Entertainment as a Passive Form of Culture
Photo ©Rossella Scalia
A recurring phenomenon occurs when Entertainment becomes a passive form of Culture. Yesterday (25/03/2016) a religious event like the Passion of Jesus Christ took place in Trafalgar Square, London. A play of what happened (or not?) before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion was staged in the square. 
A giant cinema screen followed simultaneously the performance, and while the noisy traffic of the metropolis was running undisturbed around Nelson’s column, a voice pronounced dramatically the death verdict and the crowd, drinking a coffee, commented on the coup de théâtre like from the comfortable sofa of a living room. The climax came when the resurrection of the Christ was announced and a warm applause filled the piazza. From the central staircase of Trafalgar square Jesus Christ showed up in a white dress, and the monumental facade of the National Gallery framed the spectacular scene behind him.
The show finally finished!
Watching the theatrical/Hollywood cinema representation, I wondered if maybe culture has been reduced to a superficial entertainment operation that prevents us from seeing beyond the facts and immerse ourselves in a world that is ‘other’, a world that lives of spirit and reflection. Entertainment, in his simple and objective understanding, overcomes questions, avoids the complex and personal path towards opinions and interpretations and does so in an attempt to erase all traces of thought from the spectator’s mind.
A thought would make the Passion of Jesus Christ a belief rather than a show.
(*) Turning off London traffic lights or Architectural Lighting?
Lately, the debate on the metropolis lights has been focused on the possibility of switching off London traffic lights at night in order to reduce costs and speed up traffic. If £40 million might be saved at the expense of those always awake red, orange and green circles that regulate the movements of hovering night travellers – certainly not very attentive nor aware – the question does not affect in any way Architecture.
One might ask why Architecture is often considered ‘The Actress’ rather than the set design on which human life is staged. If we turn for a moment the spotlight that illuminates the actor during a dark monologue and point it on the gaze of an earnest spectator whose emotions vibrate with the sound of spoken words, we might experience a change of perspective that allows us to grasp the space between the two.
Imagine a city, and picture it at night when darkness fills the streets with lamp posts and repeated hatching of neon lights. Let’s walk in the nightfall that creeps between the slippery facades of glassy skyscrapers and irregular mouldings of historic palaces. We might observe how the empty rooms packed with desks but no longer hands working on it, continue to occupy the stage of the city despite their acting has already been performed in the time lapse between 9am and 5pm. The obsession with no stop activity – even when it is no longer exercised – and the inability to step aside, has reduced the spectator to an almost insignificant and unnecessary character of the story. By continuously highlighting the solo and irreplaceable role of the actor, the leading figures of the urban scene have become like soap bubbles that respire the air created by their own breath and keep it enclosed in fragile transparent walls. 
If the idea of tireless activity paused at the flick of a switch and left the scene humbly, like a sun that closes its eyes and lets the moon come in, then at dusk we might see some dim lights illuminate the slow steps of tired legs and the fast shoes of those who starts living when others already sleep. The spotlight would rotate its look to the street so as to underline the fact that there are no actors without spectators and vice versa, but above all that they both need a stage on which playing the part of themselves instead of a scene that tells them who they are.
With one click London traffic lights may be easily turned off, but also the limelight that has led Architecture to become a star, thus giving the stage the role reserved to characters.
 Le Corbusier : ‘A building is like a soap bubble. This bubble is perfect and harmonious if the breath has been evenly distributed from the inside. The exterior is the result of an interior’.
(*) Extract of a research project on the spatial development of Croydon
Photo ©Rossella Scalia
[…] The many billboards that adorn today the streets of Croydon reassure the public that an ongoing regeneration plan will bring affordable housing back in the heart of Croydon. The positivism of the messages does not stop to this, but also involves the possibility of a future city in which work, well-being, cleanliness, public green and social spaces will be normality instead of exception. ‘We are Croydon, on Site, and on Our Way’, says the patriotic motto with which the change has been candidly presented.
But who will actually live the new residential space of this future city?
