Fashion and Architecture

The Center for Architecture in New York recently held an exhibition titled ‘The Fashion of Architecture’, the premise of which was to ‘consider the dialogue between modern architecture and contemporary fashion in concept as well as practice.’

It’s a popular subject nowadays. And for good reason. Contemporary fashion designers and architects are creating incredibly innovative designs that are influenced by the tools and tricks and theory and philosophy of each other’s trade.

The exhibition featured the works of innovators such as the fashion designers Yohji Yamamoto, Yeohlee and Hussein Chalayan, architects Winka Dubbledam, Shigeru Ban, David Adjaye, Lars Spuybroek, and other artists that cannot be so easily categorized, such as the artist Lucy Orta and the architect turned fashion designer Kei Kagami.

The exhibition explored the influence of fashion on architecture and vice versa through a few different avenues: the use of architectural means such as geometry in fashion, the idea of clothing as shelter and the use of textiles in architecture to create collapsible, movable, fluid spaces. Traditionally, architecture is considered to be one part math and one part art. Of the different disciplines within math, geometry is considered an essential tool of architecture. This is the aspect of architecture that is now being used by fashion designers such as the Asian designers Yeohlee and Yohji Yamamoto.

The Bustier Flared Dress: The first item on display in the exhibition is the Bustier Flared Dress [right] by Yohji Yamamoto (1999). When you first encounter it, the dress gives the impression of being a heavy dramatic swirl of black fabric. Yamamoto has used the spiral – which is the basis of the traditional Indian sari as well as an early construction technique in buildings – as the basis for constructing this garment. He uses whalebone pieces to flare the dress and generate a swirling movement.

The write-up on the garment notes that the whalebones increase the garment’s weight substantially (something that is apparent visually to the viewer), but that Yamamoto solves this problem by distributing the weight of the dress between the shoulders and the hips by using suspension straps. Our bodies are always the structure on which garments are draped, but here the garment is not just resting on us. It seems as if our body is more than just a passive receptor; our shape and structure is being actively engaged to support this dress.

Clothing as Shelter: It is helpful to look back at the history of the relationship between architecture and fashion. Or, since the term fashion conjures up images of constantly changing trends tending towards the frivolous rather than the practical, perhaps we should reduce both terms to their basics: Clothing and Shelter.

Every school child is familiar with the images of early men gathered around the fire, some naked and some strategically covered with animal skin or fur. What was the fur for? Modesty? Protection against the elements? Although I don’t mean to suggest that our ancestors were devoid of modesty or style, I think the most logical explanation would be protection against the elements. It’s interesting to note that the same material that covered the bodies –animal skin – was also used as a covering for early transportable tent-like structures.

The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design held an exhibition last year called ‘Extreme Textiles’. The exhibition showcased developments in architecture and engineering made possible by the use of high-performance, precisely engineered fabrics. In the exhibition’s companion book, Philip Beesley and Sean Hanna give us a brief history of the relationship between buildings and textiles. The first building materials – they write – were not masonry, they were woven:

“A meshwork of small, flexible branches formed the underlayer of cladding and served to brace larger structural members… Thatch, which is the binding of straw or grass fibers together as a roofing materials, and wattle, a lattice of flexible twigs and small branches woven horizontally through a series of vertical wooden stakes, were the standards for a building’s exterior surface. … The combination formed an efficient structure that made up an integrated fabric.”

It would appear that textiles and fabrics were the earliest means of shelter. And it is to this concept that many fashion and architectural designers have returned. The Paris based designer Lucy Orta created an installation [above] which blurs the boundaries between interior environments and outdoor structures. She stitched figures together literally and figuratively in the same cloth. Orta’s work also includes body gear that doubles as emergency shelter. Where architecture defines a larger environment, clothing is used to create an intimate environment or shelter around the body, rather than merely passively covering or draping it.

The Curtain House: While fashion designers are using architecture to create hybrids of clothes-shelter, architects are using fashion and textiles to change the face of architecture. Architects envy the fluidity and movement of clothes. They don’t want their designed environments to be static and inert. Computers have given them the means to dream and to create fluid structures, and smart, modern textiles have helped buildings to step out as interactive dynamic environments.

Remember the old base, middle and crown of a building? That’s old news. Now spaces flow into one another, and structures are collapsible and portable. Clothing allows movement, and architecture and architects want a piece of that. What better marriage than of the two disciplines? Familiar with the concept of layering when you dress? How about peeling back a layer to let your surroundings into your home ala Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House [above] in Tokyo, Japan (1995). Ban has built homes, pavilions and churches, some of them permanent, using little more than cardboard tubes. He is interested in using materials that are traditionally considered ‘weak’ and once said, “Whenever we invent a new material or new structural system, a new architecture comes out of it.” Engineered textiles are one such new material.

The exhibition at the Center for Architecture will end in the middle of this month. And, as noted, the Extreme Textile show at the Cooper Hewitt ended last year. But the relationship between shelter and clothing is forever. It will continue to grow and evolve, and we hope that this report encourages you to look around you and notice the developments in both.