Boxed In

In 1840, so many boys at Eton wanted to play Fives that to accommodate the craze for the sport a new block of four courts was built, replicating the conditions at the foot of the chapel steps where the game was best played. Here, the ball would bounce mischievously around the angles of the pleasingly cramped nook to confound the sprightly players (a wider bay would ruin the game), who needed deft hand-eye coordination to stay ahead of the competition.

Other schools and private houses followed suit with purpose-built courts, and by 1900 the game was at its peak of popularity, fed by a network of organized competitions and active alumni. However, two world wars killed off interest, and nothing could generate enthusiasm for a sport whose associations were so negatively rooted in the Upper Class.

Eton Fives still exists as a minority interest among certain ex-pupils, who organize league tables and evangelize on the game’s behalf, but many more courts exist than are needed and the question of their future stands sphinx-like at the intersection of architectural preservation and cultural progress. The sport’s remains now litter the landscape often unrecognized, unused and unusable, consigned to obsolescence and waiting for demolition.

When the march of history and class circumstance renders buildings obsolete, what options do we have for their rescue?

·         Should we step in and save them, used or unused, just to preserve the historical record?

·         Should we revive the practice that made them useful, to give the architecture a purpose again?

·         Should we find a new use for them?

·         Should we remove them to make way for the more relevant and useful?

On a smaller scale, architectural details also retain a unique place in cultural anthropological history.

Family pews in churches, for example, paid for by subscription and allotted and occupied according to social position, were eventually abandoned as unbefitting the egalitarian vision of heaven as conceived by late 19th Century Christianity. These intimate and cozy compounds provided all-round privacy and comfort, with padded seats and heating, the forward facing banquettes providing ample view of the liturgical action and access to distribution of communion elements, and the backward facing banquettes accommodating the servants; it was the closest thing to having the convenience of one’s own home chapel.

To design a building that includes this anachronistic feature today would be unthinkable because it would reinstate a class-based theology that the church has long outgrown. Likewise, no municipality would build a Fives court, for not only would it be underutilized, it would only be used by a very small minority of the educationally privileged.

Yet opera house designers routinely replicate historicist design features that reinforce a class-based architecture long since meaningless. It has been two centuries since tenure of a box at the opera had any fact-based cachet. Today, opera house architecture trades on design elements that would make other building types the objects of scorn and ridicule because they introduce class-based historicism that condemns the art form imprisoned within to an anti-American system of patronage based on snobbery and elitism.

The first public opera house opened in Venice in 1637 to accommodate the merchant city’s passion for the new art form. Invented in 1600 in Florence with the support of a group of wealthy intellectuals concerned with reestablishing the supremacy of Greek dramatic models, opera had established itself among the super-wealthy as a supremely grand and self-congratulatory entertainment that combined drama, music and all the elements of elaborate and costly stagecraft. Not to be outdone by those with a personal fortune, the merchant city was able to sustain its own building by selling subscriptions to ‘boxes’ on a seasonal basis to its wealthiest citizens. Sales of individual seats on a nightly basis down in the flat section by the orchestra were a more risky proposition, but the box income guaranteed the building’s financial success. The ‘box’ itself was the visible balcony section of an elaborate apartment, each one complete with fireplace and drawing room for dining and entertaining. From this ‘box’ the family members could view the opera, or draw the curtains to maintain perfect privacy.

To emulate the grandeur of Venetian opera society, (for it was here that the city’s merchant families entertained one another during the opera season, arranging business deals and keeping abreast of the latest scandal,) other cities copied the building’s design, cementing the design relationship of opera with the box until the ‘opera box’ became a de rigueur feature. However, the boxes of many opera houses did not give access onto rented apartments, and were just elaborate enclosures of movable seats to create the illusion of wealth and exclusivity. Maintaining ‘a box at the opera’ became a symbol of societal position, inferring that one had either inherited it or had enough money to purchase it, even though it might only mean a seat or two in a certain position, and not the whole seating area. Opera and the illusion of wealth also became inseparable twins.

Boxes are today not sold as groups of seats, but as individual seats, and no architect in any opera house has ever dared take away the box design, even though they serve no purpose other than to remind other audience members that the occupants are direct descendants of the Patricians of old.

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