Saturday, April 30, 2011

Architectural Rant

Given that I am relatively oblivious to my physical surroundings most of the time, it's rare that a building makes me angry. But earlier tonight I spent several hours in a building so atrociously designed I actually wanted to hit someone. Hard.

Here is a picture of the offending structure:

It is the Paris Geode, one of many architecturally innovative buildings in the complex known as the Parc de la Villette, erected on the site of the former Paris abattoir. This evening, to quench my thirst for Verdi, I attended one of the New York Metropolitan Opera's simultaneous broadcasts ("Il Trovatore") in the "IMAX Theatre" situated in the Geode. All the other Paris venues that were transmitting the broadcast were sold out, while there were plenty of seats left in the Geode. I think I understand why.

Before you gasp in horror at my blasphemy, let me reassure you. I know all about Buckminster Fuller. Or at least enough to know that everyone should love a geodesic dome. Only an architectural philistine could fail to appreciate its omnitriangulated tensegrity. Well, tickle me with an icosahedron and call me Phil, because tonight's experience was so annoying, I can barely find words to describe it. I can understand the attraction of an aesthetically pleasing form - and there's no denying the geode looks pretty cool from the outside - but we don't erect buildings just to admire them from a distance, they are actually supposed to perform a useful function. Sacrifice function for form and you are missing the point.

Wikipedia has a fairly illuminating discussion on why geodesic structures never really attained the popularity that Fuller and his disciples hoped they might. The form imposes so many constraints that they end up being largely impractical. The builders are forced to cut corners, literally and figuratively, at every step, often resulting in structures that are remarkable for their lack of functionality.

This is sorely obvious in the case of the Geode. First of all, try getting into the thing. You see it from the distance, you approach, you get so close you can almost touch it. But there's only one entrance, very poorly signposted, and it took me about 20 minutes to find it, from a point just a stone's throw away from the building. I bought my ticket and joined the queue to get in. Now, given the program, this was not your typical audience of teenagers - safe to say that I was one of the junior members of the audience. So when we were finally allowed into the screening area, it was a startling sight to see all these Parisian 60- and 70-year olds being forced to clamber up the equivalent of a fairly steep cliff face, using steps that would be treacherous for a 16-year old to manoeuvre. But opera-goers are a dedicated bunch, so eventually everyone found a seat. From then on, it was basically a case of hanging on for dear life, as the banking in the auditorium was so steep, one false move could land you at the bottom, forced to start the upward climb again, to regain one's perch. There were a couple of very fraught moments indeed, as the steps (incredibly high, and unevenly spaced) got the better of two little old ladies, who, when they toppled, almost tipped a downward avalanche, before having their falls stopped by some of the sturdier gentlemen.

Eventually, the performance began, and for the next 90 minutes we all risked severe neck injury, as we were forced to fix our gaze at the impossibly banked screen, whose curvature imposed a weird distortion on the images being projected. If this is the IMAX experience, forget it. I kept thinking to myself "I paid 25 Euros for this"!

But the coup de grace came at intermission, when a little sign came onscreen, informing us that "exit from the auditorium is possible only at the top of the room". So to get to the restrooms, each one of those frail senior citizens (I include myself among their number, as I was pretty exhausted from the day's earlier trip to Versailles), was forced to clamber up to the top of the cliff, go down four levels to the ground floor, only to start the Sisyphean upward trek once again. This might not sound so terrible, until you realise that, because of the constraints of the dome, it appears that placing escalators from each level to the next was impossible, so that two of the levels had to be traversed by a set ot treacherously banked, inadequately lit, stairwells. Yes, there were elevators to accommodate the handicapped (presumably a legal requirement). Each held four people, and one was out of commission.

Had there been a fire, I wouldn't be writing this today. Nobody would have made it out alive.

"Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

Well, it was "Il Trovatore", so what do you think? Probably the most ridiculous plot* in the entire operatic repertoire, but some of the most glorious music. So I liked it just fine.

*: OK, I know that Verdi's "Othello" wins on a technicality, because Desdemona sings an entire aria, after she has been strangled, for crying out loud. But the sheer looniness of each of the four main characters in Trovatore, together with the whole "friccasseed the wrong baby, oops!" element, surely make it a strong contender

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