halden Prison and Oslo Opera House at Nowness.com.