The answer might be found in the advertising movie that Berkeley, one of the UK’s best known developers of new homes, has created to promote its new gem, Saffron Square.  The story is set in Croydon, although it is hard to grasp the location considering that the camera moves from London Bridge to Covent Garden, then to Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Mayfair and finally goes to sleep in that place without face that is Croydon. The movie begins with the image of a plane just landed at Gatwick airport Friday 7am, times and days are specified during the entire duration of the advert. A man in a suit goes back home after a business trip, and from the train sends a text message to his partner: ‘Just landed at Gatwick. Back at Saffron Tower in 20 minutes’; in the meantime she is working out in the private gym – residents only – on the ground floor of Saffron Square; at 8:02 she wears trendy clothes, ties a scarf around her neck and swinging sensually on dark heels, closes the door of her apartment and goes to work somewhere. At this point a new couple gets the scene, they have just met in the central courtyard of Saffron Square, a void that six buildings – The Tower, Ruskin, Tennyson, Waterhouse, Rossetti and Keats – design as to form a wide ‘P’ connected to a concrete entrance colonnade which gives access to the busy and noisy Wellesley Road.
Saffron Square, plan
This space lives in the ambiguity of public and private: small green scraps puzzle the ground, water pools pretend to be fountains, and the inevitable presence of art sculptures that in their incomprehensible minimalism suddenly emerge as mushrooms after the rain, probably cache the good intention of giving a taste of style to the cold and monotonous contemporaneity with which Architecture has adorned herself lately; but an occasional visitor may only cross the courtyard followed by the suspicious eyes of the many balconies that overlook the area, each of them sharing with no privacy a breath of air with the closest neighbour. The couple engages in a friendly exchange of smiles, he is ready for a stroll bike, she snaps photos. The classicism of the bank of England appears unexpectedly from the streets of Croydon, followed by the high tech of Richard Roger’s Lloyd’s of London and then by the bustling square of Covent Garden; all this stands just 15 minutes from Saffron Square.
A photographic tour of the most famous landmarks of London that the lady, keen on photography cannot help but see, gives then a broader idea of what living in Croydon really means. She attends one of the most prestigious London universities – LSE, UCL, Imperial, King’s & St Martin’s, the ones mentioned in the spot – the man in the black suit works in Bank, just 15 min from Saffron Square, and his glamorous blonde partner probably in Mayfair, the guy with the bicycle instead in Covent Garden. The four return to Saffron Square at 20:56 and passing through a private concierge they reach their respective apartments. The next day, Saturday, after a long week of work and stress, it is time to do a little sport: Wandle Park and Lloyd Park are only 7 minutes from Saffron Square; the two men go together to play golf at the Shirley Park Golf Club, which is far only 5 minutes by car.
Distances are continually specified in Berkeley’s movie but always referred to times that the public transport, or the car in some cases, takes to reach those areas. Taking for instance the case of Wandle Park, the seven minutes suggested as the time needed to get the park and do some outdoor sports, imply a short trip by tram. But if the characters of the commercial considered the idea of walking to reach the same destination, times will no longer be so short and the move will involve the crossing of streets and spaces which are not easily accessible even to the most reckless of pedestrians. The first hurdle is the urban motorway, Wellesley Road, equipped of a frowning subway and a series of fast pedestrian traffic lights; then a nice walk through the historic conservation area of Croydon and just next to the iconic Croydon Minster another urban motorway pauses the flow of steps. This fast track for cars is called Roman Way, for the fact that it is believed it was a Roman road built to connect an alleged, but never proven, urban settlement with the little distant Brighton. In the end it is necessary to walk on a fragile pedestrian bridge that floats above the railway thus, after about 30 minutes it is possible to do some jogging at the park.
Wandle Park opened its doors to Croydon in 1890 and at that time the presence of water was a strong component of the surrounding rural landscape. A series of streams and ponds drew mirrors on the ground in which trees and bushes admired their foliage. Over the years the rivers have dried up, and what was once the so-called River Wandle is now a narrow and sinuous rivulet that runs in the middle of the park and quickly disappears into layers of soil and concrete. Despite the charm of water is today limited to a thin trace left behind and a small mud puddle that still pretends to exist at the feet of a delicate and graceful bandstand, the park is largely used by Croydonians; a children play area and a concrete skate park – with compelling views on the only two chimneys that the giant IKEA has saved in its wild appropriation of the land on which Robert Atkinson’s Croydon B Power Station laid in the past  – have made the park a popular destination for many young fellows, but also for those who look at that age with nostalgia and walk now the tree-lined paths in company of a book or a dog.
The view on the rivulet is one of the catchy points highlighted by the advertising campaign implemented by Barratt Homes developer, which chose the site contiguous with the park for the construction of its New South Quarter presented to public with these tempting words: ‘New South Quarter is a landmark development of some 900 contemporary apartments close to the heart of vibrant Croydon. It’s set around the River Wandle, adjacent to Wandle Park. There are excellent transport links into London and a great range of shops, pubs and restaurants close by. Westfield Shopping Centre is opening in 2018 as part of Croydon town centre’s £1 billion regeneration project. ‘ 
Shopping is one of the key topics also of Berkeley’s propaganda. Going back to the exciting life of the protagonists of the spot, we left them doing sport on a sunny Saturday morning. A quick lunch in one of the 800 restaurants, cafes and bars in Croydon – numbers are relative to indications given by the ad – and the purchase rush may officially begin; the two women as hunting dogs sniff the smell of the latest trend, while men wait bored for this activity, exclusively feminine, to end. Westfield Shopping Centre is obviously mentioned and so its opening in 2018. As it might be imagined, all this will be only 3 minutes far from Saffron Square, in this case distances are real and doable effortlessly even on foot. At 17:42 the four friends travel again to London: a tour to the numerous cinemas and theatres in Leicester Square, then an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, a bite of painting at the National Gallery and in a flash it is already 19:26. Now a glass of wine in the private garden on the 45 floor of Saffron Tower is almost an obligation.
But there is nothing to fear because all this will be accessible to the many Croydonians who are desperately trying to buy a house for themselves and their family. […]
. Saffron Square Movie : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QGKazyWR14;
. Croydon B Power Station designed by Robert Atkinson in 1939 and demolished after WW2. Today the site is occupied by IKEA and it is part of an area called Valley Park, a massive retail and leisure centre just outside the core of Croydon;
. New South Quarter : http://www.barratthomes.co.uk/new-homes/greater-london/H614701-New-South-Quarter/.
An Exhibition is not a Biography
Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, London, 4 March-18 May 2014
‘ Every time I see my life settled and objectified I feel a sense of anguish. ‘ [ Italo Calvino ]
How important is the life of an author and the events occurred over the years in order to be able to say of knowing him?
Perhaps, as Italo Calvino says, ‘ of an author count only his works (when they count of course) ‘ or maybe biography and works are two things that are not mutually exclusive but rather coexist.
If reading an author’s biography is to list mechanically facts and data, I agree with Calvino on the uselessness of the process, but if I start to think that what I am now and what I write are both the result of events that came about during my life, then I might argue that it is not the act of reading that establishes the essence of any reading, but how the reading is performed.
So if life is not made of objectified dates, probably its true nature may be found in Situations, thus in events from which a context is eventually determined.
I believe I should not go further with this concept and I feel that a change of direction sometimes is a must.
I draw then, at this point of my writing, an imaginary line which begins in a past time and finishes in an unclear future. The two points are defined simply by a name: Past and Future. In the middle I might locate conventionally a third point called Present.
I shift for a moment my attention to a near past: my visit to an exhibition now in display at the Tate Britain – Ruin Lust – cause and effect of this stroll of reflections. The maze of streets and changes in direction of which this writing is made of, is branching further.
I would go back in time to visit only the exhibition’s first room, called coincidentally Ruin Lust, and leave the gallery immediately after, satisfied.
Ruin Lust, map
The facts instead went differently. During my visit I followed the imaginary line, drawn above, that binds Past, Present and Future in a rigid chronological chain.
The topic of the exhibition are artistic visions of ruins, thus a Past seen through the Present and a Future which is only a figment of our imagination; a mood that moulds every time and changes with the author/artist own disposition towards the Past.
However what does never change is the structure of the display, in which an enormous amount of ruins are treated as facts rather than as events or Situations.
But let me go back to the exhibition entrance: a wonderful start.
The John Martin’s painting ‘ The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (1822) is located only a few steps away from the dramatic photograph of a defensive artefact built by the Germans during the Second World War , ‘Azeville 2006 ‘ by Jane and Louise Wilson. The two images are not only linked by a visual continuity – a deep void in the centre of both figures – but also by a similar tense atmosphere that is magically re-created in the darkened room of the exhibition.
John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville 2006
Although the two authors belong to different centuries and depict two dissimilar scenes of destruction in two very peculiar historical periods, and although they have also applied means of expression very far from one another, even though strictly linked to the era in which the two works have been carried out – painting and photography – what the exhibition has openly written on the walls of that room is that there exists a close conceptual relationship between the two works, an imaginary line that does not run along a straight track .
Time has been here wisely replaced by space. Fragments have been scattered on a plane and found a structure by using atemporal relationships.
A change of direction is needed again; I am trying to simulate with my writing the pleasure of being hit by something completely unexpected.
Think of the psychogeographic map that Guy Debord – member of the avanguard movement Situationist International – has created in 1959 to represent critically the city of Paris. The fragments of which the picture is composed, defined unités d’ambiance, thus pieces of city characterized by a similar general atmosphere, are connected through arrows that do not follow predetermined trajectories nor move in succession. These arrows indicate a narrative, a dynamic flow of events and Situations.
Guy Debord, Life continues to be free and easy
Even an author’s biography is made up of fragments; fragments of events scattered on his life. If these were linked to his works by flexible arrows rather than by rigid temporal patterns, our reading would suddenly turn into a profound analysis. Knowing and understanding an author or a subject – the ruins for instance – means drawing relational arrows that may create a discourse beyond a strict and monotonous timeline.
My desperate search for arrows, visual and conceptual connections, past and present, future and past, photography and sculpture, painting and architecture, form and substance, stopped at the entrance of Ruin Lust : the rest of the exhibition forced me to walk the wall’s edges marking the succession of time.
Sensing Spaces : Architecture Reimagined
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 25 January – 6 April 2014
To visit an exhibition is a little like setting up a new television, you just need to read the user manual and all the frequencies in a split second will magically appear in front of your eyes.
For once I would try to neglect the gallery guide and do not dwell too much on the sides information that usually adorn the dish, and that also often obscure its true essence. Imagine entering at the Burlington House to visit ‘Sensing Spaces. Architecture Reimagined’ with a different spirit than usual, a spirit made of reflection rather than mere observation, a spirit that refines and imagine, a spirit that thinks.
If Sensing Spaces were a real way to bring the public closer to architecture, then why not to think the exhibition as an investigation, capable of entering into a still too elitist realm, and discovering, revealing its naked approaches. If we just imagine the Burlington House as a city, thus shifting our mind on a urban plane, and we look at how the 7 architects, called upon to design the rooms of a Neo-classical building, have dealt with a living space that, for some time now, breathes of its own life, we might find that architecture stands surprisingly in a realm that coincides with our daily lives.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects impose heavily their presence on the existing space, disguising the project with forms that refer vaguely to a classical temple but limiting the importance of context only to the observation of some decorative details trapped in narrow slits, hidden in the regular texture of the wood which the entire structure is built of. The colossal ramp that leads up to the top of the installation, like an initiatory path towards a panoramic viewpoint from which to admire a historical city, arrives instead to a rather narrow terrace, similar to the courtyard of a reformatory surrounded by imposing walls that intentionally block the view of the whole room. Although the project has clearly taken into account the needs of disables – they may in fact have access to a pleasant wall view – it is unfortunately impossible for them to peek inside the ‘panoramic telescopes’, too high or too low to allow a person on a wheelchair to grasp the whole meaning of the design. The approach is arrogant, imposing and uncommunicative.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Eduardo Souto de Moura relies on the tact of a minimum intervention. He looks at the space and its limits, and designs two new entrances to the rooms of the Burlington House. Both doorways interact with the surroundings, listen and try to understand it. Such communication determines the reproduction of a single, identical thought which, although divided into two different points of view and nuances of materials, represents a peaceful conflict between two diverse eras. There is no additional space, because a space already exists, there is no hierarchy, but a mutual respect and look between peers. The city of Eduardo Souto de Moura is dressed of contemporary clothes, but lives with its past, comes close to it without feeling the need of hiding or obfuscating it; it does not need to blurt out its truth showing proudly its new suit; the approach is respectful, careful and considerate.
Eduardo Souto de Moura _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Kengo Kuma creates a void between what was and what is now. The past plunges dramatically in the darkness of a vast room, and is forced to give way to a pyramidal pattern of lights, of which subtle intrigue seems to have the intent to arouse admiration and amazement. The space is constructed in a way that marks a distance between the audience and architecture, the latter is in fact inaccessible and untouchable in its fragility and opens itself to the visitor only in the narrow adjoining room, where the lattice structure, now lit by natural light, suddenly pops up as a carnivorous plant barely touched, and from the roof of the room seems only waiting to swallow merciless anyone who enters. The passage between the two spaces shows the emotional power that architecture is capable of imprinting; the approach is calculated but selfish.
Kengo Kuma _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Li Xiaodong fails to maintain, in the totality of his installation, the expressive strength he gives to the project’s entrance. This latter draws a homogeneous fusion of materials and forms, past and present, visible and invisible. An arch highlights the historical presence of an era, a curtain that seems made of wood warns that something unexpected has been created and carefully concealed, and the roof of the Burlington House, constantly visible, seems to follow the visitor in the discovery of a space made of intimate commingling. But the maze of trees that marks the path loses force along the way and opens up a space that observes itself through a mirror without evolving nor experimenting, but rather closing its reflection in what it already knows. It is as if the positive tension accumulated during the journey that leads to an unknown destination, lost value in the discovery of being arrived into an impersonal place. The city of Li Xiaodong needs to be discovered, its hidden corners to be explored, but its climax is still invisible.
Li Xiaodong _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Li Xiaodong _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Grafton Architects hides and reveals. A weave of thick walls remains suspended like a sword of Damocles over visitors’ heads. The project divides the past into two parts: visible at the bottom, and invisible at the top. Architecture seems almost wanting to emphasize her detachment from man, her durability and consistency opposed to an instability and volatility of human being. The context is dressed, in the dark room, of a calm spirituality; the accurate study of light leads to a clever interlocking between classical and modern, between a past to consider and a present to live. The adjacent room, bright and white on the contrary, simply adds a set of perfect and straight volumes to a space considered imperfect without them, such imperfection is thought adjustable only through the wise intervention of the hand of an architect-creator. The approach is additional and incomplete in its search for meaning.
Grafton Architects _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Grafton Architects _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Diébédo Francis Kéré leaves the visitor free to intervene on the project. He constructs a space that connects two rooms, like a tunnel that starts and ends at the same point from which it started, you do not perceive change nor direction. The serpentine structure seems to sweep away the existing space with a flick of the tail; the public involvement is reduced to the simple action of adding colours and spikiness to a suffocating structure; the crossing path between the two rooms becomes solitary, due to the narrowing of the structure in the middle which does not allow two people to pass through at the same time, and inaccessible, as scribbled by countless pointed plastic straws. The search for creative freedom, cannot leave to chance the consequences of a project, prediction is not certainty, but a major element of architecture. The approach is random and not carefully programmed.
Diébédo Francis Kéré _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Alvaro Siza designed the courtyard of the Burlington House. His method is similar to the one used by Eduardo Souto de Moura, minimum and discreet, but the result is here less incisive. The Neoclassical façade is analyzed and its main elements extruded; pillars, beams, capitals, mouldings almost become monuments to Architecture. The statuesque character of the courtyard is recreated through an isolation of the four primordial architectural details above mentioned; dimensions are calculated, but the overall vision of the project does not have the power to equate the scale of the past. The present, in its communication with the past, stands in a position of inferiority letting the exchange of ideas to move axially instead that roundly. The approach is meticulous but shy.
Alvaro Siza _ Photo © Rossella Scalia
Italo Calvino, in his ‘Invisible Cities’, writes:
‘It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below […]. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground […].
For everyone, sooner or later, the day comes when we bring our gaze down along the drainpipes and we can no longer detach it from the cobblestones. The reverse is not impossible, but it is more rare […]. ‘