For the past twenty years I have lived in a house that looks over a paired back geometrical structure, the 1930s grandstand/windbreak of Newcastle Ocean Baths in Australia. It has always seemed odd to me that this wall, rather than any of the city’s other architectural gems, has been the main choice of fashion brands looking for backdrops. So I have decided to draw on my background as architectural historian, to write an essay that might give some account.
I’ll start with a question: what is the difference between a work of architecture and a mere building? If we can be guided by art theory, it is the same as the difference that exists between a box of Brillo pads on a supermarket shelf and a replica by Andy Warhol.
The package in the supermarket is filled with ephemeral items, designed to wear out and be thrown away. The replica package in the art gallery is filled with ideas. For those who want to see it, these screen printed pieces of plywood contain a new definition of art. One of the highlights of my own academic career was working with the philosopher, Arthur Danto, who held Warhol’s Brillo box up to the art word as a mirror. He used it to say “this is what you have become” in the post-modern age. Call them empty boxes, if you must, but within them is a new definition of art, one that has held to this day.
That’s how it is with architecture as well. A work of architecture contains more than furniture and people working or sleeping. It is a vessel for transmitting ideas. Cast those ideas in stone, or something you hope will last a long time such as concrete or brick, and they can seem to be ever-enduring.
What a brilliant antidote for all those involved in the production of fashion! In their world, ideas only last a few months, while garments are made for discarding. However, what if those garments could be photographed in front of, or sold from within, the architectural embodiments of timeless ideas? There is a chance that the ephemerality of fashion might be disguised.
With this essay I’m going to write about the way humankind’s most here-and-now enterprise, fashion, always wants to borrow a sense of timelessness from humankind’s most enduring enterprise, architecture. The exchange is one that creates tension for architects, who want to engage without losing their brand. But it is also one with challenges for fashion houses, who to succeed in this game, often have to untangle the myriad of meanings imbued within buildings, to avoid reputational damage themselves.
To be Modern is not a fashion. It is a state.
Those are the words of architect Le Corbusier. As always, for him, he was merely inventing a truth.
The first architects to make buildings that were truly Modernist—which is to say they used steel, glass and white walls with no reference at all to tradition—were the Russian Constructivists. They were employed by the newly formed Socialist state to build workers’ cooperatives. Instead of pilasters and mouldings, their adornments were loudspeakers, cables, propaganda signage and pulleys. Squint and tilt your head all you like: you will not see any references to classical forms.
This was Modernism, pure, with its social agenda intact. If any architects could say Modernism was not a fashion, it was those of early twentieth-century Russia.
Unfortunately, when Le Corbusier promoted the same approach to building in France, there was nothing he could have possibly done to have stopped the style turning into a fashion. The proletariat were in no position to patronise architecture, be it Modernist, Classical, Gothic, or any style for that matter. They lived in whatever style of building fate would have them wind up in. To get his style built, Le Corbusier would have to rely on the patronage of the bourgeoisie. The intractable fact that they chose him and his style, when they could have chosen others, would make Modernist architecture a fashion the moment it hit Western Europe.
Notwithstanding a brief flurry of Modernist (or “Brutalist”) social housing projects in the aftermath of the war, Modernist architecture has remained a fashion choice for the rich to this day. As for architects, they have abandoned any pretence to contrary. Budding Modernist “starchitects” aren’t chasing state housing commissions these days, or even the Guggenheim Foundation to design a museum. The Médicis, Monarchs and Popes they pursue, are posh fashion houses, like Prada and Louis Vuitton.
Rationalism: Timeless but Risky
Just how powerful are these brands? They are so powerful that, if they want to, they can rewrite architectural history. Consider Fendi’s headquarters in Rome. It was built as Mussolini’s headquarters and for years it stood derelict and despised. Here is what I found when I tried to visit in 2014:
Whatever discount Fendi got (for it being haunted by the ghost of Mussolini), would have paled compared the reputational price Fendi would have paid had they failed to stamp it with a new meaning.
“Phew!” they must be saying, because it appears to have worked! No longer is Fendi headquarters the high point of Rome’s lowest point since it fell to the Goths. It is Fendi’s headquarters! Hooray!
Now we must hope that as the taint of Fascism completely fades from it, the long forgotten intensions of the architects who designed it may get a chance to shine through.
