Bottom-up design stands test of time: slaves’ seats still comfortable after 2000 years

It’s been about 1,500 years since the south of France was a Roman province but the remains of that civilization and its 500 years of settlement here are still present. Every Roman city of any importance had theatres, a race track or circus and of course the amphitheatre.  It is the ruins of the amphitheatres and theatres which every tourist is most aware of because they are still major points of urban reference.  The amphitheatre in Nimes is still used and still the central focus of the city where all the major entertainment events take place.

The race tracks were the largest Roman entertainment centre but there is little left of these but the name, not even in Rome or Istanbul where the chariot teams used to race before 250,000 people.  Perge in Turkey has a small one still standing but that’s the only one I’ve been able to find.  On the other hand a surprising number of the amphitheatres and theatres are not only still standing, they are still in use.

The key to preservation is use.  If a building is used it will persist.  If it is not used, it quickly becomes a bone yard for current building projects.  This is what happened to the race tracks.  There were many houses, churches and mosques built from the stones of these once vast buildings. This is  what happened to the largest of all amphitheatres, the Roman coliseum until the Pope of the day realized the building  was disappearing and put a stop to its quiet demolition.

The Nimes amphitheatre is the most intact in France.  It has been a chateau fort, a village, and the rows of its seats have been used for terrace gardens, but it has always been used.  Today, it is back to its original purpose – entertainment.  I went to see a Sting concert there a few nights ago.  Sting has been playing Roman amphitheatres for a long time.  I can remember 25 years ago when I was living in France with the children, he played the Frejus arena.  The tickets are always sold out and I’ve never been successful in getting any, but this time luck was on my side, a neighbour had tickets and suddenly couldn’t go.

They were slave tickets at the very top of the arena, but I was very glad to get them because I had the feeling that being at an actual performance in a Roman theatre would be very different than visiting an empty monument during the day and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was entirely different.  In some ways, nothing much has changed, the rich and the notables have reserved seating on the first two levels and they arrive just before the show starts and take their assigned seats.  The highest level is for the poor and the slaves.  At the top, the seats aren’t reserved, but i’s the cheapest.  Our tickets were in the slave section.

The extraordinary thing about the Roman construction is that there is not really a bad seat in the house.  The sides are so steeply raked that everyone is quite close to the stage.  The acoustics are phenomenal.  It is a rare a modern theatre or amphitheatre that has anywhere close to the sound quality of these old stadiums and when you are able to watch it in use, you can appreciate just how brilliantly these buildings were constructed.  For example, the size of the exit stairways and corridors increase in size as you descend so there’s never any jamming of the crowd.  In spite of the height and the crowd, the building felt safe.

The other thing that was entirely enjoyable was the carnival atmosphere of the slave section.  Without reservations, we arrived two hours in advance to make sure we would get decent seats and we did, but so did thousands of others.  The two hour wait for the Sting show is filled with eating and drinking and talking and singing and watching the sun set on the edge of the theatre.   And to my surprise the old stones were comfortable.  Perhaps because they are so old, but the stone soft was soft under the bum and warm from the days sun.

Sting had a full orchestra with him and he is a graceful showman with a lot of hits to his credit so when he finally appeared it was good to hear him, but for me the star of the evening was the old building.  How many of our buildings will be used 2,000 years from now?

photo by Wolfgang Staudt