Sunday, October 21, 2001
New for Fall: Architects
In their new alliances with fashion houses, building designers have started on a path that could lead to creative visionsâ€“or empty style.
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
RANDY LYHUS / Los Angeles Times
A decade ago, architects were a cultural aberration, wallowing in the language of arcane French philosophers and I-beam details. Today, international fashion magazines relentlessly plug the latest architectural enfant terrible, fashion houses seek out architects for their avant-garde credentials, and the architectural profession in general has an energy and cachet that must make even the most successful haut couture designer green with envy. Who would have thought that architecture and fashion would ever make such cozy companions?
To those who grew up amid the cloying earnestness that surrounded late Modernism, when architects often saw themselves as social missionaries, the glamorization of architecture may come as an unwanted shock. After all, architecture is a social art. It is not only an aesthetic spectacle; it can act as a lasting expression of our collective values. Part of what makes fashion seductive, by contrast, is its ephemerality.
Issues of superficiality aside, architecture's sudden immersion in the world of fashion and pop culture may be a blessing in disguise. Having dumped the notion of a universal style, architects are freer than ever to explore their art's expressive potential. Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Peter Zumthor and Santiago Calatrava are only some of those who have helped to broaden the architectural horizon. Architecture, in fact, has never been so free-spirited.
Since the Renaissance, builders and architects have sought to define a set of absolute principals that could guide the design of buildings. Leon Battista Alberti once argued for an architecture whose geometric rigor reflected the natural order of God's universe. Later, Andrea Palladio pointed to classical precedents as the purest expression of a civilized world.
That preoccupation with the past was dropped sometime in the mid-19th century, when an emerging avant-garde began looking for a new architectural language, one pointed firmly toward the future.
Nonetheless, architects continued to cling to the idea of a universal language. In 1923, Le Corbusier set out his five points for a new architecture, whose clean lines and abstract forms would rid the world of undue clutter. And by 1934, Philip Johnson had proclaimed the arrival of an International Style that would embody the modern age. To such polemicists, the world would be reshaped with the functional precision of a Swiss watch.
That quest died hard. In the 1970s, postmodernists proclaimed the death of Modernism, and then tried to replace it with their dogma, which preached a return to classical forms, albeit with an ironic twist. At the end of the 1980s, Johnson returned again, this time to promote the Deconstructivists.
But by then, even those who were being hyped as part of this new wave quickly disavowed the term, and it became increasingly clear that there would be no new architectural zeitgeist.
The result, especially in the past few years, has been an eruption of new styles and aesthetic images, each representing a distinct point of view. The spectacular rise of Gehryâ€”who first captured the public's imagination with the flamboyant forms of his 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spainâ€”represents only one important strain in contemporary architectural thought. The sleekly refined glass forms of Nouvel's Cartier Foundation in Paris, by comparison, have the hard refinement of cut diamonds.
Architects such as the Austrian Zumthor, meanwhile, design luxurious Modern forms of marble and wood that have an intentionally atavistic quality. Such work makes even the uptight elegance of a Richard Meier looks almost radical. And then, there are the neo-traditionalists, such as Robert A.M. Stern, who continue to knock off older historical styles with varying degrees of success.
The degree of creative openness has led to the melting away of many of the traditional boundaries between architecture and the other creative professions. But it may be the sensuality of much of the new architecture that has made it particularly alluring to the fashion world. Last year, for example, CondÃ© Nast completed a cafeteria designed by Gehry for its New York headquarters building. The cafeteria's undulating glass forms have made it a favorite of Vogue and Glamour editors.
More recently, CondÃ© Nast has hired Koolhaas to rethink the design of several of its magazinesâ€”a task not normally offered to architects. Koolhaas is also at work on three boutiques for Prada, the luxury fashion house, as part of a broader effort to redefine the company's global image.
Even some fashion designers are beginning to look to architecture for inspiration. At a London show last year, the Cyprus-born designer Hussein Chalayan featured furniture that could be transformed into clothing. At one remarkable moment, a languorous model lifted a circular panel out of the center of a dark wood coffee table, gently stepping inside. She then lifted the table top up like an accordion to form a shimmering, hoop-shaped skirt.
In short, the boundary between architecture and fashion is more porous than ever, and a growing cultural elite is becoming literate in the language of modern design. Armed with that new knowledge and exposed to a range of possibilities, clients now select an architectural style as if they were picking through a rack at Barneys.
So what does this mean for architecture? At worst, the result has been an architecture that is more about aesthetic posturing than expressions of deeper ideas about contemporary culture. Many clients, private and institutional, now push for increasingly flamboyant architectural statements in a narcissistic attempt to attract attention. The result is often the creation of stylish forms with no lasting importance.
But the flip side is more rosy. The level of formal freedom that architects experience today may be unmatched by that of any other period in modern history. We no more associate Modernist buildings with progressive values, for example, than we think of a woman in a suit as taking a principled stand against a patriarchal society.
That has lifted an enormous weight off architects' shoulders. Their task is more narrowly prescribed. The bombastic manifestos are gone. In their place, architects are apt to create more personal, idiosyncratic visions of humans' place in the worldâ€”works that can coexist snugly within a culture of radically opposing viewpoints.
It is that personal dimension that piques our curiosity, surprises us, excites us. The question now will be whether we dig beyond the seductive surfaces and force ourselves to judge these works according to the values they embody, their depth of character. If so, we may be entering a period as rich as any in the history of architecture. Looking good and doing good may not be a contradiction after all.
Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times