Festival Architecture: Introduction


Bonnemaison, Sarah; Macy, Christine. Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture) (p. 9). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy

What is festival architecture?

Reflecting on the origins of architecture, we may think of the Egyptian pyramids, the palaces of Babylonia or the temples of ancient Greece. But equally ancient, and equally significant to the history of architecture, were the temporary structures erected for religious rites in the ancient world. The tabernacle of the Jews, for example, was a portable enclosure of wooden posts and fabric, a place of sacrifice and worship that was carried through the wilderness during the Exodus, and that influenced the form of the temple in the tenth century BCE and all synagogues to follow. Like Abel to Cain, or the nomad to the farmer, ephemeral architecture offers another face to the history of architecture. If one were to map this “other” history in parallel to the more familiar chronicle of monuments and ruins, the relationship between these two kinds of architecture would be informative and at times surprising, in the way each has influenced the other— that Greek temples, for example, are stone versions of their wooden predecessors is just one instance among many.

This other history is not restricted to religious constructions, it also includes architectural works commissioned by rulers to celebrate and proclaim their reign. In the Europe of emperors, popes, and princes, all the major architects had experience in staging festivals at courts or in cities— Andrea Palladio, Inigo Jones, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Niccolo Servandoni to name just a few. With the emergence of modern society, architects remained just as involved in staging world expositions and government spectacles: from the master planning efforts of Charles Garnier in Paris (1889), Daniel Burnham in Chicago (1893), or Albert Speer in Nuremberg (1933), to the more discrete contributions of Mies van der Rohe in Barcelona (1928), Le Corbusier in Brussels (1958), or Sverre Fehn in Venice (1962). Architects working on festivals were assured of a large audience for their efforts. They knew that spectacular effects or ingenious artistry in the design of a triumphal arch or elaborate stage setting might lead to later commissions from influential patrons. Festival architecture was designed to persuade and convince and for this reason, it has been, and continues to be, built in all the societies of Europe.

Archival records tell us that festivals and spectacles were well funded by the ruling classes in order to magnify and glorify their reign. All the arts were mobilized in the service of such events— be it a coronation or an investiture; a baptism, marriage or funeral of a privileged person. Poets and painters, musicians and dancers, masters of the culinary arts, fireworks specialists, sculptors, and of course, architects— all of these artists were called on to contribute to these events that also involved priests, heads of state, royal retinues, merchants, warriors, citizens, commoners, peasants, servants, and slaves.

Because state festivals were so important, they were generally well recorded, sometimes exaggeratedly so. Their themes were put down for posterity, persons of note were so noted, and magnificent processions were described by the number of participants, the richness of their retinue and the routes of their parades. The same could be said for the theatrical performances, scenography, choreography, menus, livery, fireworks, and all the other appurtenances of these events. As a result, the historian has a great deal of material to work with in attempting to understand events long past. But the study of festivals also poses certain frustrations. Most crucially, the architecture has long since disappeared. While the historian of built works can generally return to the subject of their investigation, freshly examining it to discover new or previously overlooked aspects, the historian of festival architecture must restrict her- or himself to the archive. And there too, the picture is not clear. Written records may lack images, etchings and broadsheets be misattributed, and accounts distorted by the bias of the chronicler. Sometimes one record directly contradicts another, depending on why it was made and for whom.

Architects’ view of ephemera and historians’ views on ritual

The modern distinction between solid and ephemeral creates an additional difficulty for the historian of festival architecture: its marginal position in architectural historiography. When permanent is set against temporary, the opposition, Jacques Derrida would argue, is not an equal one. Permanent architecture has long been viewed by architects and architectural historians as more significant and ultimately more central to architecture and its history. Architects are meant to design buildings that last. While ephemeral works have their place, their insubstantiality and their transitory nature give them attributes of being superficial, even fake. Yet ephemerality is the joker’s card in architectural history. Often, it is used as a foil to enhance the value of more durable constructions. Adolf Loos, for example, was outspoken on the value of permanence when he wrote that “only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art” (Loos 1985). In this assertion, Loos slyly insinuates that most architecture is not only utilitarian, but perhaps fleeting— at least when compared with the two categories of architecture he awards the status of art.

