Wim Wenders was bitten by the 3D bug when he made his 2011 dance docu, “Pina,” and he expands the possibilities of the format still further with “Cathedrals of Culture.” Giving all new meaning to the expression “if these walls could talk,” this conceptual six-part omnibus invites half a dozen international helmers to imagine the personalities of various cultural institutions, lending voices to their unique designs while allowing cameras to explore the buildings’ unique architectural features in all their multidimensional glory. Such an overlong and only intermittently absorbing project wouldn’t suffer in the slightest if broken up across several nights for non-3D arts TV, where the otherwise taxing presentation will likely find its broadest audience.
If Walt Disney can delight children by making forest animals talk, who’s to stop Wenders from entertaining adults by anthropomorphizing six of the world’s most magnificent modern structures? The German director kicks off the experience by tackling the Berlin Philharmonic, whose radical design — which placed the orchestra at the center of an abstract gold-paneled building — has spawned iconoclastic imitators as far away as Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Wenders’ installment is the most conventional of the lot, offering viewers access to secret corners and reflective rooftops that no tour would provide. Indeed, only the maintenance crew sees much of what Wenders shows, and it is through a janitor’s eyes that much of the segment unfolds, while the orchestra warms up Debussy’s “Jeux” down below.
Next, Michael Glawogger takes us to the National Library of Russia, circling the stacks as clerks carry leather-bound treasures to and from the shelves (which are said to hold two copies of every important book) or leaf through the pages of beautifully illustrated old volumes. The segment is narrated by a female voice representing the collective cultural heritage housed within, quoting freely from the whole of Russian literature.
In the “which of these is not like the others” segment, Danish docu director Michael Madsen (not to be confused with the American character actor) decides to profile a Norwegian jail designed to provide the most humane form of incarceration, where the cells put convicts in direct contact with the natural world. While it’s not immediately clear how Halden Prison fits the “Cathedrals of Culture” concept, the resulting half-hour is far and away the pic’s most fascinating, partly because it seems equally interested in the prisoners themselves. Humans, after all, prove infinitely more compelling than the esoteric “souls” of buildings.
Collaborating with cinematographer Ed Lachman, Robert Redford contends with the rigid geometry of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., revealing a research facility that feels more like an abandoned alien temple, seemingly better suited for meditation than for rigorous scientific discovery. The segment feels similarly torn in its approach, blending trancelike music by Moby with highly specific snatches of explanation as to the structure’s intended purpose, lifted from interviews with Salk, architect Louis Kahn and others.
Redford’s entry grows somewhat repetitive after a point, an impression that carries through to the next installment, considering how similar Margreth Olin’s treatment of the Oslo Opera House seems to Wenders’ opening salvo. Narrating the segment herself, Olin muses about the visitors reflected in the building’s gleaming windows, contrasting these culture-seekers with the junkies and homeless persons that once populated the neighborhood. The voiceover sounds naive, and yet probes at how an institution can transform its surroundings in fascinating philosophical ways.
The project wraps with Brazilian director Karim Ainouz’s young, free-spirited look at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, asking playful questions about what designers Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers had in mind when designing this strange candy-colored power station of a building, which could pass for a Bond villain’s lair but actually houses galleries, screens and stages full of art and ideas. Ainouz’s entry feels the most personal, as if the director is remembering the building, rather than discovering it for the first time.
Wenders has hardly invented the idea of using 3D to interact with architectural spaces. In fact, the idea for this omnibus arose after the director contributed a short called “If Buildings Could Talk” to the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010, and similar techniques have since been used in 3D Imax movies and by Peter Greenaway for his relatively inelegant segment in the “3x3D” portmanteau film. While there are no masterpieces among the six short films united here (each of which runs just shy of half an hour), the project does provide moments of beauty and brilliance along the way. If successful, the concept could be endlessly expanded to include other directors and the “cathedrals” of their choice.