Home > Uncategorized > Maps of classic dungeons 4: the rats in the walls of the Opera Garnier

Maps of classic dungeons 4: the rats in the walls of the Opera Garnier

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 12.47.06 PMAlexis Dornier: Stilt Studio. If you like that, see also his Birdhouses resort in Bali.

Part of the myth of modern architecture is that it’s all function. But that’s hardly ever true – and even when it is, somehow the expression of that function tends to come across in an ostentatious, theatrical way. 

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 1.08.40 PMArkwright’s cotton mill, Cromford, 1771

Take this cotton mill building, for instance, often forwarded by British people as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It’s supposed to be purely, practically functional. You can tell because it’s unadorned – no fancy pillars or porticoes or stepping of the facade architecture – and it’s sometimes cited as an important moment in the development of the new clean modern movement in architecture; if you’re wondering why the industrial age abandoned ornament just when it could mass-produce it, the relative cheapness of these buildings is your answer.

Cromford_Mill_GatewayAnd yet even Arkwright’s mill was theatricalized, as a place of work, with this entrance gate, reminiscent of a medieval castle barbican or a prison. The gate announces that within these walls is the place for mechanical labor.    

Architecture can’t really help communicating. Splendor – which Arkwright’s mill self-consciously eschewed – also has a function – if it didn’t, people wouldn’t spend so much on it. It tells a building’s inhabitants how to feel and behave, what to pay attention to and, conversely, what to ignore. An institution’s buildings are its visible presence, its self-portraits, and theatrical settings – showcases for its power, arenas for its executives’ performances. 

How-FosterPartners-Elevated-Apple-Store-Design-Azure-Hero-1600x900Foster & Partners: Apple store, Macau

Corporations love gigantic foyers and atriums, that both dwarf the visitor and offer an interior world to get lost in. Hotels and cruise ships have grand social gathering spaces – dining rooms and ballrooms – where they can make a spectacle of their guests. And temples have whole complex schemes of teaching spaces that make their creeds visible. Theaters of theology.

Anatomy Theater, University of Leiden

..in short, theaters are everywhere. And theaters are dungeons and dungeons are theaters: they frequently contain self-consciously theatrical storytelling spaces – the old raised dais at the end of the room, the sacrificial altar, the monster pit, the pentagram in the middle of the floor. Also, fairly often, these theatrical parts of the dungeon are left as set dressing – whoever made the temple, they’re not here any more and instead it’s giant rats or opportunistic hobgoblin mercenaries, staining the tapestries.

But a theater is a terrible thing to waste – especially one dedicated to fiction. The lies people tell you can be so informative about what’s really on their minds.

Ok, so, some theory.

Theaters (arenas, ritual spaces) dramatize the functions of society.
Justice is theatrical – prisoners and executions are displayed in public to show an example to the rest of the court.
Power is theatrical – both to attract the court’s attention and to set a standard that enforces humility among the servile classes.
And rituals/displays show a society its own structure – as well as offering moments when that structure can be suspended, changed, and re-asserted. Weddings, promotions, judgments, declarations are all status changes for members of the community – moments of structural vulnerability, where stuff is up for grabs, where everyone has to update their hierarchies.
(Victor Turner wrote the classic book on this – the whole thing is interesting)

And/So theatrical rituals offer moments of crisis where PCs can insert themselves to maximum effect – Bond and John Carter routinely escape right at the moment of their spectacular, exemplary punishment, when all eyes are fixed on them – the intended display of the tyrant’s power instead becomes their spectacular humiliation. Years of careful plotting are undone in a way they wouldn’t be, if the whole thing hadn’t been so damn public. And when the heroes escape, they don’t just illustrate the contingency/risk that gives the ritual its power, they also tell us about the holes in their captors’ moral architecture: Carter can slip out of his spectacular starvation chamber through the same tunnel the tyrant uses to enact his sadistic urges – the tyrant is defeated by his own vices, embodied in his theater of cruelty.

But it’s also worth thinking about how a theatre divides its space into the scene – what you are required to look at, to understand the drama – and the obscene – both that which is hidden behind a curtain because it’s too upsetting for the public, and that which is off the stage: the stuff that is necessary to the production but which the audience has to ignore – the lights, flies, and rude mechanicals that make the magic happen. And, fairly often, simply people right there on the stage whom you must pretend are not there (kuroko, servants, boom operators).   