Yet in the mid-nineteenth century, architectural histories by Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper presented ephemeral constructions as the very origin of architecture. These theorists viewed it as the opposite of permanent architecture, as the first built sketches, so to speak, of buildings that followed. These new theorists saw architecture as an imitation, not of forms or styles, but of human action. According to Mari Hvattum, Semper was instrumental in developing this argument by placing ritual in the centre of both architectural form and the craft of architecture:

No longer a history of building types or orders, [this] was a history of the evolving techniques that brought architecture into existence and the human situations for which buildings were built. It was a history in which the primacy of structure was given over to the surface, and where the obsession with stability— so characteristic of eighteenth-century Neo-classicism— gave way to a new interest in the ephemeral. […] Unlike the neo-classical idea of architecture as a perpetual imitation of a […] primitive hut, these new theorists saw architecture as an imitation […] of human action. From this point of view, the ephemeral decoration of the altar, the precarious architecture of the procession or, in Semper’s words, the “haze of the carnival candles” (Der Stil vol. I, § 60), were not just phenomena at the margins of architectural discourse but constituting the very essence of architecture. Such ephemera were seen as primordial examples of the mimetic transformation from the ritual act to its built embodiment. As such, they were poetic works in the Aristotelian sense; works capable of setting into play a creative interpretation of human life and action.

(Hvattum 2002)

In short, for Semper, the origins of architecture lay in the universal human need to create order through play and ritual. “in the wreath, the bead necklace, the scroll, the circular dance and the rhythmic tone that attends it, the beat of an oar […] These are the beginnings out of which music and architecture grew.” From its ephemeral beginnings in ritual movement, the ordering activity of art is embodied in the artistic motifs, which in turn are fused in works of architecture.

(Hvattum 2004: 66)

More than a century later, Joseph Rykwert expressed some of this intuition in his The Idea of a Town, where he demonstrated how Roman towns were founded on elaborate rituals, and their forms— such as city walls, gate, and major institutions— were derived from those rituals (Rykwert 1976). His work contributed to a renewed interest in the relationship between festival and urbanism. Working in a much broader comparative spectrum, Spiro Kostof’s concern for the function of civic rituals in the analysis of urban form has influenced many historians working today (Kostof 1991). And of course George Hersey’s The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture explores in detail the original significance of the classical orders, as rooted in the religious rituals of the ancient Greeks (Hersey 1988).

Caroline van Eck’s contribution to this volume tackles the issue of ephemera in festivals head on by focusing on ‘paper architecture’. She suggests the demarcation between virtual and real, between solid and ephemeral was not as clear in seventeenth-century England as we may think it is now. She begins her essay by informing the reader that only a few significant works of architecture were actually completed in Britain over the first half of the seventeenth century, while much ephemeral and “paper” architecture was produced. Looking at Henry Wotton’s treatise Elements of Architecture and the masque designs of Inigo Jones, she explores the concepts that viewers of that time may have used to understand such architecture. The important aspect, she suggests, for a seventeenth-century audience was that these works represented a view of architecture as politics by another means. In other words, they employed the classical rhetorical view of art not as an object of enjoyment for its own sake, but as a means of persuasion.

Maarten Delbeke’s essay tests the hypothesis that ephemeral architecture contributes to the signification and subsequent reception of permanent architecture. He explores the Roman jubilee of 1625 and the dedication of the new basilica of Saint Peter’s the following year, as two moments which frame ideas that were to be communicated by a new, giant bronze Baldacchino designed by Bernini for the center of Saint Peter’s. To do this, he analyses the significance of the ephemeral constructions built for the jubilee and the dedication— particularly the talamo, a portable shrine carried by the Arch-confraternity of SS Rosario— and explores their intended effects on Roman audiences and others who read reports of the festivals which codified and expanded their impact.

The essay of Nancy Stieber explores the question of fakeness and authenticity in relation to the conceptualization of a new architectural style in turn of the twentieth-century Netherlands. Willem Kromhout’s designs for Oud Holland at the Amsterdam World’s Fair of 1895 was an ersatz city involving the meticulous historical reconstruction of buildings from across the Netherlands— an extremely popular attraction that drew significant interest among his contemporaries. Yet, influenced by H.P. Berlage’s formulation of architectural style that critiqued historicism, Kromhout attacked the tradition of “fake” arches, as he designed the decoration of Amsterdam for the investiture of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898.

