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This review was written in response to the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition last year and explores ideas around curation, and around a sensory approach to architectural practice.

SSKUM031_Kengo-Kuma1

The central problem of curating a show about architecture is how to attend to the qualities of space, light, and scale which are so central to the discipline, but which are difficult to assess from the elevations, models and renderings which populate more traditional exhibitions of the craft. The notion of commissioning architects to produce environments that somehow embody their philosophies and central concerns is not totally new (the architectural pavilion serves this function) but it is a concept that some more adventurous institutions are now willing to bring within the walls of the gallery. Exhibitions including New Nordic at Copenhagen’s Louisiana museum (2012) along with their current Arab Contemporary have invited architects to install structures that engage the viewer more directly and experientially in their work. While architectural biennales in Venice, Shenzhen and Hong Kong and elsewhere have a slightly longer history of employing installation to communicate the abstract qualities of the built form.

The Royal Academy’s decision to emphasise the spaces created by architects and architecture in their current exhibition Sensing Spaces is, however, a significant one. It signals a desire to move away from popular discourses around contemporary architecture which emphasise the external, structural, monumental qualities of the form (discourses frequently reinforced by illustration and photography that draw attention to glittering façades and gleaming towers) towards a more phenomenological, experiential mode of engagement with the built environment. To emphasise this point, and to enable visitors to gain an understanding of the output of architects whose studios are located as far away as Chile, China and Germany, the Royal Academy has invited seven architectural practices to intervene in its extensive galleries.

As I wandered through the cavernous rooms occupied by Irish practice Grafton Architects’ installation I felt ambivalent about the exhibition. The suspended volumes that occupy the high ceilings of the gallery seemed to take the brief to explore space rather literally, so I was pleased to enter into the environment that represents Chinese architect Li Xiaodong’s contribution to the show. Xiadong’s exhibit evokes a grove at the centre of a forest, large dusty pebbles crunch under-foot in a clearing magically extended by use of mirrors. One then enters into a series of maze-like corridors in which branches still covered in bark form screens allowing some light, sound, and movement through, but simultaneously creating a sense of containment. These narrow pathways are lit from below by patchy panes of translucent plexiglas beneath which halogen tubes hum like cicadas, casting up a cool, bluish moonlight as if the sky were beneath my feet. Here and there a booth appears, niched into the tactile surface of the screens, dim spaces of quiet isolation. It is a pleasing, playful installation strongly relating to Xiadong’s practice in which natural, untreated elements form cladding, partitions, and platforms. But Xiadong is not the only exhibitor to signal an interest in contemporary uses of natural materials.

A few galleries later, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a sepulchral space: fronds of bamboo grow from concealed spots of illumination, conducting light along their fine filaments into the darkened room. These twisting fronds form networks of undulating shapes captivating in their combination of structural complexity and material simplicity. The installation would have felt perfectly serene, a secular temple, if not for other visitors whose clumping feet disrupting the calm. While Xiadong’s environment felt uncannily familiar, referring both to the natural world and to traditional East Asian methods of construction, Kuma’s piece seemed much more abstract and alien: as if viewing microscopic organisms enlarged to a massive scale.

This sense of disorientation, and scale is employed somewhat divergently by Chilean architectural duo Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, whose enormous platform, supported by four massive columns, fills one end of an expansive gallery. Ascending to the top of the platform – via spiral staircases concealed in a column – I was suddenly brought startlingly close to the gallery’s ceiling. From this vantage point I became much more aware of the Royal Academy as a building, and I reflected on the strangeness of the original fine, detailed mouldings (incorporating neo-classical and gothic motifs besides pouting Pre-Raphaelite angels in Liberty-robes) installed high above the visitors’ heads. Perhaps, I reasoned, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s formalist treatment of the platform juxtaposed against the lush ornamentation of the gallery was intended as a comment on the status of decoration in contemporary architecture, so I was perplexed by their statement on the gallery wall:

‘we are not trying to express the structural properties of buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequences, the way they open – simple things that taken together suggest something more complex.’

The Pre-Raphelite angels in whose company they had placed me suggested something very complex, but it wasn’t to do with the sequence of rooms.

Perhaps architects aren’t always the best advocates of their own work, but while Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s comments on their practice alienated me, I noticed that the video accompanying the exhibition had the reverse effect of warming me to some the exhibits. Berlin based Burkina Fasoian architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, presented an installation featuring an arched structure thatched in brightly-coloured plastic-straws which could be slotted in or taken out at will. While it had seemed a fun and engaging piece in the gallery space, it gained a greater significance in his description of a practice that incorporated the community into every part of the design and construction process. Not all of the exhibits were equally successful or eloquent and I was left cold, for example, by Eduardo Souto de Moura’s cast of an existing doorway in the Royal Academy placed at an acute angle to the original. As an exhibition, however, Sensing Spaces achieves much: reconnecting the viewing public with the tangible qualities of architecture experienced up close, and to demonstrating the ingenuity of architects in creating spaces that speak to us in subtle, beautiful and engaging ways. Of course, ‘real world’ constraints often impinge on architects’ abilities to construct the harmonious environments of their imaginations, but that too is the value of an exhibition of this sort, freed of practicalities it can exist as pure rhetoric: a manifesto in concrete, bamboo and plastic straws.

