Saturday, August 29, 2009

The street as an event

"And then began the tour of that strange building situated in a street that looked forbidding, although it was distinguished and not gloomy. As seen from the street the building was reminiscent of a German Consulate in Melbourne. Its ground floor was entirely taken up with large stores. Although it was neither Sunday nor a holiday, the stores were closed, endowing this part of the street with an air of tedium and melancholy, a certain desolation, that particular atmosphere which pervades Anglo-Saxon towns on Sundays." Translated by Margaret Crosland, Peter Owen, London 1964

Thus begins Giorgio de Chirico's beautiful novel, "Hebdomeros".

I lost details of the passage in my memory, forgetting the "tedium" and only remembering the sense of tranquility, perhaps conflating de Chirico's text with his paintings which are often melancholy but never tediously so.

I used to detest Sundays in the UK: the sense of desolation depressed me no end, and caused me to resent the church. I believe nowadays the UK is more of a 24 hour culture so younger British readers of de Chirico will be unable to understand his reference.

By contrast, the centre of Florianopolis is dull at weekends, the shops closing early on Saturdays and remaining resolutely shut until Monday. There is not a strong work ethic here: there are restaurants which close between noon and 2pm so the staff can have their lunches. However, it is this dullness which makes for easy architectural photography, because such movement that there is assumes a special significance. I especially like the fellow fixing the pink roof at the left of the picture.



The street as stage set. In de Chirico, the street is a stage set: an idea also present in Balthus's The Street (1933):



What makes the street interesting, in contrast to the mall, is that it is a relatively uncontrolled environment. In the mall, even the climate is controlled, and the level of visual interest is in direct proportion to the lack of surprise. Sectors of the population are excluded in the mall because the shopping mall does not provide facilities to suit their pockets, or because security guards prevent their entry. And, of course, the mall excludes many functions that are offered on the street: churches, natural sights and historic monuments. This prevents the sort of chance encounters that make Balthus's picture amusing. Also, the speed and direction of movement in the mall is controlled too using escalators and lifts.

There is a revolt among the moneyed classes in Brazil against spontaneity because of the high crime rate in large cities. The street is a casualty of this revolt. Instead of reclaiming public space with improved security and reducing the massive disparity between themselves and poorer classes the bourgeoisie have retreated into their malls, condominiums and motor cars.

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