Festivals and the architectural object

There is a large body of art and architectural historiography on European festivals, especially state spectacles in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In the art historical tradition, these studies focus on an architectural object— a royal entry, a triumphal arch, or a display built for fireworks— interpreting their architectural treatment and the allegorical iconography within a stylistic sequence. Les Fêtes de la Renaisssance for example, a three volume series edited by Jean Jacquot following a conference on the subject in 1956, remains a reference for art historians interested in Renaissance festivals; as the extensive writings of Marcello Fagiolo and Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco are for the Italian Baroque (Jacquot 1956; Fagiolo 1980 and 1997; Fagiolo dell’Arco and Carandini 1977– 8; Fagiolo dell’Arco 1997). Such studies generally focus on the artefacts built for an event and situate them within a historical and often stylistic continuum. In 1984, the architectural historians Werner Oechslin and Anja Buschow published Festarchitektur, focusing on the transformation of cities through ephemera built to express the spectacle of absolutism— primarily in the seventeenth century but also up to the present day. Rich in images and thought provoking, this book remains an important work on the historiography of European festival architecture. .The art historians Frances Yates and Roy Strong both see festivals as instruments of rhetoric and political power. Through their study of Renaissance and Baroque festivals, they interpret the meaning of festival architecture in the contexts of its production and reception. Yates, for instance, carefully analyzed a series of tapestries which represented the festivals of the Valois court in sixteenth-century France, by exploring the political context of these events and keeping the focus on their rhetorical agenda and the goals of those who commissioned them (Yates 1959). Strong’s Art and Power offers an overview of festival architecture from 1450 to 1650, analysing the representation of royal power as it is practiced in festivals across European nations

In this volume, Diane Ghirardo— like Strong and Yates— looks at royal entries, but she turns her attention to those created for noble brides. Elaborate entries for noble brides were among the few public celebrations of women in the Italian Renaissance. As such, these ceremonies occupied an important niche in the celebratory arrivals of important personages into Italian cities. Ghirardo examines the temporary constructions, from clothing to canopies to confectionary treats, created for bridal entries between 1473 and 1598 in the city of Ferrara. Through abundant detail, she is able to explore the network of symbols and meanings embedded in these events and what they reveal about gender, status, and the state.

Margherita Azzi Visentini’s essay discusses Venetian state spectacle in the San Marco complex— including the basilica, the doge’s palace, piazzas, and the wider basin— and traces the development of this exceptional urban ensemble over several centuries in relation to the state festivals which were held there. In an expansive and comprehensive survey of events, personages, architectural commissions, historical records, and painterly depictions, she convincingly argues that the Venetian Republic used lavish spectacles to assert its eternal glory in the face of political decline— bringing to light the rhetorical dimensions of festival architecture. Intriguingly, she also stresses that festivals were a central influence on the design of permanent architectural monuments by architects such as Bartolomeo Bon, Mauro Condussi, Andrea Palladio, Sebastiano Serlio, Jacopo Sansovino, and many others.

Festivals and urban form

Both Ghirardo and Azzi Visentini point to the interest of festival historians in the role of celebrations at the scale of the city and in urban design. Mona Ozouf’s influential work on French revolutionary festivals stands as a benchmark in this regard. She introduced new analytical tools, such as parade route typologies and the choreography of audiences, in her explorations of the didactic symbolism of ephemera built for state festivities in the first years after the revolution. These state festivals gave physical form to new ideas about liberty, transparency, historical memory, and the role of the public, as they helped to forge a new sense of national identity in a turbulent era (Ozouf 1988).

Eric Monin’s essay in this volume takes this wider perspective to the study of eighteenth-century French public festivals and their effect on officials responsible for urban beautification. He is able to show how, for a few days, festivals functioned as urban design proposals for improvements to the city, using alignments, regularity, mirroring, and other visual effects. Far from being merely ephemeral extravaganzas, Monin argues, these festivals worked deeply in the spatial imagination of governmental officials and of citizens.

