View all blog posts

Touching the Void : Art and Architecture in the Time of Pandemic

Isolation | Keith Williams

Monday 6 April 2020

Albert Camus’ 1947 dystopian novel La Peste (The Plague) depicts post-World War II Oran, hollowed out by medieval bubonic plague. I read it many years ago in the original language when my French was rather better than it is now. Penguin classics’ editorial director, Jess Harrison quoted in a recent article in Guardian comments, “Although it’s usually considered as an allegory for the French experience of Nazi occupation during the second world war, it couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment.”

Touching the Void : Art and Architecture in the Time of Pandemic
La Peste, Albert Camus

La Peste is apparently seeing a spike in sales at the moment. Outwardly it is a seemingly apposite parallel to our troubled times, yet despite the apparent bleak nihilism of its subject matter and its principal characters, the book does deal with many more positive human conditions such as love, happiness and interconnectedness.

Giorgio de Chirico’s famous 1914 painting Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, depicts a bleak deserted street scene in an abstract nihilistic cityscape almost totally devoid of street level activity. In the foreground, a single small girl in shadowy silhouette rolls a circular hoop along the ground whilst a much larger adult’s shadow casts its sharp diagonal across the ground. Its origin is unseen and it dwarfs the girl. Is it cast by a statute in the town square, is its owner corporeal or is it symbolic of some future threat? In any event, it exhibits a certain menace.

Touching the Void : Art and Architecture in the Time of Pandemic
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico's, 1914

This is a painting upon which it is easy to place many layers of meaning, most of which no doubt would have seemed unintended to its creator. Yet its dystopian qualities and its unusually empty town square with the foreboding shadow cast of the unseen, depicts a strangely pertinent image to us living in April 2020.

To me the searing heat and the stucco facades of this powerful architectural set piece, exhibit a raw uplifting abstract beauty.

Our capital and other cities and towns are strangely deserted. There are almost no shops, and certainly no cafés and bars open. But it is possible, for the first time that I can recall, to appreciate so much great architecture and public spaces in a way which is normally all but impossible. Most of this course has to be seen vicariously through news footage. But within the limits of exploration permitted to us, we may experience some of it more directly.

Cities do not function on emptiness. Yet this de Chiricoesque void in our cities allows us to appreciate them differently. Though symptomatic of the suspension of normal life, the present has an important transitory aesthetic state which I hope can somehow be recorded visually as part of a social and architectural historical record of now.

Searching for further positives from these dark times, I was amazed to see the rapid reduction in the levels of pollution that have choked the planet these past decades. The strange paradox of the drastic curtailment of human activity of the present time, is that we may have given the planet a brief moment of respite. I wonder whether we will take the opportunity and revisit how we should interact with one another and the earth, as and when interconnectedness again becomes possible.

Keith Williams words
The Architecture Club Committee member