I went to Melbourne’s MPavilion on the weekend for Wearing the City. Students from Monash University’s faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) worked with “leading Melbourne architecture practices to translate iconic city buildings into wearable forms”.
Teams of designers worked on ten different buildings, including ACCA, Eureka, Recital Centre, Fed Square and Orica House (you can see all the entries here at de de ce blog).
This was an interesting exercise because architecture and fashion have plenty in common. They reflect the same culture; they elevate aesthetics and appearance; and of course they both have a functional purpose (or if you prefer, a functional constraint).
They share the intellectual ideas that drive form, as well as many common elements like space/volume, colour, planes, texture, structure, and so on. Developments in technology mean that building designers can now feasibly explore ideas like draping, pleating, folding and wrapping.
There are differences though, most obviously in scale. Moreover, unlike clothing, buildings are bespoke rather than one of a number; they’re long-lived rather than ephemeral; they’re inhabited by many bodies not just one; and the owner often isn’t the user (and in this exhibition many owners are public agencies).
You can pretty much wear what you like in public, but buildings are part of the public realm and require approval. In some jurisdictions third parties can object to proposed developments.
Architects nevertheless have some advantages over fashion designers. They don’t have to worry anywhere near as much about weight, about bulk or, critically, about movement.
If their design generates too much or too little heat for human comfort they can turn to air conditioning to keep things comfortable. So far, incorporating that level of power in clothing hasn’t proven practical. (1)
The event itself was a pretty informal affair. The public weren’t shown the brief or the logic used by the judges in picking the two joint winners. But there was no shortage of enthusiasm or delight.
I don’t know what the designers were asked to do, but if the task was simply to creatively embody (pun!) the visual essence of the building in a form that a model could stand up in for a couple of hours without collapsing or offending prevailing standards of modesty, then I thought all the entries succeeded admirably.
The architects can take some credit here too because, despite occasional complaints about the homogenisation of architecture, all these buildings have distinctive visual personalities. No doubt they were selected for that reason but it helped me to easily match each design to the corresponding building.
The concepts produced by the students were mostly costumes in the literal sense; they might work for a fancy dress occasion like the famous ball in 1931 in New York when architects came dressed as their own designs, but not for going to many other places.
The theme “wearing the city” was of limited relevance to most costumes; they could as easily have been displayed on a plinth as on a body. I expect that was consistent with the brief the students were given.
I hope this event continues in future years and matures. Next time I’d like to see the organisers task the students with giving more emphasis to design rather that art; to creating clothing rather than works.
Making worthwhile art when the formal visual vocabulary is largely already given isn’t that interesting; in my view, the buildings would make a better starting point for designing fashion rather than making art.
Fashion can also learn from bicycle design. They both have to accommodate movement and they both rely on human power; so attributes like lightness, nimbleness, robustness, reliability, ease of use, and design ingenuity really matter. While bicycles lack the volume of buildings, aesthetics and visual innovation are important for buyers.