(STUDY FOR) CHAPEL FOR SCENES OF PUBLIC LIFE
THE MEETING OF ENRICO MATTEI AND THE QUEEN OF SHEBA
Pavillion for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial
The Chapel for Scenes of Public Life is a pavilion designed by baukuh and Stefano Graziani for the II Chicago Architecture Biennial “Make New History”, curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee. The project is presented through a large wooden model in scale 1:2. The model measures 3x12 m, and is 4,5 m high and is located in the Exhibition Hall of the Chicago Public Building.
The Chapel for Scenes of Public Life tries imagining how to produce spaces, so that gestures happening inside of them could acquire public meaning. The chapel is made of images of spaces distributed on the internal surfaces of a room. The images describe the scenes (the places, the spaces, the volume occupied by human bodies) of an imaginary event that is explicitly “staged” in order to produce a “spatial figure”. This “spatial figure” is meant as visual evidence of a political project explicitly addressed to a public audience.
The chapel delimits a plain rectangular room and produces an ample vertical surface decorated with images. The images are photographs taken inside the Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin, built by Pier Luigi Nervi for the Expo Italia 61 and now abandoned. The photographs document a performance staging the impossible meeting of the queen and the oil czar.
The (very large) model presented at the Chicago Architecture Biennial is a study for the chapel. It is 1:2 scale.
Here the photographs are replaced with line drawings, done by hand, and based on collage views realized starting from photographs of the location of the performance.
The public event depicted inside the Chapel for Scenes of Public Life is the imaginary (and impossible) meeting of Enrico Mattei and the Queen of Sheba. Enrico Mattei (1906–62) was an Italian politician and entrepreneur who ran the state-owned oil company ENI. The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in the Bible (I Kings, 10:1-13 and II Chronicles, 9:1–12) in relation to her visit to King Solomon.
Piero della Francesca painted the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in his fresco cycle “Legend of the True Cross” in the basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. (For those in need of a quick update, there is a terrible movie by King Vidor starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida as Solomon and Sheba.) Mattei was at the same time a modern and an archaic man, which makes him the perfect match for the Queen of Sheba. Nothing is known about the queen’s remote, archaic country of origin, apart from its fabulous name, “Arabia Felix”. It is possible to imagine this country as a reservoir of the substance that Pasolini called the “revolutionary force of the past” (la forza rivoluzionaria del passato). The Queen of Sheba is the Unconscious arriving on a state visit. The only thing we can assume about the meeting of Mattei and the queen is that it will take place in a public space. They will speak politics. Their meeting will be explicitly ceremonial. It is not only a public story, but is explicitly staged as such.
The Chapel for Scenes of Public Life is an attempt to imagine contemporary public space, and so to imagine the conditions under which architecture can be considered an art and an intellectual endeavor (or, as in the title of this Architecture Biennial, how to make new history). It is of course also an attempt at imagining a possible subject that could ask for this kind of public space.