Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Holy Agriculture

Recently I was lucky to spend ten days in Veneto, and to make trips to a few of Palladio’s villas presently open for visitors. The word “villa” has a strange undertone in today’s English; on hearing it one imagines a place of idle leisure and slightly questionable taste. All this was very different in the early 16th century when Palladio had developed the typology and language of his buildings. The circumstances and background of the villas’ construction offer curious analogies with our present, early 21st century state of affairs. History always repeats itself.

Five hundred year ago, the Republic of Venice found itself in a state of never-ending war with the Islamic world (the Ottoman Turks). Venetian ports and trade outposts were subject to frequent terrorist attacks by pirates and mercenaries. The sea trade with the East plummeted, being too dangerous, and the economy went into a protracted recession. In these dire conditions, Venetian merchants and noblemen turned their attention inward, towards their own long neglected mainland.  They saw agriculture as a novel way of generating income and producing much needed reserves of grain, food, and vine.

The villas were needed, first and foremost, as buildings for agricultural production. The living space of the owners was prominent but relatively small. The rest of the estate was taken by the barchesse (or utility structures), used as workers’ housing, stables, storage for grain and supplies. The genius of Palladio was to turn this complex and heterogeneous program into symmetrical classical compositions, perfectly set into the open landscape of the Veneto region. All this became possible because Palladio and his enlightened patrons saw agriculture as humanistic activity, something close to our present appreciation of ecological, self-sustaining way of living. For them, working with land included not only economics and politics, but also the art of observing, decorating, contemplating, and almost religious appreciation of the landscape. “Holy agriculture”, the expression used by Palladio, would perfectly summarize it all.

Recently, John Thackara has promoted his idea of a bioregion as a blueprint for development in many areas of the world. “It triggers people to seek practical ways to re-connect with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water and energy sources on which all life depends. It re-imagines the urban landscape itself as an ecology with the potential to support us”, writes Thackara. In this respect, the history of Venetian villas could provide some useful insights. Who knows, maybe the bioregion movement will give us the next Palladio.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Real Fake

In her 1999 book The Unreal America, Ada Louise Huxtable made a critical distinction between categories of the “real fake” (which she applied to Las Vegas), and the “fake fake” of nondescript shopping malls.  In many ways, she echoed Baudrillard, who described simulacra as a defining characteristic of all America, excepting Las Vegas and Disneyland, which he saw as uniquely authentic places; for him, the simulacra was “anywhere but here”. Both of these opinions seem to recognize that when qualities of pastiche and excess are presented openly, consistently, and “honestly”, without pretend shame or aesthetic hypocrisy, they create a sense of place as memorable and striking as any “real” historical environment.  Authenticity is created by exorbitant excess.

Ever since I moved to Doha, I was trying to determine whether this place is real fake, or fake fake. There is certainly an excess of borrowed imagery here, and a sheer audacity of making the impossible happen. There are also fragile fragments of history, and traces of traditional Arabic culture. What is authentic Doha – these disappearing traces of the old, or the new Villagio Mall, complete with Venetian-style canals with gondolas, frescoed ceilings, and polished marble floors?

These thoughts were triggered again this weekend, when, walking at the local trade fair, I saw an object that defied a name. It could best be described as a “coat hanger masterpiece”: a series of generic coat hooks mounted inside an ornate gilded picture frame. It was a staggering example of kitsch – but a kind of kitsch that could be easily “borrowed” by the likes of Philippe Stark or Marcel Wanders, and placed in a trendy boutique hotel. In such new setting, the object will become a “real fake”, something that might generate attention, a smile, or an ironic wink of a design buff who’d appreciate the transgression.

What are we to do with objects like this? Should we continue a Quixotic fight to eliminate them from the face of the Earth, or try to embrace and interpret them? I did see people buying these frames. They will likely go well with their home décor. Perhaps, in absence of any acceptable universal truth, the real fake is the next best thing.