The essay by Robert Weddle interprets the nightly light shows along the Seine River created for the 1937 world’s fair in Paris. As in Monin’s essay, it becomes clear that visual alignments are seen as an expression of urban beauty. Weddle argues that these ephemeral manifestations held an importance that transcended their sub-architectural status. The light and music festivities orchestrated by the architects Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods for the fair exemplify one of the central theme of modernity— how to put technology to work in innovative urban designs.

Diane Favro’s essay presents ancient Rome through the lens of its Megalensis festival to show an intense reciprocity of viewing between spectators and monuments during the festival. We discover, for example, that Romans believed sculptures and buildings, as well as divinities, could see and feel; that statues were not only seen by their observers, but were understood to look back at them. In an extraordinary reconstruction of the sensorial experience of participants in these events— visual, aural, haptic, and kinetic— she shows how this festival was deeply integrated in its urban context and vice versa.

Contribution of other disciplines

To better understand the cultural and political dimensions of festivals, it is at times necessary to reach out to other disciplines, such as folklore studies, anthropology, and literary criticism. The search for larger patterns across time and place by structural anthropologists, for example, helps us to discern deeper relations between permanent and ephemeral constructions in urban life. Arnold van Gennep’s concept of “rites of passage” and Victor Turner’s metaphor of “liminality” are fundamental references in this regard. Although these works look for fundamental principles operating in festivals in synchronic, rather than diachronic terms, they offer useful concepts to the historian of festivals.

Van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage is an extensive study of traditional celebrations of life’s transformative moments such as birth, puberty, marriage and, death. Van Gennep believed that while rites of passage may differ in detail from culture to culture and one event to another, they share certain features and a common social function. Traveling to remote villages in the French countryside, he documented the different forms taken by essentially the same set of ritual practices. The result was a twenty volume work which remains an extraordinary document of rural customs and rituals in the early twentieth century, many of which are no longer practiced. He was the first anthropologist to propose that rites of passage share a common structure, composed of three phases he identified as separation, transition, and incorporation. In the 1960s, this theory was taken up by another anthropologist, Victor Turner, who applied the idea of personal rites of passage to a study of large contemporary rituals, from modern-day religious pilgrimages to youth gatherings such as Woodstock. The idea that such different events might share a common structure was appealing at a time when anthropology was influenced by structuralism. The value of van Gennep’s and Turner’s work lies in their awareness of the symbolism of space and place. In one example from Turner:

the passage from one social status to another is often accompanied by a parallel passage in space, a geographical moment from one place to another. This may take the form of a mere opening of doors or the literal crossing of a threshold such as the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of their new home.

(Turner 1982: 25)

The workings of rites of passage particularly interested Turner— he called these liminal, deriving the term from the Latin word for margin, or threshold. During a liminal phase, according to Turner, participants are stripped of their social status and removed from social structures. Yet, their secular powerlessness may be compensated for by a sacred power derived from the resurgence of nature when structural power is removed, and from the transference of sacred knowledge (Turner 1979).

Anthropologists have also tended to turn their attention to popular, rather than elite practices. This too, is useful for our study here, since most of the perspectives we have discussed so far have been of state-sponsored spectacles. Carnival is the opposite of this: it is power from the bottom up, an expression of subversive power that consumes and ridicules everything in its wake. The idea of carnival has been theorized in the twentieth century by Mikhail Bakhtin (in the field of literature criticism) and Natalie Zemon Davis, an historian who was influenced by anthropological studies and particularly by Turner. To a great extent these two scholars have outlined how carnival and the carnivalesque is viewed in scholarly circles today. Bakhtin saw in carnivals the authentic and utopian expression of “popular” power, immediate, empowering, and disrespectful. Carnival was the second life of the people, who for a time entered into the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance (Bakhtin 1984: 9). Davis has a less idealistic but equally empowering view of carnival, seeing in it the possibility to present alternatives, if only fleeting, to rigid societal norms.

