You chose the city you live in. It didn’t choose you. Even if it’s the city you were raised in, you chose not to leave, or if you did leave, you chose to return. I feel like I’m channelling Jean-Paul Sartre with that statement, but I swear I’ve thought about this from all angles, and for nearly all people, it’s true.
Part of choosing a city, is choosing to be cast in a particular light. You have to come to peace with your city's image in the eyes of the world. To my global network of friends I am “Steven from Newcastle”. Choosing to stay here means accepting perceptions that I am a bit rough around the edges, because, rightly or wrongly, that’s the reputation my city has earned.
Friends of mine include “Angus from Canberra” and “David from New York”. Is Angus dull? Is David outspoken? No, in fact Angus is a genuine live-wire and David is fairly reserved. Nevertheless, Angus’s and David’s outer most costumes, their cities, invite some type-casting. As much as I know David to be mild mannered, it is indeed tempting to think that underneath that disguise is someone as cocky as the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. Maybe he chose New York as his outward most layer of clothes for a reason? Maybe the real David from New York is a titan, demanding a power-suit city, with skyscrapers like flaming red ties?
I’m not just playing with an analogy here. The front wall of my house actually is a pair of trousers for me. On the private side of that wall, I’m writing just wearing my undies. Before I can step through that wall and onto the street, some fabric trousers are going to need to be worn.
My underpants say nothing about me. They’re probably made in the same factory as yours. It’s the front of my house and the trousers I wear when I leave, that differentiate me from other types of people my age. (In case you’re wondering, my trousers are all made for cycling and my house is a terrace with no garage.)
My trousers and my house are messages to my neighbours. My city’s defining monuments and architectural styles, meanwhile, are messages from both my neighbours and I, directed to the rest of the world.
If you have followed this far, you might see the value in understanding the messages carried by various architectural styles. Understanding them is like knowing why you have some fabrics and not others in your wardrobe, and why, with your clothing, you have selected certain colours and patterns and particular brands. Sure, you might argue that you chose your own clothes, while most of your city’s buildings are from before you were born. I get that, but keep in mind the point I’ve belaboured, that you chose the city you live in. It doesn’t matter that you chose second-hand. Your city is still your outer most wardrobe. To understand its styles, in some sense, is to understand you.
These days I design and make swimwear. I love swimming costumes. No other type of garment speaks to the world without shoes or jackets to finish the statement. Swimming costumes don’t even have undergarments helping out behind the scenes. The whole job is done by a few pieces of rubber and stretch nylon, sewn into one item of clothing. However, I wasn’t always a swimwear designer. My PhD and thirty years of my life are bound up in architectural history. That’s my field of expertise, and the one that informs my design work now that I sew. I straddle two fields of endeavour and am naturally wondering how, through writing, I might synthesise them, and what might come of it if I do.
I have been in this situation before though. In 2010 I started writing, as an architectural historian, about bicycle transport. I didn’t know for sure if there was anything in it but the two books that resulted, Cycle Space and Velotopia, astounded me with the impact they had, both in architectural and transport planning arenas, all over the world.
I’ve got the same feeling about architecture and fashion. I wouldn’t be the first one to riff on similarities between them, but that’s not what I’m planning to do. I’m planning to catalogue the city I live in, as one might catalogue a wardrobe. Imagine you’re visiting a legendary figure, in her own home, and learning the stories behind all of the dresses and shoes she has collected throughout her fabulous life. Through understanding her clothes you would gain an understanding of her. I think that if I catalogue the outermost items of clothing (the buildings) that the people of my city have chosen to wear (we chose them by choosing to live here) then I will gain an understanding of us.
The styles I will be unpicking (Neo Classicism, Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, Brutalism, etc., etc., etc.,) are hardly unique to my city. They are in your city as well. So while the particular examples are all from one place, and while I will be reflecting on ways they indict or bring glory to me, you will be learning about yourself as you read this, no matter what city you’re dressed in.
The difference will come down to the size of the buildings. If the defining icon of your city is like the Sagrada Família, you will be more interested in what I have to say about the Arts and Crafts style, even if the examples I discuss are piddling compared to your own. If you live in a post-WW2 new town, your ears will prick up when I talk about my city's own Brutalist buildings, even if yours are much better.
