“Oh Lord, what is the measure of my days? Let me know how fleeting I am.” So muses the narrator of Psalm 39:4 in the second short film that makes up this portmanteau of interpretations of six landmark buildings. The building in this case is the National Library of Russia, and as the camera pans through its dusty, dimly lit stacks, the narration drops away to be replaced by choral music. Here we are, transported to this temple of learning. Are the books as archaic as the choral music that soundtracks the scene? Or have words and music merely persisted independently, on the strength of a survival instinct we can barely comprehend in Snapchat-era 2014?
The buildings featured in CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE are the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, the aforementioned National Library of Russia, Halden Prison, the Salk Institute, the Oslo Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. Some you may never have heard of. Some you may have visited. Some you may even have seen captured on the big screen before, if you have been to a Picturehouse Cinema and caught a Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Gala (no prizes for guessing: Berlin), or Kenneth Elvebakk’s intriguing documentary BALLET BOYS earlier this year (Oslo). But all this film really asks of you is an inquisitive mind and a very basic appreciation of architecture.
The 30-minute runtime of each short is just right to sustain our interest and engagement with the film as a whole. For this is a lengthy creation, with a total duration of just under three hours. There’s a quotation in the Oslo Opera House segment, from Tomas Tranströmer, which addresses a temporal issue at the heart of the film: “In the middle of life it happens that death comes and takes man’s measurements. The visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is sewn on the quiet.” The dynamic between humanity and the buildings it creates is a moving one. The film highlights the strong sense that these buildings will outlast us, the viewer. If the Salk Institute is the radar, then humankind is the briefest of signals, picked up but growing swiftly faint.
Sometimes our reasons for visiting a cathedral are not religious, but stem from an appreciation of the architecture, and of the humanity that goes into the design of such spaces. CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE offers a welcome cinematic meditation on humankind’s assertion that it was here, is here, and will be here.