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20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

The PDF linked below was an attempt to create a genealogy of modernist design which accounted for the interconnected nature of various “modernisms” expressed across medium and discipline. I find it intriguing that the machine aesthetic, formalism and abstraction inflected fields as (ostensibly) different as industrial design, fashion, typography, scenography and architecture. It is also interesting to consider how Arts and Crafts, in many ways an anti-modern movement, sowed the seeds of radical modernism in its insistence on truth to materials and in its linking of social and progressive ideals, which in turn located the applied arts as a set of uniquely transformative media. As well as links and continuity there is contradiction and rupture, not least between more progressive modernist design and the more conservative application of some forms of Art Deco. This presentation was originally produced to illustrate my lecture on “Modernism in Design” at the Working Men’s College in Camden.

Modernist Design

This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of  the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity. 

Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together

 

Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.

Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.

The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.

The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.

Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, his cantilevered chair of1927 combines traditional wicker elements with industrial materials (tubular steel) permitting new possibilities of lightness and form.

While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland BarthesThe Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.

In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.

‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.

 Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.

Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.

A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.

Menswear is an increasingly exciting area of design. Innovative up-and-coming designers and an expanding market share have combined to improve its status, alongside womenswear, as an important creative discipline. In this post I’m trying to describe some of the major tendencies in contemporary menswear and their wider cultural significance.

Men’s fashion in the last decade has been characterised by a style, pioneered by Hedi Slimane, of closer fit; an emphasis on fine drapey fabrics, shrunken tailoring and touches of androgyny. This aesthetic comprised of rocky and punky influences mixed with a kind of louche dandyism, the defining look: skinny jeans with a tailored jacket.[1]

Dior Homme by Hedi SlimaneDior Homme Hedi Slimane

Now a new menswear aesthetic appears to be emerging. Fashionable brands such as Our Legacy, YMC, Bleu de Paname and Folk are exploring a look with a strong emphasis on traditional fabrication, detailing which heavily references workwear, and hippyish folk-inspired touches, particularly in knit.

I would contest that while both of these styles are associated with particular designers and labels, their origins lie in fashionable dress as worn on the street. In both cases, models for these styles existed before their reproduction by designers: these were creative people who mixed second-hand, customised, and reclaimed garments to achieve their own look.

For me, this shift in menswear is intriguing. If we accept (as I do) that the clothes we put on encode meaning, we can suggest that this transformation reflects broader cultural and attitudinal changes. A desire to engage with the process of manufacture or make, strikes me as central to this folky-workwear aesthetic. Magazines such as Inventory, an early adopter and innovator of the style, spend as much time explaining to their readers how garments and accessories have been crafted, as discussing their inherent qualities. Equally, this is a look that favours texture (and even coarseness) over smooth, lustrous or drapey fabrics: there is a sense in which the consumer wants to see evidence of how the fabric has been woven or knitted.

 

It is surely laudable that consumers wish to know how, where, and by whom their clothes were made, with the concern for welfare and craft that implies. Nevertheless, there is (at least for me) an uneasiness about clothing that gives one the appearance of a 19th Century industrial or agricultural worker, but which costs many hundreds of pounds. To quote a friend “it’s as if people want to have things which are home-spun without spinning them themselves”. While it is easy to critique this consumption of craft as a co-option of something authentic by commercialism, it could be argued that it points to more radical instincts and aspirations in which work is meaningful, productive and celebrated.[2]

While the shift from rock-dandy to folky-proletarian may seem quite profound, I would suggest that both form part of a wider and more significant trend in which menswear has become more diverse and creative. Nor do I think that the styles pioneered by Hedi Slimane have become irrelevant, even if they are increasingly superseded by more contemporary interpretations of menswear. He remains for me one of the great innovators of modern fashion: in revisiting tailoring, exploring silhouette, and playing with the semantics of iconic menswear garments (the dinner jacket, the motorcycle jacket, the jean) he expanded what was deemed possible in menswear. The huge increase of interest in men’s fashion and the increased economic importance of the sector points to developments in male consumption and indeed in the consumption of masculinity(ies) which are worthy of further exploration.


[1] Some of us (hardly dinosaurs) entering fashion school in the first years of the 2000s remember how radical and indeed “contested” this new aesthetic was. Hedi Slimane’s collections for YSL and then Dior Homme started to attract positive attention at the same time as magazines like Arena Homme Plus were styling shoots with reinterpreted, nipped-in tailored styles, mixed with denim and leather. The process of the adoption of this look by the mainstream was slow, but by the end of the decade it had filtered right down to the high street.

[2] These problems and contradictions aren’t new of course. William Moriss and Arts and Crafts manufacturers came up against similar pressures in the 19th Century. I would also argue that as in Moriss’ day, they point to wider dissatisfactions with the model of market capitalism which prevails.