Scenography and architecture. Two different professions, with unsuspected similarities, especially in times when visual culture takes over. We asked set designer Margherita Palli to clarify what the points of contact are today.
What is the difference between scenography and architecture? And how do the two disciplines interact?
Margherita Palli: "They are not two distant professions, until the beginning of the 1900s architects and set designers studied in the same place: the Academy of Fine Arts.
It was only at the end of the 1920s that the faculty of architecture was established and, consequently, designing buildings became a technical rather than an artistic profession. It is an interesting fact, because in reality architecture has always been scenographic, exciting, the bearer of a story.
In Italy, in particular, there are no places without this quality. For better or for worse.
There is a scenographic story in a Baroque church, in a Palladian palace, in the Roman ruins. But there is also in the Villaggio Coppola near Caserta, where Dogman was filmed, the film by Matteo Garrone on the story of the Canaro della Magliana. An objectively ugly and disturbing place chosen to narrate a human fact with a very similar flavour.
And it should not be forgotten that there are characters who have spontaneously carried out both professions.
The real distinction is the aesthetic part: it must be functional. If a building is ugly, it is not because of its scenographic content, but because of the incapacity to authentically fulfill its function, i.e. to be an original expression of contemporary culture".
Awe and wonder are especially areas of scenography. What are the design tools useful for a good scenographic project?
Margherita Palli: "The idea, the technical development, the construction. While an architect has a client, the set designer has a theatre, a director, a text, a music. The set designers have total control of the environment and what happens in it.Together with the director we decide what is on a table, what the actors eat in a scene, in which dishes.
When I was in charge of a staging of La cena delle Beffe at the Teatro della Scala, I designed a self-propelled multi-story building, a three-story palace which for narrative needs rose and fell and became from time to time the background for the different acts. It was real architecture, with defined spaces.
We are basically false architects, we rebuild, copy, mix to invent spaces. Which is not bad, because the nature of our work forces us to create ephemeral and transportable projects. So if a scenography is bad, it doesn't matter, it's destined to disappear. Instead the bad architectures remain".
What is ugly when it comes to scenography and architecture?
Margherita Palli: "Ugly is what apes an idea, the bad copy of a beautiful thing.
In Italy we are lucky, it is however, but here too we have had our ugliness. But then they don't last, they aren't preserved, as happens to bad books and bad paintings.
I think that there have always been architectures that can be defined as scenic filth. But fortunately they are destined to disappear.
It is not a contemporary phenomenon and the predominance of visual culture suggested by social media has nothing to do with it. The Teatro Regio in Turin is a marvel, the Opera Bastille is a non-functional and uninteresting project. Time will decide what survives and what doesn't.
Beauty, in scenography as in architecture, excites. Whatever its nature.
Maybe it's a matter of personal sensitivity, but when I see the Central Station of Milan, built in the fascist period and universally considered a modest architecture, I get emotional. There is an enormous narrative capacity, a powerful scenographic presence that acts as a backdrop to a place where a journey begins or ends.
The Fondazione Prada has similar qualities, despite being a contemporary and undoubtedly scenic place. It's exciting.
As is the Pope who crosses Piazza San Pietro alone during the pandemic: a very well-dressed Pope in a very beautiful place. A great emotion. But then again, maybe it's just a matter of individual sensitivity."
Has the social aesthetic, which does not allow for imperfections and prefers a scenographic attitude, influenced architecture?
Margherita Palli: "In Italy, people complain a lot about everything. In reality, I believe that social networks have spread culture and have helped to make known beauties to which we didn't have access before.
I'm quite nerdy and very curious. I enjoy digital. I observe, I look at the profiles of the architects and set designers I love, I find out what they look at, what inspires them.
And I say to myself: that's nice. In turn, I use the images that scroll on Instagram to find ideas, to study and to gather ideas and information. I worked on the staging of a Fedora set in the house of a Russian autarch: without Instagram I wouldn't have known where to start.
Technology has made available some interesting tools, which improve creativity. I used to be a bad photographer, now I enjoy discovering myself better, modifying my modest photos to make them more interesting.
Of course, Instagram has changed the way designers work. When I design the layout of an exhibition, I can't pretend that social networks don't exist. But this has positive effects: there is a more widespread beauty, which even reaches the dishes in which aesthetic care is taken. I don't find that to be a negative result.
Ditto for the design process. We use computers and some say we give up real and spontaneous creativity. But that's not true: we are faster, more precise and more efficient."