James Charles Mak, Alison Cheng
A Lighthouse is a guiding star for wanderers at sea. The arch radiates a soft glow like a full moon against a cloudless sky. The monolithic form is cladded in thin perforated mesh, allowing for the entire structure to emit light. The slightly haunting demeanor reminds those in its presence that although safety is in reach, peril might just be around the corner.
The project is designed around a void with half of the lighthouse planted on land and the other half anchored in water. The void represents the sense of helplessness one feels at such a horrendous waste of innocent lives. Four arches raise the arch thirty-three meters in the air, in remembrance to the thirty-three lives lost at sea. Embedded into a leg of the lighthouse is a spiral staircase that leads up to the belly of the beast, a cell designed specifically for the condemned captain.
The lighthouse is divided into three realms: Paradiso, Inferno and Purgatorio, represented by a wheat field, a cell and an abyss respectively. In the middle for the room is a circular glass floor, and below a ten story abyss, above an oculus, the only opening to the sky. As the guardian of the lighthouse Schettino is given a chance at redemption, to complete what he failed to do as a captain – guide lost ships to safety. The captain is trapped in solitude in the realm of purgatory, even with the heavens shining down on him he is always two steps away from hell.
You talk about Inferno, Paradiso and Purgatorio, three words which within an Italian Context immediately spark a connection to Dante Alighieri and the Divina Commedia. Do you feel it might have been interesting to explore how these are thoroughly explored in his masterpiece?
Definitely. In fact, the unbuilt Danteum by Terragni was probably a more appropriate reference. We could not have done a better interpretation than a museum that was especially dedicated to Dante. We were curious by how Terragni, a renowned modernist himself could’ve done something so heavy in material, politically charged and classically referential! The Danteum was such a subverted classical project built by a modernist. For Terragni, the Divina Commedia was a journey for visitors in a museum. For us, we wanted to depart from that subversion and take our project as a metaphorical yet satirical turn to embrace Italian culture. That is why instead of directly translating the three realms into separate volumes like Terragni did, with the sinned captain trapped in purgatorio, with just views to the inaccessible paradiso above and inferno below.
To what extent does the composition of images relate back to a triptych aedicular frame, typical of Italian renaissance?
It relates both literally and metaphorically. The triptych is a physical representation of the project, the two frames on each side coincides with arches that support the captain’s cell and the negative space of the triptych forms the section of the lighthouse. There were many layers of the event that we wanted to explore and it felt more fitting to narrate the project through a canon of drawings as oppose to one singular piece. The triptych was also a nod to the Italians roots of the tragedy. The Concordia crashed on an Italian island off of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, by the hands of a reckless Italian captain. The man not only crashed the cruise ship due to negligence but fled, abandoning the remaining passengers on a sinking ship. The estimated cost to savage the remains of the “constructive total loss” was estimated at 800 million euros, but by July 2014 the cost has risen to above 1 billion euros. The entire event was very dramatic, but very excessively so. The austere nature of renaissance paintings helped to heighten the satirical element of the project and also provided the much needed comic relief in light of the entire event.
What inspired the painting like graphics you adopted, especially with regards to the Refuge image? And what paintings were used for these collages?
We entered a competition for architects and they are projects that are never meant to be built! Why don’t we explore the possibilities of representations? It was a very natural and rebellious graphical response to the all-too-common photorealism we see in architecture competitions. We thought if we want to enter the metaphysical realm, the project should to be the odd thing you find in classical paintings, not a generated image dropped on a photograph. We did some research on maritime paintings and was immediately seduced by the paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky and Caspar David Friedrich. We do not deny that The Refuge is basically The Deluge by Aivazovsky in 1884, we named it so there is a parallel reference. These classical painters have used their lifetime to perfect the skills in depicting biblical landscapes. So we thought it would be a perfect occasion to bring them back into the discourse of representations today!
How did you come about associating common landscapes and sceneries as a wheat field to indescribable realms as that of the purgatory?
We wanted to express emotional toil of purgatory through imagery. Purgatory is place where one must face their own sins and repent. In a vacuum were time cease to exist, there is no escaping the daunting task. We wanted to portray that monotonous feeling of emptiness and the anguish of not knowing if the limbo will ever end. We choose the wheat field for two reasons, one because we wanted a garden on the roof of the lighthouse and secondly we wanted to find a landscape that represented that feeling. We thought, against acres and acres of rolling wheat fields one cannot help but feel insignificantly small and lonely.
Could the symbol of light itself already represent the begun journey towards the spiritual?
Yes, light is definitely used as a symbol for spiritual atonement in our project, but appears in two very different instances. Artificial light that permeates through the mesh provides solace for the wanderers at sea, and also functions as a signal commemorating those those who lost their lives in the tragedy. The light is steady, constant and powered by earth. The second light source is natural light, coming from the oculus into the cell. The intensity of the light cannot be controlled and can only be endured. That is the light of judgement, and is exclusively for the captain only. We wanted to create a strong juxtaposition between inside and outside of the lighthouse, both visually and spiritually. Manipulating the language of light allows us to do just that.