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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album