Modern Sisyphus (1)

Last week I spent some time in a rose garden by the sea, north of Copenhagen.  A public garden.  A wonderful anachronism, almost nothing and still very intense. I started imagining a meeting where architects, municipal authorities, landscape architects, would be discussing the design of a future public space somewhere in the city. If someone, in the inevitable brainstorm, would today suggest the creation of a rose garden, I think he would be lynched on the spot. The argument against such garden I suppose would be high maintenance or something along these lines, but really the truth would be that a rose garden is not active, interactive, sportive enough. After all, roses bloom … what, one time, two times a year? It would be deemed old fashion and elitist and, at the end, a skate/parkour facility would be unanimously favoured.

To activate is the new mantra.  In different parts of the city, peculiar constructions/contraptions are appearing. From the distance they look like harmless playgrounds. They are, at close range, torture racks. The culprits are obliged to lift their own weight, or to row, like in the galleys. Even hang from bars upside down. The construction is robust, metallic and often lacks oiling: the blows and sinister squeaks are heard from afar. Yesterday I sat by one of these, close to the lakes. Interestingly, it caused me the same sensation as when I see people washing their cars in the street.  Maybe because it entails a degree of private imposition over the public sphere, the practitioners seemed slightly ashamed. (But then, this could be self-projection).  I did see a neighbour dry-rowing in one of these training stations: we both averted the gaze. Self-flagellation used to be a private discipline.

The trend is worldwide. In a new park in the centre of Madrid (Santo Domingo square) I was sitting on a bench, reading, when a woman in training outfit (looking dangerously like my grandmother, same age and perfume), sat by my side and started pedalling away. She was working a set of pedals that emerged from the earth in front of her. She fixed her eyes on me, as if saying, “you could read and cycle”.  (The thing is called the “cardio-friendly” bench).

In Rome I saw a beautiful wall that was only a wall, well-bonded masonry, not much graffiti, a bit of poison ivy. Zero interactivity, you couldn’t even climb it. Silence, just the promise of a garden on the other side, revealed by the top of a cypress tree. A wall that didn´t try to be an iPad.

What I’m trying to say is that play and sport used to be only a part of public space, among more contemplative spaces. I see a growing tendency towards transforming public space into a continuous amusement, all within a sort of dirigiste or moralist call to activate the population through exercise. In some cases, I feel we are creating a public space with “attention deficit disorder” (ADHD), a hyperactive space, in which idleness becomes suspicious. If you sit on a bench and watch the horizon, you are probably homeless.

After becoming a father, in a moment where I am perhaps missing a lot my old cultural habits, I realize that what fatherhood has brought (temporarily, I hope) into my life, is happening also in the whole of society:  the predominance of action over reflection.

Together with the fear of silence and emptiness, the ideal might be now to slide playfully, surfing over the emotional surface of life.

Roses, admittedly, are slow.

(to be continued)

The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon. G. de Chirico. 1911. 

Originally published on The Danish Architectural Press.