The House of Tatterdemalion

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Sometime you feel like writing, and sometimes you don't

December 30th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

Actually, lately, it hasn’t been so much a lack of wanting to write as a lack of wanting to write about sewing. This surprised me, though it should not have. I always have mulitiple projects started, because after a time I get sick of working on one, and work on something else instead. Why would it be any different with my writing? It’s not a lack of sewing (tangentally) related things to write about, it’s just that I don’t feel like it, for some reason. I expect it will come back, shortly, or at least shortly in the grand scheme of things. It’s beginning already, a bit, I suppose, or I wouldn’t be here tonight.

I don’t have any grand thoughts, but when I was reading the selection for the Essay of the Week, thoughts flited through my head. Here are a few qoutes from the essay, with my emphasis added:

And yet the celebrity architects of the past cannot be equated with those of today. None of them, not even Wright, deliberately cultivated a signature style based on a trademark mannerism, such as Gehry’s fluttering metal membranes or Richard Meier’s palette of bathroom white. Stanford White’s work was superb, remarkably so, but he designed in the common style of his day. The classicism of his Brooklyn Museum cannot easily be distinguished, even by an expert, from that of Carrère & Hastings’s New York Public Library, Whitney Warren’s Grand Central Terminal, or Cass Gilbert’s New York Customs House. The idiosyncrasies of White stamp his personal life, not his buildings, which one would never mistake for a vehicle of personal expression.

The works of a starchitect, by contrast, are poached in the personality of their makers. How this all came to pass is deserving of some careful consideration, for much more is at play here than the mere vulgarizing effects of today’s celebrity culture, where publicity begets more publicity, and no distinction is drawn between accomplishment and notoriety. For until we have an understanding of the nature of the architectural celebrity culture, we cannot know if we should shrug or mourn.

The archetype of the celebrity architect, of course, is Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959). As prodigious as his architectural achievement was, he also permanently changed the American conception of an architect. With him begins the modern image of the architect as free-spirited genius, a part Wright played with relish: decked out in a long cape and cane, and topped by a magnificent mane of flowing white hair, he made his own physical appearance a declaration of imperious authority. Here was the model for a long line of architects who learned that a signature style began in the dressing room, and that one should handle a hairbrush as deftly as an I-beam. (It is notable that this image has far more in common with that of the tempestuous orchestra director than, say, a painter or sculptor.)

His designs did not even seem to be the product of conscious thought, but spontaneous eruptions of life spirit, much like the curses that he continually fired off. “Furness held Louis captivated,” Sullivan wrote, “especially when he drew and swore at the same time.”

To judge from the autobiography, what Furness taught Sullivan was not so much architectural but personal style. From him he learned that a building is “in its nature, essence and physical being an emotional expression,” and that its designer must be in a state of “high and sustained emotional tension.”

The Fountainhead, whatever its literary or philosophical merits, impressed itself deeply on the public mind. It was taken for granted that an architect was not a carpenter-builder who had read some books and learned to draw, as he had been in the nineteenth century; nor was he a scholar who had been to Europe and made measured drawings of the great cathedrals. He was now an autonomous creator, who made “buildings out of his head,” as Sullivan put it, and a growing number of aspiring young architects took this to be essential to the nature of architecture practice.

The central task of architecture has always been what Louis Kahn called “the thoughtful making of space.” The great architects of the past—from Borromini to John Soane to Wright—were makers of distinctive spaces, which were often achieved by ingenious exploitation of structural systems. The melancholy spaces of the Bank of England, for example, were unthinkable without Soane’s use of hollow terra cotta pipes to make vaults and domes of extraordinary lightness, which he deployed as freely as if they were tents.

