Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wearing Architecture

The photo above raises a number of interesting questions: where Richard Meier’s legs might have gone and whether Peter Eisenman’s trousers are representative of his Derridian or his Deleuzian period notable amongst them. It depicts the four surviving members of the so-called New York Five (see previous post) inhabiting models of their own buildings. The serious expressions and self-consciously arty arrangements have the air of performance art about them, a heavy handed surrealism that only adds to the the overall silliness of the enterprise.

The image is part of a small but notable tradition of architects wearing their own buildings. The best known of these is a photograph of the Beaux Arts Ball of 1936, a picture made famous by its inclusion in Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. At the ball, New York architects came dressed as their own skyscrapers, their faces appearing comically out through the recognisable icons of early Manhattan. The egotism of the gesture is partially offset by both the amateurishness of the costumes and by the fact that, combined together, they serve to illustrate the the competitive gaggle of the New York skyline.

The New York Five photograph appeared in 1996 in a Vanity Fair feature, presumably as a self-conscious homage to the earlier image. Even without knowing this it might be possible to guess the date by studying the buildings each architect has chosen to wear. While Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier use buildings that could have been designed at almost any stage of their careers, such is the consistency of their output, Eisenman and Graves are both architectural chameleons who have changed artistic direction on several occasions. Eisenman’s ‘Deleuzian trousers’ date the shot to the mid-1990’s as surely as the date on the magazine's masthead.

The image also exposes the distinct character of each architect. There's Meier with his consistency and business-like approach, Gwathmey with his upstate clubbability, Graves’ odd combination of whimsy and commercial bombast and Eisenman, the quintessential New York intellectual. Eisenman’s outfit - minus the trousers, as it were - is an interesting statement in itself. With his bow tie and braces combination he appears part-architect and part-Wall Street broker: Le Corbusier meets Gordon Gekko.

The image serves an obvious purpose of self-promotion and of furthering each architect's personal brand. It does so by attempting a crude conflation of personality and product, an only slightly more absurd extension of the ways that architects choose to mythologise their personalities such as Corb's glasses or Hadid's habitual Issey Miyake. The collapsing of the distinction between the artist and their work is supposedly a sign of authentic expression and artistic sincerity. To be indistinguishable from one's own work is the ultimate sign of true artistic worth: you are the work and the work is you. 

This is especially important for architects who always struggle to impose their personality and vision on projects that belong in the financial and practical sense to other people. The conflation of a single named architect with the complex product of a team endeavor is a strangely unquestioned aspect of the construction industry. Architectural prizes are handed out habitually to one person who is invariably the architect, and not even the one who may have spent most time designing the building. In many industries this might be seen as monumentally bad form although in architecture it may increasingly act as consolation for a loss of influence in general away from a few rare instances of 'starchitecture'.

There is another issue here which is the association of buildings with economic (rather than artistic) power. Not only is there an obvious symbolism of thrusting structures and phallocentric towers, but skyscrapers are the most clearly venal building type of them all. The recent protests against Wall Street from the Occupy movement in the US involved people dressed as pantomime towers and cardboard skyscrapers as symbols of remote and self-interested power. 

The Beaux Arts Ball and the Occupy protest portray two opposing visions of the skyscraper, that of cartoon hero and cartoon villain. In both these cases though, the conflation of person and building is played up for comical or absurdist ends. There is another, more ambiguous version of the person = building conflation though which could be characterised more as wearable architecture. The collapsing of the distinction between clothing, building and body was a particular theme during the '60's and '70's, when it played out scenarios to do with nomadism and temporariness. 

The concept of architecture as little more than clothing offered the chance to avoid the restrictions of heavy masonry and stodgy classicism, replacing it with an ability to roam free in hermetically sealed "Suitaloons" or "Cushicles", to cite two of Archigram's efforts. These projects represented the shrinking of Buckminster Fuller's bio-domes to the scale of the individual, the perfect accoutrement for an atomised world of urban nomads. Such visions of architecture also imply the dissolution of the architect too, at least in any conventional sense of what that role might mean.

As a nice post-script to this post, I'll finish on a photo that combines both tendencies. Here, Mobile Studio have taken buildings by other architects and turned them into wearable objects forming a mash-up of London. In the process they turn various well known London buildings (ahem) into mobile bits of architecture/furniture removed from their original function. They propose a riff on the Suitaloon that appropriates as-found bits of architecture in a knowing but far more humerous take on the famous Beaux Arts Ball photo. 


PsyArch said...

Fantastic Norway do a cracking bicycle-clothing architecture:

Murphy said...

Very interesting. Nice to see you digging out Hellman's 'Architetes' as well, for some reason my mother bought me a book of those just before I started studying...

Charles Holland said...

PsyArch, thanks, that's very nice.

Murphy, that's funny. It's the sort of odd, random present given to you when you start doing architecture when you just want to look at buildings by whoever, and then years later it suddenly becomes of interest.

AM said...


Sebastian A. said...

I have a friend who was working in Richard Meier's studio for some time back in 90s. His work is sick! In the best of the meaning. All of them are great. I wish I could see the exhibition in MoMA in 1967