Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture - MOCA exhibition
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Join Date: Aug 2005
MOCA's 'Skin + Bones' ends up feeling thin
By Christopher Hawthorne, Times Staff Writer
On the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, Frank Gehry had dinner at a restaurant in Lower Manhattan with the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, for whom he'd just finished a boutique nearby, and Herbert Muschamp, then the architecture critic for the New York Times. Gehry and Miyake were just one of many creative pairs emerging from a new collaboration between architecture and fashion. Muschamp was at the height of his influence as a kingmaker in architecture.
But the terrorist attacks of the next day began a chain of developments that exposed a fundamental myopia at the center of the alliance between celebrity, fashion, architecture and the media. The rebuilding process at ground zero slowed to a halt as celebrity architects proved far better at proposing dazzling pieces of architectural fashion for the site than forging productive links with planners or politicians, and as Muschamp and other critics failed entirely to clarify key issues for their readers. A similarly disheartening process has unfolded in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. And many of the buildings produced by the fashion-architecture juggernaut — particularly Rem Koolhaas' Prada store in SoHo — now look like gaudy relics of a distant, carefree age.
"Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture," which opens Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, represents a curious return to a Sept. 10 view of the world and architecture's place in it. The exhibition, organized by Brooke Hodge, MOCA's curator of architecture and design, is keenly arranged and ambitiously large. Taken on its own terms, it's a rich investigation of the ways fashion and architecture have inspired one another since the early 1980s, when an interest in the deconstructionist literary theory of Jacques Derrida and others — and related themes such as fragmentation, mannered imperfection, tearing and splintering — sparked new creative energy in both fields.
It is also visually stunning: Perhaps taking a cue from the Darwinian aestheticism of the fashion world, the architectural models here, by firms including Zaha Hadid, Foreign Office Architects, Office dA and Bernard Tschumi, are sleeker and better looking than the ones populating a typical museum show. And the clothes, by Alexander McQueen, Isabel Toledo, Rei Kawakubo, Olivier Theyskens and Yeohlee Teng, among many others, come straight from the cutting edge of contemporary fashion.
But for all its narcotic gorgeousness, "Skin + Bones" is marked by a curious blend of innocence and self-satisfaction — a preening, let-them-eat-cake hermeticism that suggests it would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the ways in which architecture has been forced in the last five years to reshape and redefine itself in response to external forces, not the least terrorism but also environmental destruction and rapid urbanization. For a show about interdisciplinary creativity and hybrid practice, this one is oddly sealed off from the world at large.
It opens with a display of dresses by the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf, from their 1999-2000 "Russian Doll" collection, arranged on a circular platform. The dress facing the entrance is a simple, sack-like design in jute. It is a smart choice to kick off a show on architecture and fashion, suggesting, as it does, the idea that at base both fields are concerned with sheltering the body. The dress is the equivalent of architecture's so-called primitive hut.
The dresses on the platform grow more elaborate from one to the next, gaining ornament, color and pattern. By the time you get to the last one, the fabric has grown bulky enough to swallow the head of the mannequin it's displayed on. (The dresses were designed to be worn one atop the other, hence the "Russian doll" reference.) A trip from minimalism to mannerism and back again, the installation offers an effective summary of the cycles that both architecture and fashion spin through — and of the complicated relationship both fields maintain with the idea of function.
From there the exhibition opens up into several thematic sections, pairing dresses and architectural projects under rubrics including Identity, Folding, Wrapping, Geometry and Draping. Some of the connections Hodge draws between the two fields are aesthetic — Koolhaas' public library in Seattle is wrapped in a steel-and-glass facade that has been compared to fishnet stockings — while others grow from experiments in new materials and technology. The L.A.-based architects Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser are at work on a new structural system that would weave buildings out of carbon-fiber strands.
But there are many fascinating threads that Hodge simply never picks up. The return of ornament and decoration in architecture, reflecting trends in fashion as well as furniture and product design, is among the most obvious. A dress by Theyskens for Rochas, for example, has a black-on-black pattern that is uncannily similar to the walls of the auditorium in Herzog & de Meuron's expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a project finished last year that is not included in the exhibition.
Another connection never made concerns the intense interest in craft among many young architects and designers. The crochet-chic work of New York designer Tess Giberson is represented here, but the other side of the equation — notably Droog, the Dutch product and furniture design group, and the DIY aesthetic that inspires Readymade magazine and Alabama's Rural Studio — is missing in action.
The bigger problem lies at the very heart of the show's thesis, with the notion that deconstruction has been a liberating, generative force for architecture. In the show's catalog, Hodge writes that it opened up "new ways of thinking about and building the architecture [of] the future."
At the time of its arrival, in the mid-1980s, it must have seemed so; the Postmodern architecture of the era had begun to grow soft, Disneyfied and superficial, and the toughness of work by Gehry, Thom Mayne, Daniel Libeskind, Hadid and others represented a new avenue of exploration and emphasis for architects, critics and clients alike. A similar process occurred in fashion, as Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto — and, later, European designers including Martin Margiela — brought a bracing, anti-nostalgic sharpness to dressmaking, though their work probably owed more to Johnny Rotten than Derrida.
At least in architecture, however, that avenue turned out to be a dead end. Rather than opening up new means of communication between architects and the world, what came to be known, after a 1988 Museum of Modern Art show on the subject, as "deconstructivism" — still decon for short — took the field in a solipsistic, esoteric direction. Architects such as Tschumi and Peter Eisenman and leading scholars became mired in purely academic debates and produced a few forbidding buildings to go with a steady supply of impenetrable critical essays.
The result was a field willfully isolated from the real world, real clients and real cities and increasingly obsessed with listening to itself spin out tendentious Francophile theory. It wasn't until architects such as Gehry — and a new, younger generation — discovered digital design tools and rejected the decon school's prohibition of beauty and clarity that architecture began to thrive again.
Rem Koolhaas’ library recalls fishnet stockings.
Testa & Weiser’s “Carbon Tower” (2004), from the MOCA exhibition “Skin + Bones,” opening Sunday.
(Testa & Weiser / MOCA)
Alexander McQueen’s multicolored dress from “It’s Only a Game”; behind it, Greg Lynn’s bright-red “Blob Wall.”
(Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)
Peter Eisenman’s model for the Max Reinhardt Haus, left, and Yeohlee Teng’s “infanta skirt/bodysuit.”
(Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)
And I am nothing of a builder
, but here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade to keep you home, to keep you safe from the outside world
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