To the extent that an architect devises a vivid and arresting signature, he is engaged in the business of image-making, which is but one lobe of architecture. The essence of the architectural art is to reconcile plan and construction in a resolved whole, from which both the interior spaces and exterior expression derive with a kind of logical inevitability. But the business of image-making is akin to that of making a theatrical backdrop, which is judged by its graphic qualities, not by the makeshift scaffold of boards that holds it aloft. This is not to say that today’s starchitects are ignorant of technology and its possibilities: Gehry’s brilliant exploitation of computer modeling to create irregular three-dimensional forms is a startling development, creating sculptural possibilities that Borromini would have envied. And a theatrical backdrop, however ingenious the technology that created it, remains a theatrical backdrop.

It is striking how many major American buildings are now being built by Japanese architects, such as Ando, Taniguchi, SANAA, and others, whose work is consistently deft and sober, and often achieve a certain delicate poetry.

Comparing architects to clothing designers is nothing new; many designers themselves draw the same lines, some of them claiming to be “frustrated architects”, whose lives somehow conspired against their achieving their true desire. Reading the essay, it was hard not to see a lot of similarities between modern architects and modern designers.

I was going to try to tie the whole thing together, but I’m a little bit leary of repeating myself. But I have personal pet peeves against people who make a whole new post just to say “look what at what I wrote earlier”, so I shall attempt to make a little new content out of this, even if it is on themes I have discussed before.

To me, this is what I see as being very much a huge problem in the “couture” world—that the creations are not “thoughtful creations of space” working together in a “kind of logical inevitability”, but are rather those ubiquitous signs of notoriety rather than accomplishment. Something becomes valuable not because of any intrinsic use or desireability, but simply because of declarations of imperious authority from those who seem to know about such things because people are too nervous or unsure of themselves.

The design of clothing (as clothing is as an echo of a house; both shelter and cloth the lives of people) has become not so much about skill as about drama. A designer for clothing is not expected to need to know anything about sewing, or the human body or it’s needs. He is merely making clothes out of his head—and it is someone else’s worry how to make the thing exist or work.

The modern architect, of both clothes and houses, can know enough about his materials to torment them in ways in which they were never meant to be—whether it be the clothing that denies it is made of a supple fabric or that it houses a human body within it, or if it be a building that likewise makes humans unwelcomed within it. They seem to be willfully turning their backs on any thought of these structures as being anything more than gratuitous expressions of self.

It may be one thing, I suppose, if they we’re simply designing only the building that they would be living in, and the clothes that only they would be wearing. But it seems rather indecent to sell such things to the general public.

I think it is very sad that it is being reduced to rather garish and over-done backdrops, instead of deft and delicate poetry. The glorification of the few for the unrelenting torment of the many.

Or would you like to buy a pair of Chanel sunglasses, for an absurd price, that are guaranteed to be stylish and fashionable—seeing as they bear the name Chanel?

Posted in Articles, Contemplations | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Sometime you feel like writing, and sometimes you don’t » The Ethereal Voice Says:

    […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Sometime you feel like writing, and sometimes you don’t By Tatterdemalion | December 30, 2007 – 9:27 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Art Actually, lately, it hasn’t been so much a lack of wanting to write as a lack of wanting to write about sewing. This surprised me, though it should not have. I always have mulitiple projects started, because after a time I get sick of working on one, and work on something else instead. Why would Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. Laura Says:

    Hey, TD, nice to ‘read’ you again. Have you seen the Signe Chanel documentary series on the making of a Chanel haute couture collection? (It’s on youtube, if you search ‘signe chanel’ it should show up.) It’s fascinating not only for the awe-inspiring time and resources that go into such a collection, but also in how the front and the back of the house interact. Karl Lagerfeld does the drawings, and all the business & pr people do their stuff, but to my mind the geniuses are the ladies in the studios actually putting the things together (and the cranky old lady making braid on her horse farm!). Several times there are tensions/conflict between what the fabric works best with naturally and whatever architectural pretensions KL is having, and of course the latter wins, but in many cases it might have been better if the idea didn’t triumph over the reality. There has to be a balance, I suppose, otherwise we’re just repeating others’ ideas, but high fashion seems to be too idea-driven and not user-driven at all. It seems like earlier designers weren’t so much that way (Claire McCardell or Pierre Cardin, say) but I don’t know if people thought so at the time.

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