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Why It’s So Hard To Make A Decent Architecture Film

Can Wim Wenders, one of the most imaginative filmmakers to portray cities, get it right?

If anybody were capable of assembling a series of films that could drop us into a significant work of architecture, and make us feel as if we were actually there, it would be filmmaker Wim Wenders. Wenders has arguably depicted contemporary cities and their buildings with more imagination and verve than any other filmmaker. In Wings of Desire (1987), he showed Berlin from the point of view of sad-sack angels who liked to perch atop Brandenburg Gate, and he enabled us to see the beauty in a tragic, still-divided gray city. In The American Friend (1977), there’s an eerily prescient shot of Dennis Hopper walking along the abandoned elevated structure of New York’s old West Side Highway with the World Trade Center looming darkly in the distance. And in Pina (2011), a documentary shot in 3-D about the German choreographer Pina Bausch, Wenders uses her dance company’s hometown, Wuppertal, as the most amazing open-air stage with performances on street corners and in the cars of that city’s crazy-looking suspended rail line. Wenders knows his way around the built environment.

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The fact that he is the executive producer of Cathedrals of Culture, short profiles of six remarkable buildings intended to be watched in 3-D (as they will be shown, beginning Friday night at New York’s Architecture and Design Film Festival), should give moviegoers hope: These will be less deadly than the typical architecture documentary. And the six “cathedral” films are united by an intriguing, overarching concept: “If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?”

The Oslo Opera House© 2013 Øystein Mamen

Unfortunately, this idea is taken literally by most of the project’s directors (Wenders himself directed one of them). Four of the six films have narrators that speak in the first person as the voice of a particular building. Paris’s Centre Pompidou, in a film directed by Brazilian- Algerian director and artist Karim Ainouz, has the good fortune of expressing itself through the words of the erudite architecture writer and London Design Museum director, Deyan Sudjic. He knows whereof he speaks when he says that his architects, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, “worked hard to shock Paris out of its long sleep.” The Berlin Philharmonic, in the film directed by Wenders, is, apparently, a woman, and she’s also quite thoughtful about the work of her creator, Hans Scharoun: “He dreamt of an organic architecture which then found its exemplary shape in me.” Halden Prison in Norway, too, has a female voice, but the narration (by the prison’s resident psychologist), has the cadence of a children’s book. “It’s like a little village,” she says. Clearly, this building knows more than its saying.

The most maddening of the first-person buildings might be Snohetta’s Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, written and narrated by Norwegian director, Margreth Olin, as if it were a New-Age children’s book. “I am a house,” she declares. “They put me here.” The cloying tone is a shame because the scenes of the building’s exterior, with its plazas sloping down to the fjord, where white clad dancers perform and ordinary people go about their business, are other-worldly in their beauty.

The Berlin Philharmonic© Wim Wenders 2013

Two films depart from the conceit. One is the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg by Michael Glawogger, the Austrian documentary filmmaker who died earlier this year. It uses passages from Russian literary greats like Dostoyevsky and Biely, to show a building that has collected books, that now sit two or more deep on the shelves, since the day it opened in 1795. And Robert Redford directed a moody documentary treatment of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, with footage of Kahn and Salk, both mythic figures, trying to design a research facility that is, in Salk’s words, “like a work of art.”

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Buildings generally communicate with space, geometry, light, tactile sensation, sound and even smell. The best of these films manage to convey at least some of these qualities. Watching in 2-D, on my computer screen, it appears that Wenders’ approach to Scharoun’s Philharmonic, an asymmetrical circus tent of a building, is all about movement. It looks like it was shot to maximize the floaty feeling you get from the best 3-D movies. Glawogger, too, keeps the camera moving in ways that seem calculated to exploit the power of 3-D, probing the piles of ancient books and rooms so forgotten that they look like they sprang from a Ben Katchor cartoon. You can almost smell the disintegrating volumes. Madsen uses lots of tracking shots along the prison’s outer wall and its corridors, but then punctuates his film by going dead still for portraits of inmates in their surprisingly well-appointed cells. Ainouz and Sudjic’s take on the Pompidou comes closest to credibly depicting the inner life of a building: its relief at the end of the day when the visitors go home, its sadness that the future it once represented never came to be. All this ruminating is jollied up by lots of 3-D-friendly rides on the building’s famous exterior escalators.

I’d surely seek out the Wenders film for the way his camera dances with Scharoun’s architecture and Ainouz’s Pompidou for the smart collaboration between director and writer. All the other films provide scenes of great immediacy that capture the experience of being in some remarkable buildings, which, I think, is the real point of this exercise. As far as the concept goes, it turns out that buildings speak better in pictures than in words.

About the author

Karrie Jacobs is a professional observer of the man-made landscape. She's a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and Architect magazine and is a faculty member at SVA's graduate program in Design Research.

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