Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Enduring Design

Buildings that still function in their original form and serve their original purpose don't come much older than the amphitheatre in Nimes, southern France.  Two thousand years old, give or take a decade or two, this structure still hosts spectacles to enthral the crowds - gladiatorial combat has been replaced with concerts by Pink but whether this represents an evolution of human endeavour is for each of us to decide for ourselves. 
The amphitheatre has regained something approaching its original form, having been converted into a fortress in the Middle Ages and served various other uses since.  Now restored to a limited extent, the layout and routes of flow through the building show the genius of this design - a building that allows for huge crowds to enter and leave quickly and safely (through the 'vomitoria'), and have a clear view of the arena whilst sitting in the tiered seats.  It is probably the fact that the structure has been capable of conversion to different uses throughout its long life that has ensured its survival, and its place now as the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre is assured.
Derived originally by simply placing two semicircular theatres (an existing successful design) together, the amphitheatre is one of the iconic building forms of the ancient world - the scale and the (in part) gory drama associated with these buildings has guaranteed the continued interest in them and in the society they represent. 
Wild beasts fighting each other and lightly-armed fighters, public executions, sea-battles conducted in specially constructed arenas and, the high-point for the audience, the hand-to-hand combat of paired gladiators have given way to concerts and opera but, in Nimes, the arena still hosts contests between animals and man.  A staple spectacle of many southern and Mediterranean cultures since ancient times, the various forms of bullfighting were regular entertainments in the arenas of the area.  Nimes is the capital of French bullfighting, and whatever your feelings about the activity, it can't be denied that there is something remarkable in the continuity of such spectacle in the same building for two thousand years.  There is still blood in the sand, and we are, perhaps, not so different from our Roman forebears as we would like to think.

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