A lamp post in Prague
Cities are like movie sets, just for real life. The way they are planned can give us mobility, possibility
In the city of Prague, there stands the world's one and only Cubist lamp post. My friend and I were hunting for it, with little success. On vacation in the city, we had swooned, more than walked, down the streets, because every single building is a delirious delight of architectural style and effusive, yet symmetrical ornamentation. But we had gasped and exclaimed most, like children, over every item in the Cubist museum. Zig-zag coat hooks elongated to exaggerate their geometry, dressing tables with diamond-shaped mirrors, chairs with M-shaped backs, coffee cups like slim spaceships. No line was straight and everything felt "like household goods from another planet." Rondo Cubism, a Czech movement in design, art and architecture, thrived for a brief time in the early 20th century, between Art Nouveau and Functionalism. It's vigour created expressionist buildings, furniture and art. All around Prague, in between the musical elegance of Art Deco balconies and floral extravaganza of Art Nouveau doorways, you suddenly see these dramatic facades with angular, Cubist lines and fragmented, slanting surfaces, rhombus windows, set in a border of sunken herringbone lines, like a science-fiction of the past, like the multi-faceted heart of a crystal, set in stone, radiating energy and rearranging conventional meanings of beauty.
But the Cubist lamp post evaded us. Just when Google Maps said it was 2 minutes away, we would turn into some cobble-stoned lane and the dreaded 're-routing' business would begin and we'd find we had drifted into another galaxy 6 minutes away. Soon it was almost dark. The map said we were there, but around us were only sausage vendors and regular lamps. "Maybe this normal lamp is Cubist only," I said, tentatively. My friend looked uncertain. After all, we had never seen a Cubist lamp post before, so who knew?
Then suddenly, we saw it and it was unlike any other lamp ever: out of a high round base, as if it had sprung out of the concrete, a series of ridged, slanted surfaces, spiralling into a pillar like twisted stone. Atop it a lamp, shaped like star-fruit, a wizard's hat, glowing dull gold. We were dazzled, as if we had walked on to the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. We gazed at it. We hugged it. We took selfies. Then I noticed the most amazing thing of all about it. "Look," I said to my friend. "The base — it's really a bench." How generous art can make things: there for you to use, but also to marvel at and feel marvellous.
Cities are like movie sets, just for real life. The way they are planned can give us mobility, possibility. But, the way they are architected can give us a sense of dreaming. And, a bench or a lamp like this, lets you be a part of that movie set without constantly having to play a role. A moment of rest in the city's striving, to be part of a crowd, without necessarily belonging to it, opposing it, controlling it, or setting oneself above it. As we sat on that round bench, quietly eating our round sausage rolls, we felt alert to beauty, but also, oddly looked after by that lonely lamp post. I wished it wasn't the only one, but many like it could fill up the world, like stars fill up the sky.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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