‘The Play’s the Thing’: On theatricality and modern public space

Stara, Alexandra (2021) ‘The Play’s the Thing’: On theatricality and modern public space. In: Frascari Symposium V: Theatres of architectural imagination; 27-29 May 2021, Montréal and Manitoba [ONLINE]. (Unpublished)


The theatricality of architecture is frequently discussed as a matter of mise en scène, where the building or urban fabric is tightly composed as scenery for an imagined drama, communicating with great sophistication, though little ambiguity, key elements of the ‘plotline’ and, thus, directing the visitor to perform in a suitable way. In the context of the Baroque, such theatricality was put to exemplary use supporting the communicative role of architecture. In the significantly more open and fluid world of modernity, where architecture and culture no longer speak to each other with the clarity they did four centuries ago, the relevance of such levels of staging outside of set designs or theme parks is questionable. This paper explores the potential of another reading of theatricality, pertaining less to scenography and more to spatial, embodied experience, through the discussion of two public projects built in the mid-20th century: Dimitris Pikionis’ Acropolis Works in Athens (1954-57), and Hans Scharoun’s Neue Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (1964-1977). This paper will argue that, through distinct means and characters, these very different projects invest in a ‘modern’ theatricality operating as latent mode of engagement, in order to makes spaces for structured and meaningful yet open participation. The projects will be explored not only as landscape/architectural spaces inviting engagement with the public through the play of imagination and memory; but also, as processes of commissioning, design, and building, revealing the crucial role played by the polis, the socio-cultural and political context of each work as part of its ‘setting’. Key to the discussion will be Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of ‘play’, as a hermeneutic device for grasping the intricate balance between openness and structure – or freedom and responsibility – in our late modern world.

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