Cathedrals of Culture: a review

Salk Institute

Louis I. Kahn’s Salk Institute, La Jolla, California

The building is produced like a motion picture without star performers, a sort of documentary film with ordinary people playing all the parts.

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture (1959)

Rather like Nepali sherpas have never climbed to the very summit of their scared peak, Machapuchare, for fear of upsetting its spirit, I wondered whether trying to write of Durham Cathedral’s soul – for it most definitely has one – might somehow end up cheating it of the very ineffability which made it so magical. Unlike the mountain men, I pressed on (and will let you be the judge of my success).


Machapuchare, the Annapurna Himalaya, Nepal.

With Durham still on my mind, I was particularly eager to see Wim Wenders’ new collaboration of film shorts, Cathedrals of Culture, a 3D venture purporting to be ‘about the souls of buildings’. How would Wim et al approach the same conundrum? Could the microphone, the camera lens and a pair of holographic glasses get any closer than the pen to conveying the genius loci?

The six ‘cathedrals of its title are the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, Norway’s Halden Prison and Oslo Opera House, the Salk Institute in California and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. And they are suitably labelled, for all are ‘grand’ in their conception and ‘spiritually’ important to the culture in which they are seated. In the hands of Wenders himself, then, respectively, Michaels Glawogger and Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin and Karim Aïnouz, each tells its story, about its creator, their vision, its users.

There was much that I learnt.

I had no idea that the Philharmonic ‘saw’ the Berlin Wall go up (in 1961), or that it was built in the round of three intersecting pentagons. The National Library keeps a copy of every book ever printed in Russia, in duplicate (and still uses an index card system). Halden Prison permits inmates to use a purpose-built house to receive their families for overnight visits (try getting that past the British public). Medical researcher, Jonas Salk, invented a vaccine for polio that he did not patent – “could you patent the sun?”, he said – foregoing predicted earnings of $7bn. Oslo has an opera house whose roof doubles as a skateboard park and the Centre Pompidou was termed ‘a gothic cathedral in steel’ by its first critics.

Notre Pompidou?

Notre Pompidou?

And how did I learn these things? The buildings told me themselves. Yes, with the notable exception of Redford’s film, all the directors chose to give each building a voice in an attempt to convey some sense of its soul. Each section of first person narration hit home with a Liberacean subtlety, diverting the viewer from any sense of soul with a camp, sledgehammer didacticism. The below a (paraphrased) example of the Berlin Philharmonic speaking…

“This woman looks after my tessellated floor. My mosaics are often damaged by ladies in high heels – after each performance, she tends to my injuries.”


“Really??! I have my own adjective?!!

The cinematography, however, did work. The use of 3D lent a depth and punchy sharpness to each frame, with those sections that were set only to music moving closest to capturing the essence of the spaces.

Buildings are functional and enigmatic phenomena: they see all sorts of people come and go.

A premise that each filmmaker recognized but only one deemed sufficient in itself for examination. In opting for the first person narrative, five of the six crenellated the premise, taking something that was Romanesque in its simplicity and hyperbolising it.

Ely Cathedral

Romanesque simplicity: Ely Cathedral

In a film that sought to remove this veneer of superficiality, Redford chose to splice original interviews with Salk, allied to footage of the scientist and architect Louis I. Kahn collaborating over plans for the Institute and words from researchers working in it today. As such, his piece came closest to capturing something essential at the same time as acknowledging that ‘ordinary’ people play the key roles in the life of any building.

But perhaps that’s the issue… It’s easier to capture something of a building’s life (or, indeed, its historical lives – see Edward Hollis’ book, The Secret Lives of Buildings, for an excellent example of this) than it is to capture its soul. The soul of a place is abstract, protean – shifting and responding to light, sounds, seasons… To speak fittingly,  in any media, of something so fleeting is rather like trying to control one’s unconscious in a dream. To come closest we must know the buildings ourselves, and this is why the films were always destined to come up, ahem, short…

It is not enough to see architecture; you must experience it. [1]

[1] S. E. Rasmussen, Experiencing Buildings (1959) p. 33

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