Words Beatrice Galilee
“Confettification.” This made-up word is the best way to describe an event that took over a public square in Graz this autumn. Amid a flurry of coloured circles, face painting, fireworks and French toast was a temporary building. But all of it was called architecture, and everything – including this article – was part of a bigger performance called The Theatre.
The word “confettification” comes from the project’s creators, International Festival, and reflects their irrepressible, effervescent characters. Winner of the accolade Swedish Architect of the Year 2007, the practice was founded in 1993 by architect Tor Lindstrand and choreographer Mårten Spångberg. What they do, in the simplest terms, is attempt to fuse architecture and performance – and they travel the world doing just that with a band of itinerant dancers, filmmakers and designers.
The Theatre’s foyer – which is also used as a public bar, restaurant and studio space – is a plastic greenhouse covered in giant confetti circles and lit up like a Christmas tree. With a yellow-decked forecourt and flanked by four navy-blue shipping containers, it is a definite oddity in Karmeliter Platz, a serene public square in central Graz. The space leads to a theatre for 150 people in a large tent-like structure, where around four performances a day are taking place over five weeks before the project gets packed up into the shipping containers and moves off around Europe. The punters are trickling in and I have a ticket for the last performance of the night. However, International Festival would argue that its own performance started long before the building work began.
Construction was preceded by a strategy of engagement with the locals. Coloured circles were plastered over the walls, ground, lampposts and billboards of the city. There was a party on top of a hill and 50 fireworks were set off. Meanwhile, the site for The Theatre was marked off and people were invited to watch films and provided with popcorn, face painting and T-shirt “pimping”.
“People often talk about the link between architecture and dancing. But I’ve never seen any examples other than a stupid set, done with plywood,” says Lindstrand when we meet in the finished theatre. He leans back on a plastic chair and looks into the doorless foyer, which is filled with people selling tickets, using the free wi-fi and drinking coffee, accompanied by filmmakers milling around the action.
Cedric Price’s endlessly theorised Fun Palace clearly informs the irreverent programming of the space, which is enthusiastically in favour of the popular, the mainstream and the overstated. International Festival likes to challenge the space between architecture and performance. “People think architecture is the Parthenon – something you might see twice in your life – and performance is sunshine,” muses Spångberg, adjusting his giant spectacles. “But we like to say architecture is sunshine, performance is the Parthenon.” At first this sounds meaningless, but all he means is that we’d enjoy architecture a lot more if we saw everything around it as part of it and equally special.
The notion of socially activating a site and the idea of an invisible architecture that is about people, networks and processes has become fertile ground. The French architect Patrick Bouchain, for instance, promotes architecture that is not so much about the structure as it is about learning and inhabiting. For a housing project in Calais, he erected a temporary public restaurant on the site before construction began, and then during construction invited architecture students to come on site to learn about the process. Many younger architects, such as London’s AOC, Brussels’ City Mine(d) or Berlin’s Raumlabor and Performa 891, are treating buildings as a socially oriented process of public interaction.
“There is no chance of telling anyone what to think anymore,” says Lindstrand. “What we can try to do is to reformulate utopia into tiny utopias. The tiny utopia of someone standing over there making French toasts.” Spångberg chips in: “It’s wonderful to think of all these kids after face painting, when they are sitting on the tram being all beautiful with a butterfly face or whatever.” The Theatre is a kind of choreography of light touches that resonate across the city. Rather than a single focus, International Festival creates an atmosphere, a series of ephemeral yet hopefully lasting effects. Where others go for essence, the practice prefers the “less is a bore” school of thinking, but instead of building big they scatter or multiply. This is city activation post-Guggenheim, beyond the Bilbao effect. It is tired of starchitecture. It’s almost as if, having become such a public spectacle, architecture now needs to disappear for it to continue to be challenging.
“When you come here and sit down you are already in the show,” says Spångberg. “Building a see-through foyer shows we have set up something different. With ordinary theatre bars they propose a certain kind of exclusivity of a bourgeois audience, with glasses of prosecco and small triangle sandwiches. Here we don’t even have a fucking door.”
Although their position claims to be beyond architectural criticism, the building has to come under some aesthetic scrutiny – because unlike the Fun Palace, which has no walls or floors, its physical presence here is tangible. It has the feel of a bouncy castle, transposed from a funfair into a formal city square. It’s a travelling circus architecture of multi-coloured lights and pop in the form of a garden centre. It’s impossible not to question the taste, but it’s like complaining that the candles on your birthday cake clash with the icing. It’s hardly the point.
“We want to expand the field of what architecture could be,” says Spångberg. “Yesterday, we asked the woman who was working in the bar serving coffee if she’d like to DJ. She said yes and it was quite weird. People were stomping the floor to this Serbian turbo-folk.” Spångberg and Lindstrand exchange glances and laugh. “But if a curator or critic comes in at that point they see only architecture. For us it is also life that is produced within a frame. This is part of the piece. This is what we do.”
images Paul Ott