Robert Redford and Wim Wenders on new architecture film Cathedrals of Culture

Arthouse director Wim Wenders has joined forces with Robert Redford to make a movie about architects and buildings. They speak exclusively to Geoffrey Macnab about finding the soul behind the bricks and mortar

Think about architects in movies and the image that most readily springs to mind is of Gary Cooper as the Frank Lloyd Wright-like visionary, dynamiting one of his own buildings because it hasn't been completed to his specifications in The Fountainhead (1949).

Cooper and a few documentaries apart, architecture is still largely ignored by film-makers. This is a state of affairs that the German director Wim Wenders is seeking to rectify with a little help from Robert Redford in his new project, Cathedrals of Culture, that premieres today at the Berlin Film Festival.

Wenders describes the venture as "a 3D-film project about the soul of buildings," exploring what these buildings "would say to us if they could talk." Six directors have contributed to Cathedrals of Culture, each choosing a building that means something special to them.

"It's almost shocking to see how little films have dealt with architecture, fictional films in particular," the director of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire reflects. He concedes that architecture played "a crucial part in expressionist cinema" and in sci-fi movies like Metropolis and Blade Runner. "But these are exceptions. Overall, movies used architecture and buildings as backdrops, but failed to enter 'their souls', as we are now trying to do..."

Fresh from his trials at sea in the epic one-hander All Is Lost, Robert Redford agreed to direct one of the films, about the Salk Institute in San Diego. He admits to a certain trepidation about trying to combine cinema and architecture.

"I think probably for the most part, unless they are architects themselves, people think of buildings as something stiff, attractive or not, but inanimate. So that presents a challenge and I like challenges."

Redford was fascinated by the alliance between architect Louis Kahn and scientist Jonas Salk, who developed the first successful polio vaccine, and by their shared idea that the Institute should be like a living organism.

The Salk Institute in San Diego The Salk Institute in San Diego "The Salk Institute was a bold project, different from anything else around," Redford remembers. "A lot of it has to do with Salk and what his concept was, a lot of it has to do with Louis Kahn. Salk chose Louis Kahn as his architect, who was not an easy man to work with. He was, I think, a genius, but a lot of people who are extremely talented can be unreliable; they can be contentious, they can be combative and so forth. While they didn't have a bad relationship, it was a relationship that had arguments in it because it was artist and scientist coming together.

"What excited me was that Salk at least had the courage to try to coordinate art and science as one thing," Redford states.

The building also had an important personal resonance for Redford: "From a personal standpoint I knew something about the building because I grew up in Los Angeles not far from that area," he recalls. "I surfed as a kid at Dana Point so I was around when that building was being built. Also, I was around when the polio epidemic was still a threat. You could get it. I had a mild case of it myself when I was 11 years old, and fortunately it was mild enough not to cause me any real damage. Polio was part of the picture, so when Jonas Salk invented the vaccine, it was just earth-shattering news."

Redford's film, beautifully shot by Ed Lachman and using archive material and overlapping voiceovers, explores the way the building inspires the scientists who work within it every day. Lachman, as Redford puts it, "romanticises" the angles of the building. The director himself never had the chance to meet with Salk or Kahn. "I had to bring them alive through the archival footage."

Redford noticed that the building was "very geometric, it's got sharp angles. They are dynamic – and the opening between the angles of the two wings is powerful because it goes into the infinity of ocean and space."

His goal in making his documentary was to "inject art into science." That, he thinks, was Salk's intention, too, when he conceived the Institute.

It's rare, Redford muses, to encounter a building that affects him in the way the Salk Institute does. "Every now and then there is a building that I think has soul and therefore it speaks to you, it speaks to you in a different way. Rather than just being objective, it suddenly makes things subjective," he says.

"That building had it for me, it has a soul – and I hope this film illustrates why."

In his film, Redford was determined to foreground the scientists and to explore the "almost spiritual" connection they had to the Institute. One reason that the Institute boasts so many Nobel laureates on its faculty is that it is clearly an inspiring place to work – not just another soulless office or lab complex.

"I didn't have a lot of time there, but the scientists reacted very well to the project: they gave creative input that helped to shape the film," Redford recalls. "I think the work there is exceptional, I think it's extremely important work that's being done. I didn't know all the details; what I was interested in was their relationship with the building. And as we talked, I realised that the important thing for them was the presence of the building. Their being in that building lifted them to some level they hadn't experienced before."

There's one character in particular who inspired Redford. "For a scientist, he waxed very poetically! His name is Tom Albright. Tom Albright surprised me because he's obviously a brilliant scientist, and his work is scientific – studying the brain and so on. But when he talked about the feeling he had about the building, and about the sense of place, and started talking about poems, and old slogans and quotes from Italian verse and things like that, I thought, 'whoa, there is something more going on here'. And I think he was provoked to talk that way by the building."

Wim Wenders Wim Wenders For the film, Wenders has chosen the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, built (after many trials) by the great German architect Hans Scharoun. He first visited it in the 1970s to see a Miles Davis concert. "I had never seen anything like it," Wenders enthuses. "I remember that I felt, physically: 'Now I'm entering the future! This is it: modernity!'"

Disconcertingly, the building tells its own story, in a female voice. "I am his crowning achievement," it says of Scharoun. "I am a huge musical instrument myself with an exceptional spatial structure."

As a modern architect, Scharoun was dismissed as a "degenerate" by the Nazis. There is a certain irony, then, that his Berlin Philharmonic building was fervently championed by the Philharmonic's principal conductor Herbert von Karajan, a former Nazi party member.

"Without Von Karajan this building would not have been made," Wenders insists. "Its very concept of putting the orchestra (and the conductor!) into the centre of the room was revolutionary and needed the complete backing by the orchestra and its director. At the time Herbert von Karajan was a powerful figure. He understood Scharoun's vision, and I guess he also understood how much it was putting him into the centre of attention. So in this case his vanity worked in favour of the architect's dream."

There are obvious overlaps between the work of film directors and that of architects. Wenders believes that film-makers and architects have the same obsession with "a sense of place". Both need small armies of collaborators to realise their visions. Both must deal with sometimes awkward and interfering patrons. Still, Wenders thinks, a "certain modesty" is required from film-makers when they compare themselves to architects. "Buildings are very real, after all, and they really determine and condition people's lives. Films sometimes form people's visions and dreams, but don't have such an immediate impact on their reality. Or am I wrong?"

'Cathedrals of Culture' premieres at the Berlin Film Festival (berlinale.de) tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence