Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Designing life’s stage
E. M. FARRELLY
Modernists invented architecture for architects, forgetting that its traditional role was to dramatise and dignify human existence – to provide a theatrical setting, a stage, for acting out a life.
EVER since Palladio designed his unforgettable radiating streets in Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico (1580), architecture has sustained a sneaking dalliance with set design. At the same time, even now, a faint moral aspersion hangs over things theatrical, as though the painted pretence were still inherently suspect. And while set design itself may have acquired perfectly-respectable-discipline status, to describe a piece of architecture as theatrical is still to risk a discernible raising of the brow.
Peter Corrigan, most renowned of Melbourne’s architectural iconoclasts, has challenged this particular item of received snobbery – not for the first time – in designing the sets for Barrie Kosky’s rollicking Tartuffe, currently in extended season at the OH.
Corrigan’s Tartuffe is very simple – a two-level backdrop which affords layered insight into the action, allowing characters to spy, comment, mime or dominate from a very central downstage left, as it were. This upper level, designed in parapet form and clad in lurid liquid stripes (very Bridget Riley), plays veranda, hallway, bedroom or pulpit, depending on the lighting and the story so far.
Movable props include a heroin-garnished Christmas tree, a perpetually unstuffed Christmas turkey and an unforgettable amorphous stage-length silver table whose bulbous form and space-age legs allow it to perform variously as banquet board, seduction
couch and grandiose soap-box for the fabulous France. The table, like the main set, creates fine opportunities for that combination of ironic commentary and high farce – such as the rubber-gloves seduction with cuckold pinned beneath – which renders the production still palpably French, despite its Double Bay setting.
Many architects would scoff, suggesting that such a design exercise has little architectural content, involving none of the hard stuff – the endless political/financial/ contractual/constructional complexities – which make architecture such a, well, exciting profession in which to stay upright. Afloat, even. Corrigan might agree. He has been designing sets for much of his waking life, from the 1960s when he designed for David Kendall’s productions at the University of Melbourne, including the first production of a Jack Hibberd play, to Don Giovanni with John Bell 20 years ago, to next year’s planned Lear with Kosky, both in the Opera House. The Kosky collaboration has lasted nine years so far, and is clearly comfortable as well as fertile. “He smokes, I drink,” says Corrigan, with evident satisfaction.
For Corrigan, set design is unquestionably easier than architecture; more collaborative, more stimulating and more fun, working with thinkers and dreamers instead of project managers and accountants.
And easier it may be. But set design has much to teach architecture: how to support the action without dominating, create opportunities without insisting, enrich meaning without diverting it and play second fiddle – basso continuo, even – with no loss of dignity.
Traditionally, this background role was architecture’s core business. Not that “background” implied any lack of flamboyance. Au contraire. From Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace to Jefferson’s Monticello, from Nash’s Regents Park to Michelangelo’s Capitoline Museum, architecture, including landscape architecture, strove to dramatise and dignify both petty human existence and the architectural ego. In that order.
Sceptics might suggest that this pecking order reflects nothing more than who pays the bills. But it’s an order which modernism reversed, inventing architecture-for-architects and hang the using public.
This burgeoning self-importance on architecture’s part was accompanied by three central ideas. First was the notion of architecture as an art in its own right, second, the idea that nakedness, or undecoration, was a moral, as well as aesthetic virtue, and third, that architecture had a potential, indeed an obligation, to save the world.
Together these ideas lit the moral flame that sputters at the heart of architecture to this day, post-modern scepticism notwithstanding.
Postmodernism revived decoration and repudiated all that do-good, missionary stuff. Or so we thought. For a decade or so there was even a revival of the scenographic model, with Charleses Jencks, Moore and Windsor popularising, in successive waves, the if-you-haven’t-got-it-fake-it school of architectural historicism.
This put a premium on the idea of the wall. Where modernism had sought to erase distinctions (between inside and out, for one), post-modernism embraced the wall as its primary dramatic device. Windows all over the world were suddenly square and punched, heightening the wall-ness of walls, while urban design required no more than a half-decent imitation of the Rue de Rivoli, as archetypal walled street. From house to office block, the facade was in again. Paint effects, trompe l’oeil, applique’d decoration and other favourite scenographic devices was architecturally in again also. Ironically, it was at once the most literal and the most ephemeral aspect of the stage set that architecture chose to commandeer in this way. As though the decades of moral conditioning made faking it okay if, and only if, it were blindingly obvious.
Advertising chaps know about the persuasive power that permanence gives a backdrop: azure sea, Italian hill town, gleaming Dublin bar. Bernini knew about it when he designed St Peter’s Square in Rome. The divinity of the papal blessing may be no less under a plastic tent in Dubbo, but, by God, it feels different in Bernini’s vast embrace.
These guys knew it, and played it right up. And yes, Albert Speer knew it too – the extraordinary power of the backdrop to transform, dignify, uplift, enchant. Architecture might do well to emulate set design’s supportiveness more and self alignment less. And then there’s the obligation to cater for other, layered realities. As in Wren’s St Stephens Walbrook, or Corrigan’s Tartuffe. Stagecraft, in a word. Corrigan believes that many of the poetic technicalities of lighting and colour, crowded out now in schools of architecture by the rush for computing skills and business acumen, are also well learnt from the stage.
And vice versa? In Corrigan’s estimation, his architectural training renders him “a touch more responsible with other people’s money”; otherwise the process is similar.
From across the great divide, though, echoes David Hockney’s Melbourne Festival pronouncement: “The trouble with set design these days is that there are too many architects involved, and not enough artists.”
Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Two Illus: Dramatic lines … left, Peter Corrigan’s set for Barrie Kosky’s production of Tartuffe; above, John Nash’s sweeping Park Crescent in London’s Regents Park (begun 1812).