People fret about the obscene becoming visible, but it’s just as useful as a (open) secret place, from which one can observe without being observed. Bond gets inside (infests) Goldfinger’s model of Fort Knox (showing us how the villain’s plans are paper-thin) and learns all of Goldfinger’s plots from that blind – even the bit where Goldfinger plans to betray his mafia allies.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame the spy gallery is the cathedral bell tower, which offers a commanding view of the bustling square and its centerpiece gallows. While the tyrannical archdeacon sets up a punishment theater for the burghers of Paris, to condemn Esmeralda for failing to return his love, Quasimodo uses his bellside perch to spy on the proceedings from above – a nice reversal of the panoptic power of the state. Also he improbably uses a bell rope to Tarzan down to her and snatch her away from the archdeacon’s own rope necklace, which is probably super Freudian or something but I digress.

gargoyles and saints, locked in an endless staring match

Getting up to that bell tower, by the way, involves entering a rabbit warren of passages – the private scurryways of a very public building, which the archdeacon only barely understands. If you’re intimate with gargoyles then you’re definitely not in a place intended for the worshipful visitors – or at least you weren’t before Victor Hugo’s novel made the bell tower tour one of the most popular parts of a tour around Paris’s Old Dame.

I can see the king’s bedroom from here

And then there’s the actual theater: a building devoted to fixing the audience’s gaze on only one place–the royal box, where Louis XIV and his court just might let their guard down, as they watched their entertainments. Or the stage, if Louis XIV himself (or his wife, or his mistress) were performing.

the Opera at Versailles in the mid 19th century, dressed for a rather staid performance by Queen Victoria

The quintessential theater, the Platonic ideal of the modern palace of illusions, if you like, is of course an imitation, rebuilt on a grander scale, of Louis’s court theater – Paris’s Opera Garnier. It was commissioned by the commoner emperor Napoleon III to form the centerpiece of his “theater state,” and had to be capable of accepting the bourgeoisie as well as dukes and visiting royalty.

The Opera Garnier, Paris’s other hunchback – the giant peaked-roof carbuncle spoiling the symmetry of the dome houses the flies – all the scenery-changing machinery that turns a stage into a cave into a forest or a mean peasant’s hut.

This is the Opera that’s now mostly famous for its Phantom… which was originally written off the back of the fame of the building itself. So it goes with the ravages of time.

I wish I could tell you that Victor Hugo wrote both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, and that these two epics about disfigured men with yearning hearts hiding out in Paris landmarks were both scathing satires on the French society of their day – that from their secret vantage points they laid bare the hypocrisies of the powerful. Both do indeed theatricalize French society – Notre Dame offers a “god’s perspective” from which we can see the venal goings on of the city. The Opera Garnier, (at least when it was first built) was a factory for fantasies, both on the stage and in the auditorium, the perfect metaphor for the pasteboard Second Empire. And Hugo had plenty to say about Napoleon III as a pasteboard character – “Napoleon the little,” “the nocturnal strangler of liberty”, that would fit snugly into the whole Phantom thing. But unfortunately Phantom was written in 1910, 25 years after Hugo’s death, by melodramatic mystery scribbler Gaston Leroux and if there is, indeed, a common moral shared by the two books it’s something about the dangerous power of being a sexy woman in a city full of deformed horny romantically-inclined men. At best, they could be partnered with Cyrano de Bergerac to make a series on ugly monomaniacs of Paris, 1630-present.

But let’s forget the sad accidents of history for a moment and pretend that the two books and buildings really are in dialogue. Because they are, regardless of their mere authors’ intentions. The books’ obsession with vertical limits – Quasimodo’s heavenly tower and Erik the Phantom’s subterranean sewer-palace – seems to says something about the anatomy of Paris as a great beast impelled by carnal drives, looking to the stars, etc. The secrecy of the spaces suggests a Paris of labyrinths – which it is, from sewers and catacombs to “secret” entrances to the Louvre and other landmarks. To say nothing of the Law. And the physical structures of the buildings…

Here’s the thing. Notre Dame is a labyrinth, sure – from subterranean crypt to chorister’s gallery to belltowers, there’s plenty of places for ecclesiastics to get up to no good. A family of urchins could easily hide in its decorative niches, posing as statues when the organist shuffles by. And, like most cathedrals, it has a wooden skeleton, so it’s not just a giant pile of stone. But the Opera is another sort of labyrinth altogether – the sort of collection of hanging facades with big holes behind them that you could only build in the 19th century, with metal frame construction and a limitless fund of decorators. The grandiose rooms that make up the public front of the Opera

are surrounded by hundreds of other spaces, many of which can’t really be dignified by being called “rooms,” which threaten to engulf it.

detail of a longitudinal section model of the Opera Garnier, at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The famous auditorium is that rather small gilded space, 4 stories under the dome. The skyscraper next door is the stage and flies.

