What a circus, what a show!

Spectacular is the mot du jour. I write this as the annual Vivid festival kicks off in Sydney. Buildings in the centre of town are lit up in all manner of wondrous ways. Every evening, the façades of Customs House and the Museum of Contemporary Art shimmer and explode with colour and stories; the sails of the Opera House are extravagantly ‘metamathemagical’, whatever that means; there’s even a light market. Oh, what a sight, what a circus! It’s not all about the lights, of course (at least that’s what the organisers say) – there are concerts, too, and talks and ‘ideas’. But the thousands who pour into the city every evening are really only after one thing: spectacle. They want to be astonished.

It’s the same the world over. Did you see the huge moon that was suspended in the ruined nave of Tintern Abbey recently? Or the spectacular displays now showing at the Venice Biennale, or those on display at Sydney’s own Biennale earlier this year? Architecture isn’t exempt, of course. Have you seen the new Musée de la Romanité in Nimes? Plonked next to the ancient Roman amphitheatre it’s a shimmering spectacle of slinky wrappedness, an envelope of sequins. We still gawp at the Shard in London or the tallest of the tall, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in the same way that once we gawped at the Great Pyramid or the colonnaded square before St Peter’s in Rome. We crave the spectacular.

Aletsch glacier, Switzerland

Scale is always spectacular. We seek it in the natural landscape, walking among towering mountains or through groves of giant redwoods, or gazing over vast panoramas. Even the flatness of Australia’s outback is spectacular, the immense sky even moreso at night when the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. Such natural spectacles make us feel small and put us in our place, and that’s what we like. Gosh, there’s more to life than just me, goes our thinking, and that makes us confront the existential conundrum of the purpose of life (even nature is all about us). We visit places that astonish us with the capability of our species, from the mind-blowing scale of Angkor Wat to the empty hugeness of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. How incredible that we have created these things, and we pat ourselves on the back for being part of such human ingenuity.

Foguangshan Taiwan

Hitler knew the value of the spectacular when he rallied at Nuremberg, or at least his architect Albert Speer and his cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl did. Wagner understood it, too, with the scale of his operas and the might of his music. And New Yorkers understood it when they built ever higher, displaying the wonder of the capitalist dream to the world.

Where spectacle fails, I think, is when it lacks content. I wonder if some spectacles are empty-calories. Does a moon hanging in Tintern Abbey really tell me anything new, that I might not get from gazing at the moon itself? At Sydney’s Biennale this year I found myself soon drifting away from the huge art installations and gazing instead at the old industrial buildings in which they were housed, sensing their history, the lovely patina of age.

Ai WeiWei ‘Law of the journey’ at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island

Since the Pompidou opened we’ve begun to expect our museums and art galleries to almost outdo the treasures they contain. The Guggenheim in Bilbao upped the ante and rejuvenated a whole city just by virtue of its shape. Now every new museum wants to do the same. I can’t remember a single thing I saw in Suzhou’s museum except for I M Pei’s building itself (which I liked a lot).

I remember years ago sitting in the Haymarket watching ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I thought it was pretty awful (I’m not a Lloyd Webber snob – I loved ‘Evita’), and couldn’t stop thinking how amazing it would be if the same budget was spent on something good. As the chandelier crashed down at the end of the first half and everyone gasped, I wished I was as easily pleased. It would have been different if I had been totally captivated by the music or the story. At an outdoor performance of one of York’s Mystery Plays I was so immersed in the story that when it began to rain I thought it was a marvellous stage-effect. Spectacle is about balance, of course. Spectacle needs content or it loses any impact after the first glance. And I keep wondering if many of the spectacular buildings we have today, their swirling shapes crafted by computer, lack content. Look at me, they cry, and we do for a moment. Until another crops up that is more spectacular.

I will probably take in the Vivid festival and I’ll ooh and aah with everyone else as I walk through tunnels of coloured light and watch the ever-changing spectacle splashed across a building’s façade. But then I’ll doubtless go home and forget all about it, just as I would after a night at the circus.

What’s the most spectacular thing you’ve ever seen?



Categories: Architecture, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. interesting point you raise about the presentation upstaging the content. I think there’s competition between the venue as art and the collections it curates. For me the only point of a museum or gallery is to get lost in the work — otherwise, might as well go to a theme park! Lately the Musée d’Orsay is the most impressive place I’ve visited. But your mention of the Nîmes opening intrigues!

    • The Musée d’Orsay is a good example of something that’s been brilliantly re-used, like Tate Modern in London, and somehow seems to complement the artworks, rather than overshadow them. It’s a fine line, I suppose – I’d go to either gallery to look at the building as much as the artworks but that’s probably just me. I felt slightly yawny when I saw what they’ve done in Nimes, I must say, but should probably reserve judgement until I’ve seen it (I suppose…).

  2. I still find our very own Opera House hard to surpass. As built environment goes, it is still unique, and anyone who sees it knows exactly what it is. Show them most other buildings and they’d have a hard time saying where it was let alone what it was.

    • That’s such a good example of the spectacular matching its purpose, even elevating it to a higher plane. It’s not a one-hit wonder and rewards us every time we see it. A mark of great architecture. Once the interior matches the exterior it’ll be even better.

  3. Spectacle is an interesting concept. Does it suggest a certain in-built obsolescence, I wonder? Is a spectacle by definition ephemeral and transitory?
    Spectacle to me suggests something lacking in inner solidity. It is there to be seen, to be marvelled at.
    I’m not sure what the most spectacular thing I have ever seen is.
    I remember the view across the valley from my parents’ house in Tuscany was so wonderful to me that I could never fully commit it to memory.
    Though, for my 60th, I am going to Norway to see the Northern Lights.
    Now that I imagine to be spectacular.
    That’s if they appear …

    • That’s an interesting observation. I think that’s certainly the case with some things, which quickly lose impact after the first look. But as that Tuscan view shows, some things keep rewarding you, and much good architecture does that, too. Doesn’t the turbine hall at Tate Modern still wow you? I was wowed every day I walked into the Sainsbury Centre the three years we were there. So the ephemerality might last longer in certain cases than in others… That’s one heck of a spectacular way to celebrate being 60 , by the way!

      • Yes, I agree. Tate Modern certainly does wow. I think the Sainsbury Centre I found more wowing going in than viewing from the outside.
        Thinking about it, one of the greatest spectacles that never diminishes for me is the Grand Canal in Venice. That is one that is difficult to better!

      • It’s so other-worldly, so unique, and you’re right, it is a constant amazement. Even apart from the famous view of it from the Salute or from any of the bridges, I think that moment of stepping from the station into the bizarreness and busyness of water JUST THERE is stunning.

  4. I’ve got a bit of a thing for hot air balloons. I remember one warm still evening watching a whole line of hot air balloons floating over my parents’ house just outside Norwich in Norfolk. Warm? in Norfolk! Still? in Norfolk? And then those balloons against the summer evening sky floating over the Broads. It was gorgeous!

    • So good when everything combines and condenses into one brilliant, spectacular moment like that. Trying to think what a group of hot air balloons would be – a drift of HABs? A choir of HABs? Or simply a spectacle of HABs?

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