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Going Gaga: Fashion and architecture

At Amsterdam’s 2010 International Fashion Week, fashion designer Iris van Herpen debuted a bolero evocative of dizzying helical staircases. The multicolored fabric strips of several Rodarte spring 2010 ready-to-wear dresses echo Frank Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal. The white Barrisol ceiling of Peter Marino’s Chanel boutique on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles bears resemblance to the leggings that outfit shoppers below. The aesthetic parallels between fashion and architecture are alluring and plentiful—yet artistic tendencies naturally carry across design disciplines. The really juicy parts of the relationship between fashion design and architecture are when the affair is intentional.

In 2006, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles presented Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. The exhibition and corresponding book (Thames & Hudson, 2006) unveiled many fashion designers and architects who explicitly borrow from each other. Malaysian-born fashion designer Yeolee Teng, for example, studied the work of Parisian architect Robert Mallet-Stevens in devising a handful of suspension dresses (spring/summer 2006) that achieve voluminous contours through the use of straps.

Skin + Bones also addresses the cross-pollination of concepts and vocabulary between the two design disciplines. “[D]raping, wrapping, weaving, folding, printing and pleating” are garment-derived words now common in the architectural realm. Skin + Bones even explores the plans for Boston’s then-incomplete Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), describing its “continuous external skin that blurs the distinction between walls, windows and doors,” almost like a sheath dress, relied on by women for decades to obscure imperfections. The unconventional firm that designed the ICA, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in fact generates its own sartorial work, such as an installation made of 18 white men’s dress shirts (1993–1998) and a dress made of meat for the Miss Meatpacking District Gown Contest in 2006.

Skin + Bones curator Brooke Hodge writes that her exhibit “follow[ed] the threads of investigation laid down by Intimate Architecture,” a 1982 Massachusetts Institute of Technology exhibit that examined fashion design through an architectural lens. Hodge asserts that in the years between the two exhibitions, the relationship between fashion and architecture became more intimate for two primary reasons. She contends that as the use of advanced design software proliferated among architects, methods of fashion construction became more easily incorporated into architectural design. Also, fashion houses began to recruit revered architects to design their retail spaces, resulting in rich opportunities for mutual inspiration.

The relationship between fashion design and architecture has continued to develop through the decade, with more collaborations and increasing prevalence in popular culture. In 2007, for example, Derek Lam credited Gehry’s IAC building as the inspiration for his fall line. “Walking to work each day between Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, I get to enjoy all sorts of views of Frank Gehry’s building, from which I got a lot of the impetus for this collection,” said Lam. In 2008, architect Zaha Hadid designed a curvaceous mobile pavilion for Chanel, inspired by the brand’s iconic quilted handbag.

Even more recently, pop star Lady Gaga’s penchant for architectonic designs has brought overlaps between fashion design and architecture into the spotlight. She is known for unusual, even shocking, couture constructions that either wildly exaggerate her hips and shoulders or obfuscate her body and face entirely with facades or objects. (Gaga wore her own meat dress, designed by Franc Fernandez, to the 2010 Video Music Awards.) Her hair is commonly arranged in rigid forms, and her footwear is often skyscraper high. In 2009, Gaga wore a hat designed by Gehry to a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It was Gehry’s first millinery foray, initially sketched on his iPhone. The hat was arranged like a demented tulip, with petals of silver leather encapsulating a translucent, glittering orb.

The affair between fashion and architecture is not always met with approval—the differences between the two disciplines can easily render attempts at cross-pollination unsuccessful. Inherently problematic is that fashion is more ephemeral than architecture. It changes with the seasons, and some collections, no matter how innovative or provocative, seem to have little chance as enduring designs. When architecture suffers from inaccessible design, the danger is graver. Most buildings can’t change with the season.

Yet in the challenges they face, fashion design and architecture again intersect: Both must generate designs of increasingly innovative form and more-effective function. Further still, in this era of eco-awareness and cost cutting, both fashion design and architecture are charged with achieving greater sustainability, efficiency and value. In the coming decade, it will be fascinating to see if and how the relationship between fashion design and architecture will evolve to help each meet these challenges.


Liz Rosenbaum has a BA in English from Santa Clara University and an MA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College. Her diverse professional background includes freelance writing and editing in a variety of genres. She is fond of hand-pulled espresso, oysters, laughter and her iPhone. Her website is wordstylings.com.

Photo: Prada store, Tokyo. Designed by Herzog & de Muron. Provided by Scarletgreen. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Re-educating starchitects

Like most of Frank Gehry’s buildings, the Stata Center at MIT split critics in half, but most praised its jutting, angled facade and boxy, unconventional design. Love it or hate it, the building commonly known as the “two dancing robots” began to leak, crack and grow mold just three years after its 2004 unveiling. It’s another example of overambitious architects designing gravity-defying buildings that push the laws of physics and reveal their structural weaknesses in a matter of years.

In the case of the $300 million Stata Center, Gehry forgot to account for the ample amount of ice and snow that can accumulate during a Boston winter. The buildup on the awkwardly angled ledges caused mini avalanches on unsuspecting passersby as well as structural damage such as cracked masonry, which led to leaks, mold, one big lawsuit and a $1.5 million repair bill.

But Gehry is not the only one to drop the ball. Fellow Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano narrowly escaped a lawsuit when the ventilation system failed in his $300 million Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the signature roof design began to whine and whistle in the wind. But is failing to consider a climatic condition such as wind in the windy city itself unforgivable or unforeseeable?

It’s often difficult to determine who’s really to blame: the architect or the engineer, or both? After all, shouldn’t the two work hand in hand? The best bet is to avoid these problems altogether. That’s about to get a little easier now that the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) in Stuttgart, Germany, has established Climate Culture Building (CCB), an international graduate school that promotes climate-conscious construction and prepares engineers to work with architects to implement sustainable building practices. “Modern architecture frequently disregards basic climate-conscious principles and is then forced to counterbalance the structural and physical consequences with highly technical and not particularly energy-efficient constructions,” Dr. Klaus Sedlbauer of the Fraunhofer IBP explains.

Since many buildings’ structural problems are often attributed to weather conditions, it’s high time someone developed a compendium of climatic concerns that engineers and architects worldwide can reference. CCB not only encourages study in as many climate zones as possible but also takes into consideration the effective use of local resources and building materials. To accomplish this, CCB isn’t held in a fixed location but is conducted between the University of Stuttgart and the student at a university in his or her country of choice.

Though a systematic change is clearly in order, the outlook isn’t completely bleak; many architects and engineers have already gotten it right. The Federal Building in San Francisco, for example, is one of the greenest buildings in America, using only 45% of the energy of the average U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) building. On the other end of the spectrum, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in Lilongwe, which is funded by pop star Madonna’s organization, Raising Malawi, is making headlines with its use of local resources such as Hydraform bricks made from soil onsite and its creative solutions to combating the hot climate without air conditioning. 

Although it’s doubtful that someone like Frank Gehry would amend his projects to even the most learned engineer, all is not lost: For the 99% of the world’s structures that aren’t built by starchitects, there’s CCB, and there’s hope for a less wasteful, more constructive future in building.


Perrin Drumm is a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer with strong feelings about design, architecture, art and film. She’s currently working on her MFA in fiction. You can see her work at http://flavors.me/perrindrumm.

Photo: The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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