The ritual origins of the Western work of art in Antiquity, as manifest in the theatre, hold many lessons for architecture. In the Greek theatre more specifically, the dramas were most likely played not on the stage, but in the orchestra (particularly in the early stages of the development of the Dionysian dromenon into drama). The chorus, that group of dancing and singing men often in charge of lamenting destiny, was always at the centre of the action. The actual role of this chorus is difficult to comprehend for many a modern observer. It could be described as a mediation between the actors and the spectators in a form of direct participation. This group of actors-dancers played the role of spectators while being involve in the unfolding of the dramatic action. The focus of the event was therefore this circular dance platform often named after the choros itself, and that eventually changed its name to orchesis, which also meant "dance" (In modern Greek Kwra, a word with close phonetic links to choros, often transliterated "hora" or "chora," is the word for place, used as well as a proper noun to designate the most important city of some islands).


We have evidence from Roman texts of the second century A.D. that such theatrical events, combining poetry, music and dance in their architectural frame, were believed to have a cathartic effect. In fact, both katharsis and mimesis seem to have been employed quite early in relation to art. Katharsis meant a purification or a reconciliation between the darkness of personal destiny and the light of the divine dike, as expressed in the tragedy. The re-enactment of the tragedy purified, centered and appeased the spectators, and in a world where disorders were always understood to be psychosomatic, it is not surprising to find that the tragedy was deemed to have powerful healing effects, as demonstrated by the presence of the great theatre of Epidauros in the sanctuary of Aesclepius the healer. Mimesis, also in relation to the choreia, signified not imitation but rather the expression of feelings and the manifestation of experiences through movement, musical harmonies and the rhythms of speech: an acknowledgment, through the body's presence, of its intermediate location between Being and becoming.


Since classical Greece, architectural space, the public space of "appearance," has been associated with the dramatic space of the theatre and ritual action. In other words, architectural space has always had an essential temporal dimension, it has been literally a "space-for-a-situation." This is a dimension of architectural space usually disregarded after the objectification of representation in modernity and, more recently, as a result of the failures of "international functionalism."


Whereas ritual allowed primitive man to propitiate the external world and dwell in a totality, the Greek theatre framed the transformation of the same task, this time in the realm of art. The introduction of the amphitheater poignantly represents the profound epistemological transformation signaled by the advent of philosophy. This becomes a place for seeing, where a distant contemplation of the epiphany would have the same cathartic effect on the observer as was accomplished previously through active, embodied participation in the ritual. This distance is of course akin to the theoretical distance introduced by the philosophers, which enabled a participation in the wholeness of the universe through rational understanding, as a disclosure of discursive logos. This, we must remember, is the same distance that created the conditions for the eventual concealment of Being, for the objectification and enframing that resulted in the substitution of the world for its "picture," leading to instrumental rationality and to the crisis of representation that we must confront today. It is important to grasp the nature of that distance implicit in the space of the theatre, throughout the history of Western architecture, if one is to understand the potential for participation and involvement of the spectator in our contemporary built world.


During the European seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, at the time of early modernity, important traces of the dramatic nature of architectural space were still extant, preceding the discussion of "character" in neoclassical and modern architectural theory and continuing through it. This project seeks to examine the transformation of theatrical space in the early modern era (from the seventeenth century onwards) in the hope of clarifying the nature of architectural space and its possibilities in our "age of simulation."


<previous | next >


digital collections © 2002 McGill University