Fashion and architecture can make odd bedfellows, even in the youthful flings and forced marriages of design school. Art and architecture make a similarly awkward pair; a loving couple whose divergent backgrounds produce misunderstandings, overlooked nuances of language and intent. When compared to the immediacy and message of visual art, or the whimsy and free quotation of fashion, architecture often seems slow, clunky, compromised and square. Yet space is pervasive and shapes life in a way that no shirt or canvas can and, as the mother of them all, the permanence, technology and scale of it, the edifice of architecture, viewed from outside, can be seductive to artists and designers.
The title of this issue can be drawn from many sources, one of them being the recent MOMA exhibition of inter-war German portraiture. A time of social upheaval, excitement, desperation, inflation, Weimar Berlin is remembered now for its sexual loucheness. But it was hope for a free society that prompted the relaxation of laws on homosexuality and prostitution, not just destitution, that led to anything-goes-Kabaret. So what of the architecture of this time? Can we find decadence in Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm or portent in Poelzig’s Schauspielhaus? The Nazis might have thought so, but in fact architecture finds it very difficult to make a social comment, especially a negative one. We can look back and see a reflection of the times, or rather the ambitions of a few, but architecture is almost by definition earnest.
Buildings tend to be the manifestations of hegemonies. The underground, the young and avant-garde rarely have the money or position to erect great structures. The spatial spirit of Sally Bowles’ nail polish was more likely found in film sets and the adapted or improvised interiors of basement clubs than in the canon of modern architecture. While we can strive to be à la mode or provocative in our dress, jewellery and coiffure it is a truth that in any age we will spend most of our time inhabiting spaces conceived in a previous era. It is this time scale that, in part, separates architecture from its peers in the academy. While fashion seasons come and go, a new building is often first drawn-up years before it is occupied; a new style or approach can be conceived in the architect’s mind way before that, before they gained the experience or reputation, before the economic circumstances allowed their idea to be realised. It is a well worn axiom that young architects are in their 40s, perhaps not true in every instance, but never the less remarkable in our youth-culture-culture, with the constant media hunt for the next ‘one to watch’.
It is not surprising then that most of the Expressionist architecture of the inter-war period, the architecture that was concurrent with the MOMA paintings, remained only on paper. Yet even this visionary work owed much to the decades that preceded it. The Expressionist architects strove for sensation in architecture, for materials of truth. They distorted form, they willed architecture to be art. They also strove for reintegrated and respected construction teams, for a new Germany of jewelled Alpine cities wiped clean of the degradation of the industrial age, its utopian peaks crowned with social clubs and cultural centres, hardly ‘divine decadence’.
And here it is, building is a political act. Architecture shapes the towns we live in, our group experience, it is collaborative, the designer cannot manufacture it, it is a service as well as a creation.
Extravagant buildings are mostly statements for the benefit of others imbued with messages of control and hierarchy, vanity, or promoting agenda: Pugin’s elaborate work sprung from a deeply held Catholic faith and an abhorrence of the moral and aesthetic corruption of modernity, not the dominance of Victorian Britain.
For truly decadent architecture, for pleasure domes decreed, perhaps we have to look back further in time, to the top of the social scale, to those with such fabulous wealth and power it took them beyond society and normative taste. Brighton Pavilion is such a structure, built by George IV at a time when his expenditures gobbled up a significant slice of British GDP.
The neo-gothic Fonthill Abbey was the fantasy in stone of William Beckford, heir to a massive fortune from slavery and sugar plantations, exiled for seducing a beautiful young boy. His three hundred foot folly in the Wiltshire countryside collapsed twice during construction, finally standing for only twelve years. Behind a six-mile long wall Beckford lived singly in its great halls, where meals were prepared for twelve each night. He always dined alone.
Neuschwanstein may now be best known as Cinderella’s Castle, Disney’s white heart of Europe, but it was conceived by ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a paean to German Romanticism, and Richard Wagner. Fabulously popular, Ludwig built several extraordinary residences but never produced an heir, struggling with his homosexuality throughout life. He met a sticky end in Lake Würm.
By 1924 the Bauhaus and most of the German architects had moved from Expressionism to a new ascetic modernism and the international style. Architecture was going to change the world, not just itself, “architecture or revolution”. The minimum house was born, unadorned, rectilinear, practical, scientific, pacifying. Modernism would conquer the architectural discourse after World War Two, its brand of tomorrow rising from beach houses in California to council estates in Coventry before eventually fouling itself in a corner of public disdain and leaky roofs.
Today, in many ways we are living through a new eclecticism. Technology, taste and economics are allowing architects such as Libeskind and Hadid to realise the progeny of Expressionism. Glass and steel, feeling and form are employed to house luxury brands and insurance companies. The white forms of minimalism, heir of modernist rationale, hygiene and simplicity, incongruously define Dolce and Gabbana’s corporate spaces. We look to the 1920s for decadence and find socialist idealism. Is it really to be found in our own emptily aestheticised and globalised era? In Dubai shiny towers of individual wealth are being built on the backs of desperate third world labour, paid for with petro-dollars retrenched post 9-11. In Beijing crystalline state media headquarters and organic stadia rise from foundations of crushed freedom of speech into polluted skies, many of these projects exported from the drawing boards of Western Europe’s closed-shop welfare states.
Glitter and Doom indeed.