These Walls Can Talk (In 3-D!)

Wim Wenders has been entranced with 3-D—which he calls the new language of cinema—since Pina, his great film tribute to Pina Bausch. He's a man on a mission, searching for a topic that might work as well as dance (and movement). To that end, he became an executive producer for six fairly short films about architecture, even directing one himself. But in instances in which visual layers are not abundant or a building is not multifaceted or -functional, architects themselves become the films' topics. Is this a bit of a cheat? Well, if the directors' names are stellar enough and the buildings famous.

Cathedrals of Culture posits that buildings have a spirit, a “genius loci” of atmosphere attached to place. If you buy into that, it follows they may have souls, as well as a voice, particularly a narrative voice, as we are in the documentary mode. Still, you might jump in your seat when a building declares, “I was born.” In the film about the Oslo Opera House, director Margreth Olin narrates in cool tones matching the snowy white exteriors: “I am a house. Without you, my echoes go silent.” As the cameras move among backstage equipment and a troupe in rehearsal, there is a real “you are there” feeling.

The format also works well for Karim Aïnouz's film on the Pompidou Centre in France, which makes use of overhead beams, the museum's connective passages and narration by Deyan Sudjic asserting that he is the repository for the history of France, even with the “anorexic flat-screens” of computers invading the museum's library.

Least effective is Robert Redford's paean to the Salk Institute. It offers a sense of the scientists going about their busy business in and out of cubicles, as well as of the slab-like blocks of the buildings themselves. Yet the only memorable use of Wenders' new language of documentary 3-D is of plain black letters for names: hardly imaginative. Ironically, Wenders' own film on the Berlin Philharmonic disappoints. It's a fantastic building, but the director's emphasis is on the interior-design concept by Hans Scharoun (and Scharoun himself; we see the architect's face/image move in reverse dissolve from a wall statue). We learn that his major contribution—and one that has influenced concert halls ever since—was to place the orchestra in the middle, surrounded by seating, so that “all walks of life” can enjoy. The 3-D techniques never illuminate this; others seem familiar from Pina.

I expected to be bored by the film on the National Library of Russia, directed by Austrian Michael Glawogger. What could 3-D do for this ancient building? Yet the camera glides among the crevasses and nook-enhanced corridors where, in keeping with the Russian temperament, we're told books hadn't just been kept—they'd also been suppressed. Shot in exceptionally dark tones—though this seems right after a while—the close-ups bring out the vibrancy of antique manuscripts, some with hand-drawn precious illustrations. You can practically hear the creak as the pages turn. Another standout is the film by Danish director Michael Madsen on the Halden Prison in Norway, the “world's most humane prison.” The prisoners do look relatively content. Still, narrator Benedicte C. Westin plaintively complains of hearing of another world outside, but he can't imagine it. Driving this home is the 3-D-enhanced gate that draws you in, and you do feel, well, yeah, you might never get out.

Paradoxically, the real breakthroughs of Cathedrals of Culture are of narrative voice and sound: It's nouveau to think of buildings as having personalities, even acting roles.

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