2 Somewhere In-between Jokes
Having fun is the subject of a diverse set of cultural products, the creation of typologies being one of the more significant ones. Structures such as the circus or the IMAX punctuate human agglomerations and characterize a singular way of approaching and understanding social relations and objects. Most are subservient to work based society and do not allow the unrestricted spatial and visual implications of having fun; entertainment is a clear example of translating leisure into a market system mediated by notions of performance. Spaces designed for unrestricted leisure, as well as any space designed for the unrestricted practice of any sort of behavior, constitute nodal points by programmatic radicalization. Typologies written almost exclusively by one of the many demands of human psychology.
Maybe one of the best examples of an architectural development based on fun might be found in the central coast of California. Designed between 1919 and 1947, the Hearst Castle is the product of William Randolph Hearst’s imagination, a media magnate that latter ventured himself in to the entertainment industry. After being taken to Europe in a Grand Tour style trip with his mother, he became fascinated with the diversity and richness of European artifacts. This fascination soon materialized into a broad art collection that demanded an equally large storage structure. Hearst, however, decided to go in the opposite direction of our regular museum like approach of how to store cultural products.
By that time the media magnate already had plans to build a humble shelter that would offer a more comfortable accommodation compared to the tents he used when camping on the top of San Simeon hill. Julia Morgan, the first woman to be admitted at the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, was commissioned for the design. Her inclination towards the Arts and Crafts movements aligned with an eclectic artistic vision that characterized much of the late nineteenth century architecture allowed for technical expertise that would assemble Hearst’s collection in a unique way.
Hearst lived at a time that valued media production, when mass entertainment principles were being forged in studios in Los Angeles and names such as Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo and the Marx Brothers inhabited the same social circles as the media magnate. His plans for his art storage unit quickly expanded and what was initially a calm retreat became a busy summer house that welcomed the stars of an emerging cinema industry and consequently its celebrity culture. A whole infrastructure was built for the sole purpose of providing the guests with never ending amount of good times, which became the program for the whole complex. Hearst built the summer playground for the individuals whose images were the face of mass entertainment in modern America and his art collection was instrumentalized for this use. His artifacts were united as a collage, structuring something like a Disneyland but appealing to the imagination and ludic through authentic historical pieces.
The final result breaks stylistic unity as villas are juxtaposed with the layout of a church, blending Gothic, Spanish revival, renaissance and other styles in the same space. An authentic Gothic church interior furnishes the dining room, roofed by medieval Italian flags. Statues of ancient Egypt lay on the floor not as an enclosed object, approachable only by the gaze, but as an actual usable piece.
All these relics are scattered between mansions and constitute curious objects that punctuate the fluid promenade of whole composition. Historicism is not positioned to become a joke, like Moore’s Piazza D’Italia, but is an object of interest between jokes. The whole interstitial chales space between buildings in Hearst’s summer paradise is designed to become a pleasant stroll. A fun walk that becomes increasingly interesting because of objects saturated with history and are accessible to the touch.
One of the most interesting aspects of the contemporary condition of the building is conversion into a museum. Physically the mansions remain absolutely the same; the essential change, however, lies in the public character acquired by the site and the restriction of touching the pieces. These two new constraints have also redefined the character of the space from a ludic to a learning environment. Firstly, this valorizes the didactic over the ludic; of homo sapiens over homo ludens. Also illustrates that it is often forgotten that our aspirations for leisure have an intrinsic embodied component. This blend of discovery, corporality and pleasure is what constitutes the main structure of playing and is what characterized staying at Hearst’s villa.
A museum visitor is constantly reminded to not touch the pieces and if he is not able to restrain himself, a whole staff will be there to guarantee their physical immunity. Indifferent of how much we might know about some object ideally, our curiosity to know its physical dimension through bodily contact remains. The museum constitutes the verification of a knowledge which is not equivalent to the curiosity intrinsic in objects. They work as verifications of an encyclopedic knowledge which often does not require physical approach. Our pleasure in a museum is limited to optical apprehension and the action of walking becomes meaningless: it is only in the moments of permanency and staring that it acquires significance.
Genuine leisure, when mediated by physical objects, demands corporeal action. To know something in its direct spatial, material and optical qualities, or what defines it in present, and not in a grand narrative that links its existence to a historic superstructure is to be able to touch it. Historic pieces inside Heart’s castle have posed the same kind of curiosity and resemble the common attitude of children who insistently touch and spin things they never saw before. Trying to figure out how to use it or attempting to understand its physical complexity is what characterizes the essence of discovering an object. The potential of materials and the notions which intermediate our actions and its implications is often executed through its playfulness. This is why silly putty and many other useless toys which are nothing but strange material properties keep having such a great appeal between children and even among adults. Toys that are marketed as something fun, not educational.
It is this role that history takes in Hearst’s castle. Not as an unfolding of a rational discourse about the past or something approached through a descriptive apparatus but as a form that allows a simple walk to become more interesting and has a close relationship with pleasure. This is what allows us to communicate with the past, using the same language that we use for all other objects that have yet to acquire social status of historical relevance.