Suits You, Madam
Zandra Rhodes's new museum was sure to be a shocker. Jonathan Glancey explores fashion made concrete.
Zandra Rhodes's Fashion Museum, which is due to open in Bermondsey, South London, in 2002, was fated to be colourful. The famous designer has always made a splash: she looks as exotic as a cockatoo crossed with a punk bird of paradise. Her choice of architect the 69-year-old Ricardo Legorreta, seems exactly right. His love of vibrant colour is a perfect match for Rhodes's. Legorreta has designed a wide range of buildings inspired by Mexican tradition. He likes "the supremacy of solid over voids, the use of colour to enclose wall space". His is an architecture, in other words, that is colourful and substantial and yet, adopting the best from the Modern movement, diffused with light. This year he won the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. His fashion museum stands out in Bermondsey as brightly as a Rhodes frock at a masonic dinner.
The Zandra Rhodes Museum of Fashion should provide a chance to rethink the relationship between architecture and fashion. It is said, limply, that architecture is "fashionable" today, as if it has ever been out of sight and mind. What is certain is that architecture and fashion move remarkably closely together at some points in history.
In recent times, there was a wonderfully funny time - the mid-80s - when you could witness, in London at least, roosts of black-clad young things in the very latest square-cut, matt-black Japanese designer togs perched self-consciously in new bars and cafes that were almost indistinguishable in form and spirit from the clothes on grim parade.
Let's go further back in history. Take the early-14th century. Now, imagine yourself in Salisbury watching the last stones of the 404-ft spire being winched into place. Down below are gathered some grandees. Look at the womenfolk. Some are wearing steeple hats, as vertiginously Gothic as the spire of the ambitious cathedral, while their long, brilliantly embroidered gowns are as rich and as decorative as the frescoed walls inside the long, tall nave of the magnificent church. Here, for a special moment, couture and cathedral, fashion and architecture are in near-perfect harmony. The lofty ideals of knightly chivalry too, are somehow wrapped up in this meeting of Gothic cloth and stone. The pointed Early English architecture of the sky-piercing cathedral also recalls the suits of armour that were perfected aesthetically, at this time: a fully armoured knight resembled a kind of kinetic Gothic building.
Leap now, across a void of 300 years across the full blown Gothic of the 15th century, across the great houses of the 16th and 17th centuries across the Baroque dome of Wren's St Paul's and land discreetly in front of a new Palladian house, say Chiswick, by Lord Burlington, or Mereworth by Colin Campbell. Palladian architecture, all the vogue in Britain and Ireland between 1715 and 1740, was a mathematically correct, chaste and polite form of design that went scented, hand-in-silk glove with the rise of the much celebrated "English" gentleman. The dress of a Lord Burlington or a Colin Campbell was handsome yet constrained compared with, say, the foppishness of the French or the glittery braggadocio of the Italians.
Just as the spare dress of the English gentleman matched and mirrored the cool grace of Palladian architecture, so the flamboyant garb of his Italian contemporary - certainly by the 1740s was a richly engraved foil to the extravagant curlicues of newly fashionable Rococo architecture. As rich of the box of the most improbable Italian chocolates, Rococo was a style too far for the relatively sedate British, who were often appalled by the sheer, unmitigated extravaganza (or vulgarity) of the lands that had given them, via Andrea Palladio in the Veneto and Inigo Jones at home, the very Palladian strictures and structures that they had made so much their own.
It was, perhaps, from the beginnings of Romanticism towards the end of the 18th century, that architecture and fashion became self-consciously related. As the passion for all things Gothic grew, wealthy architects started to look the part, dressing up first as monks, and, later, the most intense Goths began to dress in more or less authentic garb. This, though, was less a coincidence or tailored match between architecture and fashion, than a form of wilful eccentricity, or perversity. Even so, as Gothic Revival twisted its way into the Aesthetic movement and art nouveau it sometimes became difficult to tell the new Wildean residents of, say, deeply fashionable Chelsea, from their furniture and fittings.
The Modern movement, an iconoclastic response to the perceived architectural excesses of the 19th century, saw the re-emergence of severe, almost classical dress among its protagonists and clients. Look at Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe as they walked together during the radical housing complex they designed in Stuttgart in 1927; in their sombre coats, bankers' hats, brollies and polished shoes they look every bit the "English" gentleman. As their houses were a kind of one-step back, two-steps forwards take on the classical tradition (le Corbusier's famous Villa Savoye, Poissy, 1929-31 was identified by the critic Colin Rowe writing in the Architectural Review in the early 50s as a take on a Palladian villa), so they adopted the sombre garb of a sober gent.
Of course all this may simply be a case of architecture as self-portraiture. The peerless architectural cartoonist Louis Hellman quotes, in his book Archi-tetes, Samuel Butler's The Way of all Flesh: "Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself". The "id in the grid", as Hellman shows in his cartoons, is there for anyone with a sharp, and perhaps a little inventive eye to see. Just as dog-owners have a delightful tendency to look like their dogs, architects can look disturbingly like their buildings.
Even so, the connection between moments in fashion and movements in architecture are intriguing; they are there for you to dig out if you want to, for buildings are in many ways a representation of ourselves. We build facades for ourselves, not just for our buildings. Zandra Rhodes looks like her new museum and her new museum will look like her. It's an honourable tradition in the history of our culture and both should be flattered.
from The Guardian, August, 14, 2000