Fashions of the Future

The wacky designer Zandra Rhodes and the colourist architect Ricardo Legorreta are making a splash in the East End, says Hugh Pearman

Anyone strolling down London's suddenly fashionable Bermondsey Street can see that a strange, fortress-like orange-and-pink building is materialising there. What most of them will miss is tucked away round a corner: the architect's sign board. "Legorreta Arquitectos, Mexico City", it reads. A Mexican architect in Bermondsey? Another board announces that this is to be the Fashion and Textile Museum, but it does not shout out who is behind it: one Zandra Rhodes. Tomorrow, at the Royal Academy, Rhodes and Ricardo Legorreta will jointly launch the next phase of work on the 10 million museum.

If you've never heard of Legorreta, don't be ashamed. He is famous throughout the Americas, is now in his late sixties, but has built nothing previously in Europe. As early as 1968, his Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City showed how he had absorbed the teachings of another great Mexican colourist architect, Luis Barragan. Managua's 1983 cathedral is by Legorreta, as is the 1997 Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. He has built famous houses from Hollywood to Sante Fe. He has built art museums, city libraries, hotel and office complexes, even a Renault car factory, all unlike any other.

He has built in brick and also concrete, but what he is famous for are his adobe-style designs, rendered in the hot colours of Mexico: purples, reds, blues, yellows, ochres. He likes buildings that rise from deserts or prairies or cling to the sides of rocky canyons. If a Legorreta building cropped up in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, you would not necessarily look twice. In Bermondsey, as the scaffolding comes off the Fashion Museum, looking twice is not just necessary: it is unavoidable.

And Zandra Rhodes - purple maned, chiffon clad 1970s frock mistress? Well, Rhodes (who has recently been rediscovered, with the latest generation of fashion designers paying homage to her work) spends half her time at her studio in San Diego, California. She's seen Legorreta's buildings. She obviously loves those colours. Once she'd conceived the idea of the Fashion and Texile Museum back home in London, he was the only architect who would do. So she asked him to come over and look at Bermondsey Street.

'With British fashion designers walking so tall in the world these days, the time is never going to be better to get such a place off the ground.'

It's a smart move. The minimalism fad has almost run its course. The prevailing mainstream architectural sensibility - polite Euro-modern - is running out of steam. The last time this happened we got the crude excesses of 1980s post-modernism. This time we are in for a more interesting ride. Many of the emerging architects around the world have rediscovered colour, and the brighter the better. Many of them go in for frenetic shape-making as well - anything rather than glossy Euro-slick. But Legorreta is, if anything, pre-modernist. His buildings - very solid, thick-walled affairs usually with tiny, deep-set windows punched in them - hark back to the townscapes of Central America before the storm troopers of the first international style arrived.

Legorreta has, like the vivacious Rhodes, consequently been rediscovered. His regional style, it appears, can travel, first to north and south America, and now here. His Mexican Pavilion is at Expo 2000 in Hanover, though more Brits are likely to see his buildings in Mexico or California than that one. Not his fault: Expo 2000 as an enterprise is such a flop that it makes our dome look a roaring success. Anyhow, Legorreta doesn't need it. He is more in demand than ever.

And, says Rhodes, "He's a wonderful gentleman". This is clearly important to her. The museum is her personal project - it was refused lottery funding, like so many good things - and she has invested millions of her own money and a huge amount of her own time in it. Legorreta seems to have been charmed by the idea of what, for him, these days, is a small project, and one that most architects have deemed unpromising. For what Rhodes had bought, on the recommendation of her old friend and Bermondseyite Andrew "Alternative Miss World" Logan, was a nondescript cash-and-carry warehouse. This, hard up against a Southwark council estate, was the raw material she gave Legorreta to work on.

She had a hunch, she says, "I thought his colours were stunning, and I thought they would look stunning in Bermondsey Street. I knew he would do something incredible, something worthy of the capital." But also, she adds, she knew he would do a museum that was workable, that would not overwhelm the contents.

And given that the core of the collection will be 3,000 originals of her own designs, plus every other famous British fashion name from Hardy Amies to Stella McCartney, this was vital. If there's one thing no architect should ever do, it's try to upstage a fashion designer.

Rhodes has part-financed the museum by selling her huge house in Notting Hill bought for a song in the 1970s. She showed similar property acumen in choosing Bermondsey Street - medieval and villagey in feel, but close to Tate Modern, Shakespeares's Globe, the Design Museum, the pending Greater London Assembly building and quite possibly, Europe's tallest skyscraper by the architect Renzo Piano, at London Bridge station. So she has lucked out in the property stakes once more, which will help her now she needs to raise as much as 6 million to complete the inside, at present just a shell. She has pencilled in an opening date of 2002.

It is a big personal risk, but had she waited until all the funding was in place, she says, she'd still be waiting. "Unless you stick your neck out, people don't believe anything is going to happen." Apartments at the back of the site will be sold to help finance the interiors - with prospective buyers being offered the option of a Legorreta fit-out. As she says, matter of factly: "I've staked the whole of my life on this, but I believe in it." And with British fashion designers walking so tall in the world these days, the time is never going to be better to get such a place off the ground.

Britain always used to be a closed shop architecturally. Then, in the 1980s, a lot of Americans came over to do glitzy corporate offices, then a sprinkling of the better Europeans - from Herzog and de Mueron at Tate Modern to Piano with his tower plans. But that orange building in Bermondsey tells you something else: the best designers don't always look in the obvious places for their inspiration. Rhodes, in choosing the veteran Legorreta is paradoxically giving us a foretaste of architecture to come.

from The Sunday Times Culture section, July 30, 2000