With Brexit looming, an “immigration emergency” in dispute stateside, and a horrific attack that killed 50 people by a white New Zealand man who dubbed immigrants invaders, cast across our sundry media streams, the world is looking like an increasingly bleak, violent, and tribal place. It is a sense of doom that assistant professor of art and architectural history at the College of Charleston, Jessica Streit, says she sees reflected in our cultural interests as well.
“It just seems like in the past decade, or the past 15 years or so, we are so obsessed with [film and TV shows] like, The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead. When I think about what we are collectively hashing and rehashing … it seems to be focused on what we are all going to do when civilization breaks down.”
And indeed, Netflix’s Bird Box reached fever-pitch popularity for its unique premise and the wave of memes it generated. Not to mention the wildly successful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for network television. But, while this recent wave might seem new, the fact is, we’ve been exercising our cultural anxieties about the future through film and literature since Charlton Heston happened upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, and Orson Welles adapted War of the Worlds for radio.
Ultimately, it is both the fear and anxiety of this particular moment, and a greater tradition of dystopian fantasy that Streit and CofC assistant professor of architectural history Nathaniel Walker, are responding to with the exhibit they are co-curating, The City Luminous: Architectures of Hope in an Age of Fear. Instead of sowing anxiety, though, they plan to feature a series of architectural installations and images intended to reflect hope, or a “hopeful way forward,” while nodding at some of our darkest imaginings past.
Centering on a 12-sided “Paradise Pavilion” designed by New World Byzantine’s Andrew Gould, the show draws on a range of religious, cultural, and architectural traditions, meant, Walker says, to “represent a city of unity, cooperation, and tolerance.” The structure will be adorned with beautiful, patterned cutouts inspired by Islamic filigree, designed by Brian Leounis of Datum Workshop, and carved out by robots. It was important to the curators to incorporate traditional design techniques with cutting-edge technology.
“We always wanted to marry his [Gould’s] lovely design vision with high tech production techniques,” says Walker. “Partly to give an optimistic message that, thanks to robotics, beauty is now completely accessible.” This democratization of beauty is one of Streit and Walker’s goals with The City Luminous. “Even people like me can now afford the magnificent, lovely, and rich ornamentation that only 100 to 300 years ago would have belonged exclusively to the elite,” says Walker.
There will also be an interactive Girih wall. Girih is a decorative Islamic geometric artform. The tiles are created by using abstract mathematics. One pattern will be set while another will allow guests to play with the tiles and compose their own decorative façade. Along the walls of the gallery, guests can also see images of apocalyptic events taken from literature and pop culture. It is an effort to contextualize the show and summon the greater legacy of fear that has occupied the collective imagination for hundreds of years, says Streit .
“It was near the time of the 2016 election that the concept for the show took shape,” Streit says. “I remember very clearly, I had a group of students in my Islamic Art and Architecture class. Everyone came that day.”
“People were crying, and they were looking to me to provide some sort of guidance, context, reassurance. You know, whatever. I didn’t teach class that day. We just talked about how scared everyone was and how pessimistic everyone was feeling.”
Walker is quick to point out, however, that this pervasive feeling of discontent is not specific to America:
“It’s a global problem. What a lot of people have argued is what we are seeing is the death of pluralism. Whether we’re talking about hateful rhetoric, the rise of extremist regimes from Russia to the Philippines, or the imminent threats of global warming, it seems like there is no reason to be hopeful.”
From there, Streit said that she was moved to action: “I started to think about how we could use this moment, and what we know about the past, and about architecture, not to sweep this divisive stuff under the rug, but to go through it, to feel it and to experience it and to think about something new, something greater.”
Walker had curated a show before, one that dovetailed nicely with the interests of The City Luminous. As a specialist in 19th and 20th century architecture and urbanism, it focused on utopian visions of the future. “It was, in many ways, an exhibition about past dreams.”
Thomas More is credited with coining the term Utopia, which literally translates to “no place.” The title of his seminal text, Utopia, first published in 1517, compares social and economic conditions in Europe to those of an ideal society. Utopias in practice, of course, have mostly proven imperfect. Take for example the Shakers who, like many utopian communities, believed in the common ownership of all property. They also believed in celibacy, and as younger members left and older members died, most of their communities had dissolved by the early 1900s.
The problem with utopia, says Walker, is its tendency to oversimplify. “To sing kumbaya and say we’re all the same and through uniformity we will find order. The idea of perfect uniformity is, when you start to think about it, perfectly monstrous.” Instead, what Walker and Streit, along with the host of students, artists, and designers, including Gould and Leounis, who have helped bring The City Luminous to life, hope to do is strike a middleground. “It insists that not just despite, but because of our diversity,” says Walker, “we have to call upon those things that unite us.” One of those things, Walker argues, is beauty.
“Delight is real,” says Walker. “It’s not just empty pleasure, it nourishes the soul. To hear a beautiful song, to have a wonderful meal. And when it is attached to this political and social message of hope and political tolerance, I hope… that it will sneak its way into people’s hearts.”
Audiences can see a glimpse of a brighter future, and contemplate how we might build it, at The City Luminous opening reception March 29 5 p.m.-7 p.m. at the City Gallery, and learn more at a curatorial talk scheduled for Sat. April 13 at 3 p.m.