Noted illustrator and writer, David Mazzucchelli’s outstanding graphic novel ‘Asterios Polyp’ (2009) is about a Paper Architect – a neologism that is informally, and often unwantedly, conferred on architects who have incredible concepts for buildings but have never built anything, often for the impracticality of their ideas.
Asterios Polyp is genius because it uses avant garde art to present the fundamentally spatial and visual world of architecture. Architects, will be quick to identify plenty of references to modernist design elements while other readers will undoubtedly appreciate the transcendental quality of Mazzucchelli’s artwork and simple story. But what will not escape any reader is the apparent disconnect between architectural philosophy and the practice of building. It is a bit like saying that magic lives only in theory.
To state another example, two Starchitects, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry have had the honour to appear on the modern satirical show, The Simpsons. In 2005, Frank Gehry’s cameo is shown to receive a letter from Marge Simpson to build a concert hall in their city (Springfield). He shrugs, crumples the letter and tosses it onto the pavement only to have an epiphany for the new design of the concert hall which is shown to form directly from the freshly crumpled paper to a full model in the next scene.
Following a unanimous public vote Gehry’s concert hall is constructed in a most hilarious but as-perceived-by-layman manner. Earlier this year, Koolhaas was shown in an episode conducting a class for children in KidsZone Elite by piecing a lego-version of his CCTV Headquarters, China building.
The idea could possibly have been inspired by drawings from Koolhaas’ office for the same building that reminisce lego blocks symbolizing a kit of parts. Architects will definitely get the humour in both clips which are needless to say, critiques of how the general public imagines the mysterious ways in which architects work because their explanations for designs are often cryptic.
Incidentally, in case it escaped your notice, architects like to dress in black and stylize their attire with paraphernalia such as round plastic glasses, tees and turtlenecks. In black only, please, seems to be the norm. These are today, the existential urban architect’s quintessential accessories. Don’t believe me? Google your favourite present day architect (especially Starchitect) and chances are that you will find an image of him or her in a combination of the above.
(Disclaimer: In India, kurtas, or their shorter cousins, kurtis are more at home among the architectural fraternity but, we are not far from catching up on a homogenized ‘architect’s’ look).
So would you think that architects also perceive themselves to be mysterious, choosing to work in ways only their fraternity can relate to? Why would someone deliberately want to sport being geeky otherwise?
The architects’ subscription to donning black conveys a statement besides making them look sharp. One can say that it is a harmless way of pledging to a fraternity – as if belonging to a sacred cult. And why not? Doctors wear scrubs, lawyers have their black garbs (arguably part of our colonial legacy) so why shouldn’t architects have their own niche fashion statement. Moreover, it is similar to the desire of becoming an alumnus of your alma mater upon graduation, not that you would not be, just that once you have registered you feel like you belong to a clique of companions, never having to detach your umbilical cord.
One can also argue that lawyers wear black in courtrooms to reflect discipline and uniformity but architects on the other hand are more individualistic and notoriously perceived as ‘free thinkers’ who love to talk, at least about architecture. Even if most of the works produced out of this free-thinking is not outstanding, they insist it is and will talk their way into convincing you.
For example, Renzo Piano’s Shard in London opened to much criticism but that did not deter him from issuing a self-congratulatory note: “The best architecture takes time to be understood…I would prefer people to judge it not now. Judge it in 10 years’ time.”
So in a way, architects do portray themselves as having shaman-like powers and people do take notice, even if it comes as comical relief.
Another example is from the Doonesbury cartoon strip in 2006 that pokes fun at Gehry’s Stata Centre, MIT, saying that it is used by local cops for a sobriety test – meaning the building looks normal only if you’re drunk!
Architect and blogger, Jody Brown often volleys at the clichéd aura architects exude and does a brilliant job at it. So when his professional website seconds his disposition: “All the architecture, half the drama” – you are bound to smile. I believe that the way architects dress is closely related to the way they want to be perceived by people which is a bit elitist, shrouded in mystery and for no credible reason. It is a very conscious effort to look the part and present yourself as ascribing to a certain school of thought.
Therefore, don’t be flabbergasted if the next time you dress in smart blacks, talk Heidegger or Derrida and are greeted with: “Let me guess…you’re an architect!”
Concur YES! (but also lend a patient ear to what else they have to say).
Text By Aftab Jalia