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Tällberg: A Concert in a Quarry

dalhalla.jpg

It had already been an extraordinary week. I had met royalty, rock stars, heads of state, leading thinkers, poets, and pioneering civil society activists -- not to mention scores of relatively "unimportant" people just as remarkable in their passion, insight, and impact in the world. Far from platitudes, in my "reflection group", the midwife from the local village was just as interesting as the EU representative to the Middle East. For 25 years the Tällberg Forum has gathered people like this every summer in a small village in northern Sweden to talk as peers and without institutional agendas about how we can create a better world. The focus this year was the question, "How on Earth can we all live together?" In short, think Davos, but Scandinavian style: humanistic, collegial, smaller, and unpretentious -- all nurtured I'm sure by the exceptional energy of those long, northern summer nights and kaleidoscope skies. Tällberg, both the village and the event, are special places at the edges of ordinary time.

The amazing conversations and insights aside (the subject of future posts), my peak experience at the forum was nothing intellectual -- and had yet to come. It was the concluding concert at Dalhalla in a nearby region. As we all piled pilgrim-like into buses, we were anticipating a real treat with world-class entertainers like the Bolshoi Theatre, an amazing South African all girls jazz band, and a well known percussion group. But for me, after the bus started to snake its way down, down, down into a large spectacular depression in the ground, I knew the real star of the show was going to be the actual concert hall.

Later I learned the history of the place, a Cinderella story of sorts, which always tickles our hearts. First, the land braved the cataclysmic impact of a large meteor 360 million years ago, and then in modern times was turned into a limestone quarry known as Draggängarna. Curiously, these two destructive interventions -- one from above and the other below, one extra-terrestrial and the other profanely human -- have created the perfect conditions for an outdoor amphitheater, now one of the most beautiful and acclaimed in Europe. Of course at the time, no one believed that this idea would ever work, that this remote location far away from a large cultural center, would attract incredible artists and audiences. But for ten years, Dalhalla has done just that.

The reasons quickly become clear. Not only is Dalhalla acoustically a top notch venue, its physical space is simply mesmerizing. The focal point that comes to view first, a flash from the white-grey cliffs high above, is the stage, which is enveloped by an electrifying turquoise blue lake, charged by millennial-aged minerals. In the far left corner, a large fountain juts vertical plumes of water, geyser-like, another reference to the vital subterranean forces that shape our planet. And as you move further down in this ancient hole, a stillness and zen presence descends on you, together with a feeling of aliveness, no doubt aided by the cool downdrafts and the arresting micro-climate from this big footprint deep in the ground.

While most theaters are a celebration of pure artifice, the implicit bargain made with the audience is to suspend disbelief, Dalhalla needed no deal with its visitors as its artifice seemed authentic and naturally endowed. One is easily transported into an altered state just by the place. With the theatre seats solidly and seamlessly hewn from the walls of the quarry in graduated steps, this place had a confident and timeless quality fitting for Ancient Greece or a Mayan ruin. It felt that Dalhalla's purpose had always meant to be this: a theater, a cradle of delight and joy; and a symbol of creative repurposing.

Attractive Things Work Better

In years to come, many parts of the world will be devoting large resources to remediating and restoring and reinventing the ugly, damaged, detritus of industrial processes, industrial lands, and industrial society -- not to mention the outcomes of "natural" disasters like Katrina. This is a huge challenge, but also a tremendous economic, cultural and creative opportunity. As Storm Cunningham expounds in The Restoration Economy, this emerging industry is at least 1.5 - $2 trillion-dollar/year and growing. Without question, turning unproductive, wasted land or products -- especially when scarcity continues to squeeze us -- into something useful makes rational economic sense. Market forces will drive this, and even more so in the future. So whatever you feel about the current incarnation of capitalism, one has to admire the adaptiveness of markets, the feedback loops of supply and demand at work. Markets can be our allies if properly understood for their strengths and weaknesses. They fall down when good governance and leadership fail to ensure that their benefits are evenly distributed, or through corruption and politics distort or impinge market forces through "perverse subsidies".

But the sterile imperatives and agnostic stance of market rationality isn't what inspired me at Dalhalla. No, what Dalhalla dramatized for me is the importance of beauty in design, and this was possible in the most improbable of places. Most projects and planners just stop at what's practical and what works. Short term interests and budgets seem to short cut imaginations. Why not elevate our sights, just like other generations did when they constructed our most celebrated and beautiful parks and buildings? Why not create a win-win-win out of these blights on the planet, and make them also economic and social "attractors"? Why not create the opposite of what Bruce Sterling calls involuntary parks: areas of the planet which has returned to savagery due to breakdowns in technological instrumentalism. Why not turn the ugly and disused -- the places we've discarded in despair -- and turn them into something fantastic with enduring purpose, cathedrals to our own shifting world-view? If we build these things, I bet many additive benefits would emerge, some obvious and some not. Already we have many examples of this from New Songdo City in Korea to reefs made from ships to Singapore's Semakau, a new eco-tourism island made out of landfill.

This all seems like common sense to me. I see this in places like Paris which has long seen (though not consistently) the benefits of investing in beautiful environments. Yet somewhere a bad meme worked its way into our mindsets like an intractable weed, an industrial-aged planning logic, which said we had to make tradeoffs between functionality and aesthetics, between something that's economically and instrumentally practical versus something that delights, entertains, endures beyond just our lifetime. Dalhalla is living proof that these are not real tradeoffs, that these attributes are best blended together, that this mindset is wrong and is just a function of a serious lack of imagination and short term impulses. In rebuttal, most people will pull the budget card. They'll say we don't have enough money to invest in these things, that beauty is a luxury. But as experience tells us, an abundance of money often gets in the way of coming up with enduring and well-loved designs. Creating future Notre Dames is not what I'm talking about, although it would be nice to have these too. In fact, too much money is often the enemy of the efficient allocation of resources. And as most designers will tell you, even small budgets can yield beauty with these constraints even being the mother of such ingenuity. And as any competent cook will tell you, a fabulous meal can emerge from simple and inexpensive ingredients.

The good news is that we are getting real "proof" and thus legitimatization that beauty and aesthetics matters, not just for their own sake but because these also improve the overall quality of the experience or product. These insights are being supported by the work of many disciplines, ranging from cognitive psychology to ethnographic consumer research, and these are finally trickling into mainstream thought leadership. Leading design thinker Donald A. Norman, for instance, now argues strongly in Emotional Design: People and Things that attractive things invariably work better. Amen to that.

***

As the evening drew to a close, the Bolshoi was at its finest, full choir and all, delivering the most enchanting version of Hayden's Fireworks Symphony I had ever witnessed. Not quite believing the literalness of the symphony's title, and so close to the action we were, my new friends laughed as I jumped out of my seat as the first round of pyrotechnics announced their boisterous role in this piece. Later on, just moments before all would be over, breathtaking waterfalls of white fire cascaded over the cliffs in the distance, flowing with the rhythms of the music. Life was perfect for just that instant.

Bravo to the creative and dedicated Swedish souls who saw magic out of discarded minerals. Thank you for creating this jewel of an example for other places to follow. Dalhalla resets the bar at a rightfully high place. More s.v.p. -- times the world over.

Photo credits: Thanks to Sue Gillie and Aharon Zohar, members of our fantastic reflection group.

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