The Original Meaning of Rationalism
Those architects’ names — Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano — aren’t as well known as the movement to which they belonged, the Italian Rationalist movement.
Among the Italian Rationalist’s aims was the idea of doing with the Modernist pallet — steel, glass and white walls — what Brunelleschi and Bramante had done with stone and brick structures. They had echoed the order of the cosmos, which, as they saw it, was defined by spheres within cubes and any geometrical derivation to come from them.
Rationalist architects, in this sense, were in league with Rationalist philosophers, most famously Plato, for whom the world that we see with our eyes is a shadow of a realm we grasp with our minds, when we employ reason. When quizzed for examples they could relate to, Plato would tell people to think of mathematics and geometry. Thinking of the idea of One plus One equalling Two, or the idea of the Square, puts us in the same epistemological mindset as Socrates when he was trying to grasp Beauty or Justice.
The question then is if a garment by Fendi is conferred with any of the timelessness or intellectualism of the brand’s headquarters? Timelessness and intellectualism: these are things any fashion brand would surely welcome, given the accusations their industry constantly faces of ephemerality and effeteness.
Your answer would depend on how well you think connotation might work in the arts. Some of us, I’m sure, would see a geometrical architectural backdrop and have values like permanence and reason connoted — even if only at a subconscious level. But there would be others, you would agree, who would just see the model’s long legs.
The Rationalist work I see from my kitchen each day
Why I am writing is I have another angle from which to come at this question, about the attraction of fashion brands to Rationalist, geometrical structures. As I mentioned in the introduction, my house looks over one of Australia’s most notable salt water pools, Newcastle Baths. There is a particular curved wall there, from the late nineteen thirties, that doubles as grandstand and a wind break. In 2016 that structure provided the main image used to promote Australia’s Venice Architecture Biennale exhibition, The Pool. From my window I see that wall being used, almost every day, for a fashion shoot of some kind or another.
There are no records (that I have been able to find) with the name of the particular architect who designed it, but I can say, without doubt, that it was someone with an eye for one of the main styles of the day, the streamline moderne style, also known as the paquebot style. The ship’s funnel, inverted bow and compass-drawn curves of the style are all there.
A lot of these motifs, though, had already appeared in Italian Rationalist architecture, before the streamline moderne style came into existence. The most notable example is the Novocomum in Como, by Giuseppe Terragni, completed in 1929. The ship’s balustrade, round corners, copings and taut walls that would become idiomatic to the streamline moderne style, were already there in this building.
What links Newcastle Baths and Brigitte Bardot?
The curved wall of the Newcastle Ocean Baths has an even more obvious Italian Rationalist sibling, built around the same time. That is architect Adalberto Libera’s Casa Malaparte in Capri. Pay no attention to the actual house. I’m referring to the curved wall, like a big Nike swoosh, on the roof.
The wall I see from my house is used as backdrop for photos of models, most often in swimwear, the way Adalberto Libera’s wall was used as backdrop for Brigitte Bardot in the nude, in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, Le Mépris. Visit my wall, or Libera’s wall, and you will most likely find it being used as a set for a fashion shoot of some kind, on whatever day you happen to go there.
Fashion is for now. Geometry is forever!
You could say fashion loves any cool backdrop, but in the case of these Rationalist structures, I can’t help thinking of Plato. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter,” read the inscription at the entry to his academy in Athens. As far as Plato was concerned, you would never comprehend the ideal republic, for instance, if your mind couldn’t grasp ideas such as circles or arcs.
Whatever you may think about Plato—or don’t think about him, because you don’t care—there is no escaping his influence on our predilections. He liked the pyramids, and who doesn’t! He liked anything that seemed permanently resistant to change. What Plato would like, any fashion brand would like as their headquarters, showroom or backdrop, for the way it staves off criticism that fashion is changing too fast.
My own shift from architecture to fashion
I’m writing this as someone who was inspired by that wall I see from my house, to establish yet another fashion brand that goes there to take photos. You can judge for yourself if the swimsuits I’m making have any of the timelessness or immutability I see in “my” wall.
I like to think that they do, with “timeless” cuts, everygreen colours and enduring construction. Who knows, maybe each will only be owned and loved for a few years to a decade. Should that be the case, at least they were photographed beside a geometric, eighty-year-old wall.