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.