Skin + Bones at Somerset House

Crafts Magazine, July/August 2008, Review

Skin + Bones at Somerset House
Review: A show exploring the connections between fashion and architecture fails to convince.

Exhibitions about architecture are rarely successful. A building needs to be visited, explored and inhabited to be understood. Reduced to a model or a photograph within a gallery the experience is usually deeply disappointing.

Which explains why attempts to take architecture to the public so often depend on comparisons with something else. So we get discussions about how architecture relates to dance, how architecture is like music, how architecture is constructed like poetry, and so on. The effect is usually to ram home the fact that architecture is a complex language, and trying to reduce it to a bricks and mortar version of some other art form doesn’t really tell you much. Of course all these things are interconnected, but unless there’s some underlying social critique the exercise is usually pretty pointless.

Unfortunately, Skin + Bones makes exactly this mistake. There’s nothing new in suggesting there are parallels between fashion and architecture. Since the buildings we live in and the clothes we wear say much about our social values, inevitably their histories will be interconnected. Skin + Bones, though, suggests that in recent years this connection has become increasingly explicit, with a growing crossfertilisation of ideas between the two.

The 8os, a pivotal decade for both disciplines, provides its starting point. MoMA’s influential Deconstructivist show had birthed a new ‘ism, an ‘architecture of disruption, dislocation, deflection, deviation and distortion’, as practiced by Zaha Hadid, Bemard Tschumi and Frank Gehry.

At the same time, as is so often the way, similar ideas were emerging in another discipline. Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Commes des Garcons were shocking fashion editors with their oversized, asymmetrical clothes that seemed to overturn conventional notions of beauty and tailoring.

The pieces chosen here come from these early protagonists and the generation following – in fashion, such designers as Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan and Viktor & Rolf; in architecture, such practices as Foreign Office Architects, Heatherwick Studios and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Originating at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, this is its final European stop – for this UK outing it has a more British twist, with additional work by such designers as Boudicca and Eley Kishimoto.

Spread out over two floors, the work is organised according to ‘tectonic strategies’- wrapping, draping, folding, weaving and so on – with architecture placed side by side with fashion, and the visitor left to make the visual connections. It’s all a bit obvious, and rather facile. Look, Gehry’s doing pleats. And here’s Herzog & de Meuron doing ‘printing’ and Viktor & Rolf doing ‘cantilever’.

Indisputably since the 9os, new technologies have given architects the freedom to play the same game as the clothes designer. Computer-aided design and 3D modelling techniques allow architects to throw off the rigidity of traditional form, and realise ever-more complex creations, manipulating materials like titanium as if it were satin or silk. (Some might argue that architects like Frank Gehry would do well to re-address the right angle, but that’s by the by.)

Now perhaps the connections do go deeper than a visual resemblance – and perhaps these designers are collaborating, and perhaps the production techniques used are related. This show doesnt draw them out, sadly – we’re meant to take it on trust.

One particularly annoying allusion is to the ‘hybrid practices’ architects and fashion designers are said newly to be employing, explained by a quote from
architect/designer Elena Manferdini: ‘The body is a perfect small-scale exercise in spatial design, a testing ground for ideas and techniques to apply to buildings.’ No doubt it makes perfect sense if you studied at the AA, but for the rest of us it’s the sort of mystifying nonsense that gives architects a bad name.

But if the show lacks rigour, there is much here to enjoy for fans of fun sexy buildings and fun, outlandish clothes. Herzog & de Meuron’s Tokyo Prada store
tells a different story about architecture’s connection to fashion. As does the inclusion of architects’ favourite fashion designer Issey Miyake and his A-POC collection comprising items of clothing made from a single continuous piece of cloth. There’s a typically fantastically abstract painting by Zaha Hadid of her competition entry for the Peak in Hong Kong – the Proiect that marked her arrival in 1983. And the sumptuous facade of Future System’s Birmingham Selfridges, inspired by the dresses of Paco Rabanne.

Two pieces by Hussain Chalayan stand out for their wit and ingenuity. His collection Afterwards, presented as a short film, draws on his experience as a Turkish Cypriot. For those fleeing in a hurry, his chair covers transform into dresses, chairs collapse to form suitcases and a table telescopes out to become a skirt. His collection showpiece Laser Dress is studded with Swarovski crystals and emits laser beams, invoking the glare of celebrity culture.

It’s a poignant inclusion. Along with the freeing up of form in architecture, a dominant trend in the last few years has been the rise of the architect as star. It’s a trend reflected in this show concerned as it is solely with haute couture, both in fashion and architecture. But fashion in clothing, frivolous, conceptual, financially driven and by definition ephemeral, is fairly harmless, especially confined to the catwalk; the whimsies of a fashion-driven architecture can have far-reaching impact on those who have to live with it, not just for this season but for as long as it stands. It’s a concern of our time, but one that the Skin + Bones show and tell goes nowhere near.