Architecture in Film

A lot of my posts sort of link together, often in quite obtuse ways, so here’s a cracker – Sam Palladio of Nashville’s surname is that of the famous Italian architect/engineer who inspired the grand Italian villa style of architecture popularised by Lord Burlington and others in the early 18th century. Palladianism is about clean, airy spaces to impress people, also shown in the White House, but being Italian, they didn’t tend to have chimneys as heating was not often needed, so this style was a rather unsuitable one for northern climes.

British architects of the late 20th century are genuine world beaters, and it has been an age for monumental and experimental architecture for the past century, but apart from the Hollywood movie based on Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, films about the topic are scarce. Brad Pitt is a real architecture fan, so it is surprising he has not found a project involving the topic.  which is a bit sad, as buildings play such a huge part in all our lives; where we live, work, and the public spaces we move  through, they all have stories to tell.

So, a new project from Wim Wenders, now being premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, hopes to change this. He describes it as “a 3D film project about the soul of buildings”, exploring what these buildings “would say to us if they could talk” The series is titled Cathedrals of Culture and will have 6 directors discussing a building that inspired each of them.

The first of these is by Robert Redford, discussing The Salk Institute in San Diego, California. I have seen a lot of pictures of this incredible place, that is a superb piece of modernist architecture aligned to capture the light at different times of the day. I saw a film about the architect and looks absolutely stunning, and given the current push to eliminate polio once and for all, this building has a special significance now.

This is from an article by Geoffrey Macnab in the i newspaper:

“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.

“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 recakks, “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 b y Ed Lachman, and using archive material and voiceovers, explores the way the builiding 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.”

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 speaks to you in a different way. That building had it for me -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 office or lab complex.”

…There’s one character in particular who inspired Redford. “For a scientist,, he waxed very poetically! His name is Tom Albright. He surprised me because he’s obviously a brilliant scientist – but when he talked about the feeling he had about the building, 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 chose to make his film about the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall by Hans Scharoun, which he had visited in the 1970s for a Miles Davis concert and was amazed by its modernity. Scharoun was dismissed as a degenerate by the Nazis, so it was only completed by the championing of the Nazi conductor Herbert von Karajan.

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