Christine Macy’s essay in this volume explores the capacity of disempowered groups to use the anarchic quality of carnival to forge a place of authority within the fault lines of closed social structures. Many historians treat the attack on carnival as a victory over popular culture, first by the absolutist state and then by the middle classes, a process which is viewed as the more or less complete destruction of popular festivities: the end of carnival. By the nineteenth century they argue, urban carnival was perceived as an offensive and threatening behavior of the lower classes, and was avoided by the urban middle class (Stallybrass and White 1986). Yet Macy shows the middle class in the nineteenth century, Basel, using carnival license to mount a directed assault on a social system that excluded them and to do this in the space of the city— effectively creating public spaces and a realm of public opinion that favoured their interests in the rapidly industrializing city. Through carnival, she argues, new immigrant groups succeeded in gaining citizenship and a base for political power in that closed society.

The essay by Sarah Bonnemaison shows the recurrent figure of revolution in the events that took place in Paris during May 1968, exploring its impact on French views of culture and street life. She uses this construct to present the revolt of May 68 as an urban festival, interpreting the unique mixture of celebration and political engagement that took place in the streets of Paris as an example of Turner’s liminal phase, acted out by a generation of young Parisians. The overturning of ingrained attitudes towards the street and what might happen there, realized in its most dynamic form in the barricades and protests of that month, carried over to an occupation of the abandoned central markets of Les Halles and later, in a more formalized manner, in the design of the Center Pompidou. She argues that May 68 and, in a more limited way, the new museum as a machine for showing art, reworked the festive ideal first developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Each of the essays in this volume addresses significant issues raised by the study of festival architecture as it was developed in Europe. In different ways, they explore the dualities of ephemerality and permanence, issues around participation, the urban imaginary, and the rhetorical function of communicating to and convincing crowds— mostly in the service of ruling elites, but sometimes against them. What stands out is the public aspect of such events and their architecture and their power to generate spatial imagination. To restate the words of Semper, the “haze of the carnival candles” is not merely a phenomenon at the margins of architecture, rather, it lies at the essence of all architecture. For these reasons and more, festival architecture will continue to seduce architects and historians alike.


Bakhtin, M. (1984), Rabelais and His World, translated by H. Iswolsky, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Bötticher, K. (1856) Der Baumkultus der Hellenen, Berlin: Weidmann.

Davis, N.Z. (1977) Society and Culture in Early Modern France: EightEssays, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fagiolo, M. (1980) La città efimera e l’universo artificiale del giardino: la Firenze dei Medici e l’Italia del ’500, Rome: Officina Edizioni. –––– (ed.) (1997) La festa a Roma dal rinascimento al 1870, Turin: Umberto Allemandi.

Fagiolo dell’Arco, M. (1997) La festa barocca, Rome: De Luca. –––– and Carandini, S. (1977– 8) L’effimero barocco. Struttura della festa nella Roma del ’600, Rome: Bulzoni.

Hersey, G. (1988) The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hvattum, M. (2002) “Essence and Ephemera, Themes in Nineteenth Century Architectural Discourse,” unpublished conference paper, Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Richmond, Virginia (April). –––– (2004) Gottfried Semper and the problem of historicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacquot, J. (1956) Les fêtes de la Renaisssance, Paris: Editions du CNRS.

Kostof, S. (1991) “What is a City?,” in The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History, London: Thames and Hudson, 37– 41.

Loos, A. (1985) “Architecture” (1910), in The Architecture of Adolf Loos [exhibition catalog], with essays by Sir J. Summerson, K. Frampton, D. Steiner and Y. Safran, London: Arts Council.

Oechslin W. and Buschow, A. (1984) Festarchitektur, Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje.

Ozouf, M. (1988) Festivals and the French Revolution, translated by A. Sheridan, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (first French edition 1976).

Rykwert, J. (1976) The Idea of a Town: TheAnthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy, and the ancient world, London: Faber and Faber.

Semper, G. (2004) Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, translated by H.F. Mallgrave and M. Robinson, Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center (first German edition 1860– 2).

Stallybrass, P. and White, A. (1986) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Strong, R.C. (1973) Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450– 1650, London: Boydell & Brewer.

Turner, V. (1979) Process, Performance and Pilgrimage, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. –––– (1982) From Ritual to Theater: the Human Seriousness of Play, New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage, translated by M.B. Vizedom and G.L. Caffee, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (first French edition 1909).

Yates, F.A. (1959) The Valois Tapestries, London: Warburg Institute.


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