Reviewed August 2015
Michael DeNotto, Instructional Services Librarian
Fitzgerald Library, St. Mary's University of Minnesota
michael.denotto@gmail.com

Six short documentaries comprise the omnibus 3D film project Cathedrals of Culture.  Each internationally acclaimed director focuses on a monument of culture, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, while exploring the goal to reveal the “soul of buildings.”  As each monument is explored, the buildings are anthropomorphized, providing them a voice through narration. This narration facilitates the revelation of how the buildings are both culturally representative and influential, how humanity affects and is affected by architecture.

Overall, each film is technically impressive.  Lengthy tracking shots utilizing Steadicams and cranes seamlessly take us from one space to another, sumptuous panoramas of public spaces are captured from publically inaccessible viewpoints, while spatial depth is emphasized to take advantage of 3D film technology.  Director Wim Wenders utilizes these techniques to great effect in his piece on Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic as the camera stirringly moves from the building’s intricate mosaic floor, to the conductor’s private quarters, to the panoptical beauty of the concert hall, to shots of the structure’s arboreal yet urban surroundings.  Situated approximately 100 meters from where the Berlin Wall stood, the film emphasizes how its spaces are designed to be open, organic, and democratic, in stark contrast to the divisive nature of that infamous barrier.

The late Michael Glawogger showcases the National Library of Russia.  Here the measured tracking shots make it feel as if one is leisurely browsing the stacks, fingers brushing the spines. Glawogger’s piece features narrators quoting from Russian literature, alternating between English and Russian while the camera follows library staff shelving, cataloging, and dusting.  The final scene plunges the viewer into an e-reader before being spit back onto the cacophonous and congested streets of Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, where the library resides

Danish director Michael Madsen brings us the most memorable of the films with his piece on the Halden Prison in Norway.  Regarded as the most humane prison on the planet, its inmates are in daily contact with nature, and one could easily mistake the spaces within the structure for a modern day European spa.  Examining the role of prisons as rehabilitative or punitive, the film looks at dualities, how prisons are undesirable yet necessary, how someone can be defined by physically being inside or outside of a space.

However, certain films suffer from excess. The Robert Redford directed piece on the Louis Kahn designed Salk Institute verges on the commercial with its hyper-stylized and oft-redundant cinematography that is accompanied by a cliché electronic soundtrack from artist Moby.  Declarations of admiration for the Institute from scientists and staff quickly grow wearisome and bleed into promotional territory. 

With already one film about a music center and another based in Norway, Margreth Olin’s short on the breathtaking Oslo Opera House, its sharp angles make it seem to rise from the sea, seems an odd choice.  Though, Olin’s film is the most people focused of the six.  Karim Ainouz’ work on the futuristic Centre Pompidou playfully explores this massive cultural center which holds within its “web of steel bones” a museum of modern art, a public library, and many performance spaces. The narration in this section is uneven, and the film does little to stand out.

Available in 2D or 3D, the omnibus project touches on elements of architectural design, theory, and history to varying degrees.  Additionally, this would be a useful resource to foster discussion on how humans and architecture affect one another.  The film would supplement any art and architecture collections.  Additionally, as architecturally based films are not abundant, Cathedrals of Culture, stands as a valuable work.