I’m not writing for my neighbours or my local tourist commission. I’m just using my own city to be sincere. The alternative would be writing about Neo Classicism through reference to Bath, Brutalism through London, Eclecticism through Venice, Art Deco through Napier, and so forth. I have no doubt it would be fun to surmise that people live in Bath to look continental and live in Napier thinking the art deco cloak makes them look modern and clean, but honestly, I don’t want to concern myself with insincere generalisations like those. I’m not writing for an inflight magazine. I’m writing in the hope that any of us, in the messed up cities we find ourselves dressed in, might understand what these outer clothes mean.
To that end I will most certainly not be boring you with details about the lives of my city’s dead architects, politicians and clients. All of us have enough details weighing us down, just remembering passwords, without reading the life stories of local architects, dressmakers or tailors mastering styles copied from overseas.
It is my hope that by reading the posts I have planned, you will come to understand the bricks-and-mortar clothes of your own open-air wardrobe and what they say about you to the world. What does it mean, for example, that your city has buildings with castellations when it was never going to be sacked by barbarians who you would have to shoot from up there? What messages are projected by your city's dozens of variations of Classical style architecture, and what do those variations all mean?
If you hang around this site you will learn from photos I take of my swimsuits that I have a thing for the twenties and thirties. Together we will sift through that period's varied architectural styles, and stop calling all of them "deco". They're not.
My city is as good as any other for examples of styles from recent years, so you can look forward to an understanding of current styles too.
As with any city, there are a lot of buildings here that are completely banal; they're my city's discount store t-shirts, let's call them. Forget those. Our focus are those buildings for which someone paid extra. We’re focusing on the architectural equivalents of the ball dresses and Savile Row suits you come across in great vintage clothes stores. Just looking at the materials used and the deftness of the detailing, you can tell some scrimping and saving went into the buying. What did the first owners think these building styles said about them, to warrant the extra expense?
In answer to your burning question, I am sharing what I know of architectural styles and their meaning on the site where I offer my swimwear, because architecture has not lived up to its promise of providing me with a means of creative expression. The way buildings are procured, with accountants in charge, means I will never be able to use architectural practice as a creative outlet. The nearest I have ever come to sharing my real creativity as an architect, was with my book Velotopia. (Tell me if you want a signed copy). Maybe the designs in it will inspire some practicing architects, somewhere, and they will build a piece of my vision. However, I can say from my own experience in the building industry, that I will be glad it was them and not me!
Designing and making swimwear is my creative outlet. There might not be such a thing as the perfect body, but there are perfect ways to dress bodies for swimming. Nudity might be one, I suppose, but there are many messages that can be conveyed.
As I reflect on what building styles say of their patrons, I’ll be asking if the same messages cannot be conveyed through a swimsuit design. I’m not proposing to design swimsuits that look like buildings, like those costumes architects wore of their own buildings to the 1931 Beaux Arts ball in New York. I’m planning on designing, making and photographing legitimate garments that say, with a swimsuit, what people have said with their buildings.
That’s hardly a departure from what I’ve done from the start as a swimwear designer. It’s more a matter of disciplining myself to produce new designs, for art’s sake, rather than just for more sales.
If you want to rekindle your love of an art form, then leave it. Turn your back on it completely and tell yourself you will never seek an income from it again. That's what I did with architecture when turning to fashion. Then a few years later, it struck me, that my city's architecture is my outer most layer of clothes. Free of the burden of working in the field for a living, yet endowed with great knowledge about it, I have nothing to do but enjoy it. It feels like I've been given a grandchild!
Some buildings I change into and feel myself being transported. There are little churches in Ravenna, with fifth-century mosaics all still intact, where you can imagine the world outside is an illusion and that you're standing in heaven-on-earth. That is an example of a design having its intended effect, because you have taken the time to understand what the designer was thinking.
Being lucky enough to know architectural history, means I don't have to go to Ravenna to have experiences of architecture that are just as profound. But it took more than academic knowledge for me to feel it. It took a realisation that buildings are garments that all of us, literally, wear.
Now that I see them as parts of my wardrobe, the works of fine architecture I encounter in Newcastle, and elsewhere in Australia, add enormous value to the activities that take place within them. If I have a coffee in a restaurant in a building that once was an Italianate style bank, I'm in shoes as once worn by John Soane and the Medicis, with all their pretensions and power. A simple visit to the change rooms at my local pool is a moment of communion with my grandfather, his patriotism, eugenicist nonsense, and his generation's cult of sanitation and physical fitness.
If you think my way of understanding architecture, as clothes, might add a dash of joy to the way you inhabit your city, subscribe to my newsletter, follow @Prideswim on Instagram, and invite your friends to enjoy architecture with you.