Sunday, October 31, 2010

Heaven and Hell

A few years ago I visited the Cathedral in Orvieto, known among the cognoscenti for a chapel with frescos by Luca Signorelli with their riveting depictions of Heaven and Hell.

Signorelli’s Hell, which inspired Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, was expressive, horrific, rich in gruesome and precise detail. The image of Heaven seemed less conclusive. The artist depicted groups of people, some naked, some dressed in togas, standing around, singing, or moving in slow motion under musical accompaniment of the angels above. Can one imagine doing this forever?!

I think it was Joseph Boyce who had said that the very idea of perpetual happiness should immediately turn into its opposite. In Doha, I am often reminded about this maxim. The malls, the lobbies and public areas of hotels, and – above all – the Pearl, a luxury housing development by the sea, are all designed to represent Paradise on earth. The materials are marble and bronze, the air is conditioned and perfumed, soft music emanates from speakers hidden in plants and trees. Groups of people in long flowing clothes – men in white thobes, women in black abaias – slowly stroll around.

This is supposed to be Heaven. No expense has been spared to assure people's happiness. Then why do these places begin to feel oppressive after about twenty minutes?  The early Modernists’ dreams of “total design”, albeit of the opposite kind, are realized here.  The architects try hard to create a total, seamless experience, which promptly turns into an overwhelming sensorial monotony. Unlike Signorelli’ image, this Paradise is brand-new.  Amiss here is power and beauty of the old, the human dimension of the lived-in and the worn-off.

Does this mean that the malls will look better when they age? Not a chance. Here in Doha, they will be promptly replaced with new buildings once again.


3 Comments:
Blogger Sam said...

looks exactly like vegas

October 31, 2010 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 31, 2010 at 11:50 PM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

Initial thought: I agree with Sam, particularly Caesar's Palace, but then my thoughts turned to the Cathedral in Orvieto, its frescos by Luca Signorelli, and then to seemingly countless representations of heaven and hell in chapels, public and private I've seen throughout Italy.

The image and your description of the mall in Doha do suggest a kind of hell, but I disagree with Mr. Boyce's view of heaven. I find his observations too obvious. He sees with his 20th Century eyes and apprehends with his 20th Century heart. The punishing tedium implied by perpetual happiness is grounded in the fears of a boy too clever by a half. With all due respect, I suspect Mr. Boyce was unable to contemplate notions of the eternal—perhaps he was too cynical, too reactive and too caught up in the terrible contradictions of the 20th Century to believe in heaven and hell and its ontological implications.

I do agree with you that malls won't age well, the evidence of that is already in place. However, I believe most have been built with their obsolescence in mind. (I once read an article that explained how Nazi death camps were built along these same lines—cheap materials, poor construction, etc.—so that once the Final Solution was complete, the camps would decompose along with the bodies of the dead.)

Is there a connection between malls and death camps, perhaps one could find parallels in that each environment strips an individual of his dignity and then his individuality, etc. Unlike the Cathedral in Orvieto they were both built to serve man and not God.

Saying this, I suspect you're correct about Doha, insofar as when this structure ceases to amuse or distract it wil be replaced, providing, of course, the money is there.

One final thought considering shopping centers, malls outside the Cities, in Las Vegas and, now, in Doha: They are experiments in spatial dynamics, in how people use and utilize space. The data acquired will be used to design more and more immersive gaming and other virtual interiors, to keep the billions off the streets and fully occupied.

A bleak vision? Perhaps, but then again, in a world of 8 billion people, is there another, more humane way to treat men and women than giving them a golden key that opens the door into the virtual "paradise of their owing choosing?

Take care my friend.

October 31, 2010 at 11:55 PM  

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