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Ritual is yet another element of effective architecture

Paul Finch
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It is no mean feat for an architect to incorporate an element of ritual into a design, says Paul Finch

Two Premier League football stadium designs have recently been unveiled, for Tottenham (by Populous) and Chelsea (by Herzog & de Meuron). Each is a reminder of the importance of ritual in relation to sport. But principles of ritual apply elsewhere: in the adoption of certain conventions in respect of how a building is used (however ‘different’ the building may be), and the way in which the regular avoids becoming the routine.

In the case of football stadiums, the critical ritualistic moment occurs when the rival teams emerge onto the pitch, moving from the compression and darkness of the tunnel to the light and the open space of the pitch. The roar of the crowd is always fervent, even though the experience is predictable. The power of the moment derives partly from it being identical to that of last week, last month, last century.

Rugby is quite different. The teams come out separately. You have two moments instead of one. For my money it is less powerful, in the same way that fireworks being set off or pretend-bears capering about dilute the occasion because they are a precedent-free zone. In the US it is different. Cheerleaders have yet to disappear like Playboy’s bunny girls, no doubt because to lose that ritual would diminish the occasion.

This is not to say that innovation cannot be combined with tradition. For example, the use of appeals in test cricket has created new drama as spectators concentrate on the giant screens replaying the ‘incident’ and announcing the verdict of off-pitch umpires with super-graphic emphasis. Tension, rather than compression, is what informs the moment, and the ritual is more or less the same across the cricket-playing world. No doubt when Herr Blatter’s successor finally allows 20th century technology to enter the world of football, we will have something similar. Hawkeye will rule.

For architects, ritual is yet another of the hundreds of elements to be taken account of in conceiving effective designs, whether the building is a stadium, wedding centre or town hall. Moreover, the architect’s task is to think not just about the focus of ritual (teams, bride and groom, mayoral progress), but about the crowd/guests/audience – the collective, as well as the individual experience. To combine all this successfully is no mean feat, yet the outcome has to appear effortless and natural.

The architect’s task is to think not just about the focus of ritual

What happens to ritual in an increasingly virtual world? It is an interesting question which will loom large when Parliament moves out of the Palace of Westminster, for the first time since the Second World War, for its multi-billion pound retrofit.

Just how much is ritual tied to a particular place, especially when the historical exercise of royal power lingers in the ritual opening of Parliament, and the promenade architecturale in which the government and tribunes play out their time-honoured roles? Can you do this in a Pop-up Parliament?

The answer is yes, you can, provided you have the essential regalia and procedures, in the same way that certain African tribes define the centre of the universe (or at least their universe) with reference to the plunging of a ceremonial staff into the ground. This is proper ritual, not to be confused with etiquette. In the virtual world, what passes for ritual is the sort of convention that suggests who should acknowledge receipt of an email. There is nothing collective or meaningful about it.

However, it is certainly possible to invest modest events with a sense of occasion. There is a moment where etiquette and convention can become ritual at a very small scale – the obvious and delightful example being the Japanese tea ceremony: politeness concentrated.

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