“Just because there is a word does not mean there is a pure essence to match it,” said John Summerson in “The Classical Language of Architecture” in explaining the complexity of achieving purity in architecture. For writers, this is an intriguing thought: how can language pinpoint both the emotional and the experiential, as well as, on a more linear level, the technical and the mathematical and, on a spiritual level, the transcendental. In a play, words are building blocks which actors enhance with pauses, expressions, movements, the building and release of tension, and the colorings of the inner landscape.
It seems that buildings—although initially viewed as fixed and silent objects by many—serve ultimately the same function through their architectural linguistics. In the art of creation, the architect has embodied his or her own grasp and blending of the vocabulary to various degrees of fluency creating for the astute observer a story to be read, explored and ultimately absorbed. For example, through the use of rustication—defined by Summerson as “a rough, countrified way of laying stones, each stone retaining some of the individuality it had when hewn from the quarry”—George Dance conceived the old Newgate Prison, a building that bespoke well of the terrors it held. By contrast, the enclosed forecourt of The Piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome by Bernini captured the sentiment of processional reverence. Its curved regiments of massive columns stand four deep, forming a deeply expressive colonnade mixing Tuscan, Doric and Ionic orders. One could imagine walking through this forest of columns where jewels of sunlight fall at will, and the air between the columns is layered with spiritual intensity.
It is not hard for children to see the emotions that buildings can evoke. It can be reduced to simple language regarding buildings and their components. What does barbed wire symbolize, what feeling is created by a marble fireplace with a highly decorative mantle? What is the emotional difference between a Doric and a Corinthian column? How about when they are spaced in different proportions, capped with a pediment, covered with a dome.
Architecture is indeed a living language. But it must be learned and listened to before fluency can be built. This project will allow students to become aware of what has often been discarded without due attention—the rich, variegated classical landscape of the downtown New Haven. Once a working knowledge is obtained of architectural elements, orders and styles, the students will be able to use buildings and/or their components to precipitate action.
This, of course, is the opposite of what we expect in the world of the theater, where the play is conceived in the studio of the mind, where set design is an add-on component of the process, as much art as semantics allowing for the flow of moment and advantageous display of action. The set provides the framework for the action, and subtly underscores plotting, emotion, and often provides elements of foreshadowing. Poor set design runs the risk of melting into irrelevancy as the play progresses, or worse, serving as a detractor.
Imagine, for a moment, the reversal—the extension of the language of architecture into a verbal vocabulary. In the most simplistic terms, we might ask, “If I were a Corinthian column, what story would I tell?” “If I were a pergola, what would the wind whisper about in its journey through my bones. “ Architecture inspires action; space inspires story.