There are at least 3 buildings in that building: the gilded front of house, the actors’ backstage, and a third hidden set of service and maintenance spaces, which are not just tiny scurryholes but whole galleries and kitchens and staircases and staging areas – an architecture of supports and buttresses and food carts and stagehands and whispered orders, where the rooms are cut into by the backsides of domes and mock plaster pillars. These are the spaces that even the Phantom doesn’t talk about: room for an army of goblins – or of plumbers, seamstresses, and waiters. Like Manhattan or Disneyland, where the public thinks they’re standing on solid ground they’re really on the upper floor of a building that extends below their feet for several stories; a whole other city that leaks into their view only through steam blasts and the occasional odd clank.

The front/maintenance divide continues into modernist works, of course. Eero Saarinen’s masterwork design for Bell Labs (which was instrumental to creating this internet thing we’re using right now) was a featureless box on the outside, leading to a classic grandiose atrium inside

but the bit that made the internet work was between and around the famously pristine labs, in the service corridors and closets

Nowadays these cable tangles have got big enough to demand whole skyscrapers of their own, and the front of the theater is your cellphone screen.

the windowless block of a “hut hotel” (telecoms data exchange), suggestively dropped on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Strongest

OK, great. So what do you do with all this?

The first thing is obviously to imagine and then make use of all the ductwork, plumbing, and behind-the-scenes service spaces that your dungeon’s Death Cult Temple demands. Does your local post-apocalyptic warlord live in a palace that used to be a big public building? Then he can’t possibly know all the murder-holes that lurk behind the seemingly-solid walls. Have you always been bothered by the weirdness of classic D&D maps, of rooms connected by long noodle corridors? Now you know that those black “solid” spaces are just rusticated fronts stuck over service corridors that connect to other dungeons, maybe displaced half a floor or half a genre up or down from the version you fell into. How do goblins and ghouls get everywhere? In this swiss cheese environment, the occasional secret door seems like a jokey lampshade.

Do you guys still watch Die Hard? Then you know how grandiose ductwork can be. But just in case you missed Bldgblog’s amazing post on the topic, here’s a reminder. Describing the Israeli Defense Force’s invasion of Nablus, it talks about squads blasting their own passages through a basically hollow spatial labyrinth, which wasn’t previously suited to their movements, but which they turned into an architecture of continuous surprise:

“soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long ‘overground-tunnels’ carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric.” Their movements were thus almost entirely camouflaged, with troop movements hidden from above by virtue of always remaining inside buildings. 

Breach-charging through walls, floors and ceilings, they deliberately avoided the expected entry points – doors and windows – that the architecture offered them. From Lethal Theory:

In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. We try to produce the operational space in such a manner that borders do not affect us. Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated”, in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on . . . We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice [the way most IDF units presently operate] with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. Rather than contain and organize our forces according to existing borders, we want to move through them.’

…which makes me wonder why D&D parties are typically so respectful of the frame of the dungeon. I mean, obviously the answer is because it’s set up that way, like a Skinner box, part of the invisible rulebook of dungeon delving, which also blocks out the rest of the world with its social consequences etc, to produce a murder-palace full of monsters and trophies, sure, but… if you’re also interested in dungeons as heists, then it makes sense to set them in heistable spaces. And to be aware that spectacles always turn back to face their viewer, who is also on display – the royal box at the opera allows royals to watch the audience and vice versa. The invading murderhobos, who think they’re being sneaky as they inch up their darkened 10′ corridor are being studied for their tactics and equipment – if the dungeon boss isn’t a complete idiot.

And if you’re interested in dungeons as heists then you can build dramatic cues right into the map. Let’s say you have a boss with personality – a Strahd or Acererak or Alp Arslan, and you’ve been thinking about the space for the final showdown. There are advantages to making it a theatrical space, beyond the merely melodramatic – it can be at the focal point of the dungeon, where everyone can see the fight. Its boundaries can be clearly marked, so the players can prepare themselves – and do their homework -before stepping into the arena. And of course they can’t step into that space without themselves becoming part of the spectacle – what are their stakes? Why should they be hesitant to grab that cup, defile that fane, take over that dark lord’s sepulchral domain? The theatrical is also where you find the thread that pulls the villain’s whole architectural scheme apart – the whip-carrying slaver that everyone loves to hate, the feast you can ruin to turn the court against the villain, the seemingly minor functionary who turns out to be critical to the alarm-raising system. If you’ve done your homework, you can make your grand entrance deliberately, confident that you have your own surprises waiting in the flies.

You didn’t think I’d write all this without mentioning Renzo Piano’s and Richard Rogers’s Centre Georges Pompidou, did you? The sneaky trick here is, they shifted all the vital infrastructure to the facade in order to leave uninterrupted space inside for a clean, pristine and reconfigurable gallery box, all the better to show whatever crazy ductwork modern artists can cook up.

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