ArchiteXX at ADFF: Films of Future Past: Wim Wender’s Cathedrals of Culture


CoC_Wenders_Philharmonic_01-sm Editor's Note: The 6th annual Architecture and Design Film Festival took place from October 15-19 at Tribeca Cinemas in New York. It was a blast, and gave us plenty of food for thought. This review marks the first of a series of pieces by subteXXt writers at the festival. More information on the available:

By Jessica Myers

Cathedrals of Culture (2014) is a series of six films commissioned and produced by Wim Wenders, the award-winning German director whose recent work includes the lauded documentary, Pina (2011) on the work of the choreographer Pina Bausch. In Cathedrals of Culture, Wenders selected six buildings, assigned a director to each and charged them with the task of answering the question “If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?” The filmmakers animated their chosen structures with similar 3D film techniques as Wenders used in Pina. The shorts, running about thirty minutes each, were shown in pairs this fall at the Architecture and Design Film Festival in Tribeca. I saw Part 1 of the series that paired Wim Wender’s The Berlin Philharmonic with Karim Aïnouz’s Centre Pompidou. Both pushed the use of 3D to produce an interesting way of fleshing out the clever beauty of these singular architectural projects. And when it comes to cleverness and beauty, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Centre Pompidou are the Hepburns of their class, pure zany elegance. Wenders constructed this project around the idea of the social impact of great architecture, yet as the films themselves explain, it is difficult to measure the influence of any one structure in a social organism as complicated as a city. Not only is it difficult, its burdensome and a little unfair.

Both The Berlin Philharmonic and Centre Pompidou make the presence of this burden obvious, the first by ignoring it completely and the second by expressively articulating the weight. The use of 3D film is visually expansive, allowing an incredible breath to expand in every cramped detail. It creates the tilt-shift stage on which the directors’ full-scale puppetry plays out. Both Wenders and Aïnouz depend on sweeping shots of circulation through the buildings to inject dynamism into the narrative of their motionless main characters (the buildings themselves). In this regard, the Pompidou has an advantage in that its circulation is automated through the escalators. The Berlin Philharmonic, built in early 1960s post-war Berlin, doesn’t have that convenience, so Wenders employs a somewhat Disneyesque device, a running child. The camera follows as the adorable jogging German weaves his way from the meticulously maintained lobby to the concert hall’s recording control room, the keyhole through which Wenders allows us to enter the concert hall. The running child is just one of the many devices Wenders employs to give the film an innocent, almost cartoonish appeal. Another device being Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style black and white flashbacks to the early ‘60s, featuring an actor drifting about in the role of the building’s architect Hans Scharoun – a sort of benevolent ghost who emerges (disturbingly) from a bronze bust of himself. The Philharmonic is beautifully strange, as Wender’s camera work and the expansive effect of the 3D film express, which leads one to wonder why on top of the strange beauty, the character of the building itself appears to be narrating the Berlin Philharmonic’s PR materials in the upbeat cadence of Terry Gross.  Considering the prompt Wenders posed to the projects’ filmmakers, one would imagine a building constructed in 1960s Germany, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall, would have much more to say for itself.


The architect-trained Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz however, seems to have taken the project prompt to “explore the soul of buildings” thoroughly to heart with his short on the Centre Pompidou, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers built in 1977 just blocks from the crater left by Les Halles, Baltard’s famed market pavilions, demolished in the wake of the civic unrest that marked Paris in the late 60s. Instead of narrating the building with a bracketed history of itself or the city, as we saw in Wenders’ film, Aïnouz characterizes the iconic museum and cultural center as very human; anxious and depressive. The Pompidou finds itself wondering if it produces culture, as the moniker “culture machine” would imply, or simply influences it by inspiring its visitors. If the later, what if they stop coming? The building seems envious of its visitors’ capacity to go out into the world and be truly free to affect change as opposed to the plight of a structure living on the hope that the right person comes along to be inspired. The Pompidou’s anxiety is essentially the plight of contemporary buildings that claim to mirror their cities and to create, in and of themselves, great urban impact. Does the building create impact or is it people? How much influence does the built world have over us, its captives? These questions have erratic and complicated answers that can’t be tied to one project, despite the easy narrative of giving one heroic building all the credit for a neighbourhood’s transformation. Aïnouz’s Pompidou understands this, struggles against it, frets about its capacity to fulfill Piano and Rogers’ intentions. The building compares itself to The Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s famed vessel in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The character of the Pompidou rhapsodizes about its love of 19th century science fiction, driving home the point of existing in an out-dated future. In the same way that steam-powered roller blades and iron-bolted diving bells look antiquated to us now, perhaps the futuristic cultural utopias envisioned in the tumultuous late ‘60s and early ‘70s have become obsolete futures unmoored from our present. Aïnouz’s Pompidou sees itself as the enormous, colorful iron lung keeping what’s left of that dream alive in the heart of Paris.

Stills from Centre Pompidou

The Pompidou’s skittering anxiousness, its keen awareness of urban dwellers’ capricious attentions is a stark contrast to the Philharmonic’s utopian optimism, which is likely why they were shown together. However, Aïnouz appears to have engaged Wenders’ prompt more thoroughly than Wenders himself. If the prompt had been for a pure formal analysis of the buildings - the plans, the sections, the details - as opposed to a question of the building’s soul, its relationship to the city, and its citizens- perhaps Wenders’ Philharmonic, awash in far too familiar Bach cello suites, would have felt more honest. Just as a building has an influential connection to its city, so too does the city exert influence on a building. By never truly acknowledging this dynamic, Wenders left a troublesome gap in his film. While Aïnouz is quite comfortable putting the Pompidou on the couch, it feels as if Wenders, who was born in West Germany, does not really trust us with the Philharmonic’s full story.

Jessica Myers is a reader and writer living in Brooklyn New York.

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