April 7, 2005: Architecture and haute couture

William Van Alen (center), architect of the Chrysler Building, at a society party celebrating the completion of his building in 1931.

William Van Alen (center), architect of the Chrysler Building, at the 1931 Beaux Arts Ball, where leading architects dressed up as their buildings.

A comment from Thomas Hayes about my last post, “‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan Public Library,” called to mind that I’d once compared, in my Providence Journal column, architecture and fashion design. Here, as a “Blast from the Past,” is that column, reprinted courtesy of the Journal:

Architecture as haute couture
Publication Date: April 7, 2005

Van Allen and his wife at party.

Van Allen and his wife at party.

LAST YEAR, I read Higher, by Neal Bascomb, about the race to construct the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. A picture of architect William Van Alen wearing a costume to look like his creation, the Chrysler Building, came to mind on Tuesday morning as I prepared to deliver a lecture to the Pembroke Club. My theme was architecture and ladies’ fashions.

To be frank, it was a last-minute, in-the-shower sort of an idea, but I went with it anyway, and it seemed to amuse the indulgent ladies listening at the Brown Faculty Club. “Only a man could come up with a nutty idea like that,” they were probably saying to themselves. But as I spoke, and even later in the day, the idea kept growing on me.

Look at the photo of Van Alen and his wife, with the Chrysler Building’s crown on his head. Lovely as the pre-modernist Art Deco building is, no man would wear it as a hat in real life. And no woman would wear such a hat in the real world — unless she were a model at a fashion show of haute couture.

Same shot as at top, showing full regalia of party goers.

Same shot as at top, showing full regalia.

Fashions in dress have changed greatly, if slowly, over the centuries. People have always worn clothes much like the clothes other people wear. More money buys nicer clothes, and while women’s fashions might diverge more than men’s from basic form, a shirt is a shirt and a dress is a dress. Except on the runway of a fashion show of haute couture.

Likewise, houses have changed greatly, but slowly, over the centuries. People have built, bought or rented houses they could afford, houses much like the houses sought by other people. You could always locate the front door effortlessly. At levels where people pay for their own accommodations, modern architecture has never caught on.

Different versions of Van Alen's Chrysler Building.

Different versions of Van Alen’s Chrysler Building.

Of more substantial buildings, the same pattern prevailed – until the middle of the 20th Century, when modern architecture suddenly took over among buildings chosen by committee.

Tom Wolfe described this shift in From Bauhaus to Our House: “But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEOs, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.”

Workers on the Chrysler Building. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White. I could not resist including this shot.

Workers on the Chrysler Building. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White. I could not resist including this shot.

And yet I don’t recall ever seeing modern architecture compared to haute couture. Maybe that’s because the comparison never really made that much sense until recently. As long as modern architecture was about “utility,” “purity of line,” and that sort of thing, it was merely boring. A glass box was a glass box. All the glass boxes on Manhattan’s Park Avenue look pretty much the same, including the Seagram Building (1958), the big daddy of glass boxes.

But in the 1990s, modern architects started to don new party hats. Each had to be not just different but way different. “Egotecture,” it was called. The buildings of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster, Zaha “Ha-Ha” Hadid, etc., look nothing like other buildings, or, for that matter, like buildings at all.

Increasingly, they resemble the sort of clothing that you snicker at when you see the most haute of haute fashion shows on TV. Deconstructivism, Minimalism, Blobism, the new architectural styles roll out, each one sillier than the one before, winking and smirking their way down the runway (or rather, alas, the street) as the public tries to tune out. They are not architecture but haute couture.

In spirit, they recall Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1939), his own residence in New Canaan, Conn., of which he said, “Sleep here? I could never sleep in this house. That’s why I built the guest house.”

Look at the photo again. The oddest thing about it is that the funny hat sits on top of the head of a man. Have you ever seen a hat like that on a man? Of course not. (Now isn’t the time to mention the Vatican.) Men would never put up with such tomfoolery. Even if women could afford it, most would not be seen in most of the ridiculous “clothes” worn on the runways of New York, Paris or Milan. And if they did, men would not put up with it.

But in architecture, the “slap across the mouth” is not only accepted but de rigueur. And the public puts up with it — so far. Modernism has finally achieved the feminization of architecture.

Mock-up at Parcel 9

In Providence’s Capital Center, a display at the construction site of the materials and style of a project — called a mock-up — is in place behind a tree in a corner of Parcel 9 farthest from where the public can actually look at it. I can’t imagine why.

In any event, if the time has come to kill off WaterFire, as The Journal’s Andy Smith argued in Sunday’s paper, the guillotine is under construction.

David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: dbrussat@projo.com.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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