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Martin Margiela and Alexander McQueen

An Aesthetic of ‘Whatever’

Is there really anything we can identify in common to Rhoades, the artists of Unmonumental, Yamamoto, Kawakubo, Margiela and McQueen? And how in turn do they all bear some relation to that ‘hetero-architecture’ Jencks points to in his book? Of course, in each case – just as in Heteropolis – there is a whole attempt to impute meaning of some kind to their objects. In the wake of Rhoades’ death in 2006, there has been a concerted biographical reading of his work and attempt to see it as the expression of a particular place and time. In an obituary for the LA Times, ‘He Left One Puzzle Behind’, Diane Haithman suggests that, given Rhoades’ overloaded and over-stimulated art, it is somehow appropriate that he died of a combination of ‘arterioschlerotic heart disease’ and an ‘accidental overdose’ of pharmaceuticals and heroin (Haithman 2006). The curators of Unmonumental lay out a detailed genealogy for the work, recalling Duchamp’s readymades and Rauschenberg’s assemblages, and go on to speak of the work’s social relevance and significance. As curator Flood writes (admittedly, a little obscurely) in his catalogue essay: ‘Works that appear hurled into uncomfortable, anxious relationships run parallel to life. Objects with knots of nerve endings reaching out to find a brain mirror the fugue states of everyday consciousness’ (Flood et al. 2007, 12).And, of course, there is an entire industry devoted to giving clothes a style and fashion, a pedigree and justification (Yamamoto and Kawakubo as inheritors of Issey Miyaki’s distressed fabrics and deconstructed kimonos, Margiela and McQueen as coming after Vivienne Westwood and her safety-pinned stitched-together kilts).
But we want to suggest that in each case there is also something resisting this, a deliberate attempt to outstrip the mechanisms of meaning and relevance and achieving a state of what we might call indifference, an ‘anti-aesthetic’ with no meaning. In Rhoades, this would proceed by an ‘excess’ designed to outstrip all propriety and taxonomy. And perhaps the ‘tragedy’ of the work – although it is not biographical – is that Rhoades discovers no limit, no rules to transgress, no parties (women, Muslims) to insult. In Unmonumental, the sculptors proceed in the opposite direction: not by addition, as with Rhodes, but via a kind of subtraction. There would be in their work the slow withdrawal of all aesthetic properties, the gradual attenuation of all sense, meaning, art-historical genealogy, the work’s status as art and any criteria by which to judge it. And with our designers, although there still remains a fashion and beauty (anti-fashion being, after all, only another form of fashion, indeed, it could be argued, what all fashion originally begins as), there also is something else: the attempt to prevent for as long as possible this turning-into-fashion, a muteness (no matter how loud or apparently bold the gesture), a ‘fashion degree zero’. Tartan with taffeta or gauze, rose prints and mould: nothing happens. There is no resolution, no sudden affinity, merely a brute juxtaposition that leaves each material untransformed. And therefore no ‘fashion’, no identifiable style, for others to copy or emulate.
All of this is undoubtedly utopian, fugitive, no sooner remarked than done away with, necessarily betrayed by its commentators, curators and critics. And it is, of course, a form of post-modern pastiche, eclecticism, appropriation. Only next year’s style or fashion, contemporary as opposed to post-modern, unwinding in a seamless and linear continuity. But at the same time the objects we have looked at are not within the sign but somehow outside of the sign, are not second-hand but original. With regard to them we are involved in a confrontation with the raw materiality of the object outside of any sublimation, either discursive or aesthetic (this is perhaps what we mean by describing it as indifferent). Similarly, what we are describing is not a style or fashion but something ‘before’ this. The ‘Minimalism’ of Japanese fashion is precisely a word for this non-style, this non-fashion. Its essential ‘unchangingness’ or ‘unfashionability’ does not even rise to the level of ‘resistance’ or anti-fashion, as with punk, but is more like the refusal or fashion altogether, a certain ‘I prefer not to’. It is not anything as heroic as antistyle, but more like the principle of always one more, as in the case of Rhoades, so that eventually any imagined unity that the various elements are said to have in common is exposed to a certain ‘nothing in common’, or an always one less, as with the case of Unmonumental, so that for any perceived aesthetic commonality, there will always be an exception, one that fails to fulfil the criterion.
There is always, as we say, the impossibility of ‘applying’ Jencks’ analysis to architecture beyond Los Angeles. It is not merely that we cannot turn it into a unified style, but it does not even belong to Los Angeles, it is only to invoke a certain disaggregation if Los Angeles. Nevertheless, we conclude here by looking in some detail at a number of architectural instances of this style of ‘whatever’. We do attempt to put our finger on what is happening now and happening worldwide. But it is not so much a style as a logic, a logic that, if in a way is always singular, is also to be found everywhere, insofar as it points to the (im)possibility of an object having any style whatsoever. We are tempted to call it (despite everything we have said) the moment of the contemporary in architecture, which comes after post-modernism. It would be an extension of the making-equivalent of post-modernism, but without any final meaning, any final ‘unity’ of its differences, any point outside of it from which to remark upon it. Criticism would, therefore, remain as much as possible on the level of the object itself, unable to unify what it describes even as the style of pluralism, appropriation or post-modernism.
Our first example is the architectural practice of the London-based FAT (Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob). The practice is broadly known for is revival of post-modernism – indeed, in 2011 it co-edited with Jencks a special issue of Architectural Design on the topic. For the members of FAT, post-modernism is cutting-edge exactly because it is so unfashionable. In an essay for the special issue, ‘Post-Modernism: An Incomplete Project’, they quote artist Dan Graham suggesting that the most radical thing to do at any particular juncture is ‘that which was most recently fashionable’ (Jencks et al. 2011, 18). By this, what they really mean – for, in fact, their use of the term remains ‘tactical’ – is that they are opposed to what they see as the revival of a certain ‘neo-formalism or ‘neo-modernism’ after the ‘end’ of post-modernism (Jencks et al. 2011, 18). For FAT, post-modernism is associated with such qualities as decoration, figuration and ornamentation, and more particularly – this is a constant emphasis in their writing – a way of working against a ‘central narrative’ and ‘hollow abstraction’ (Jencks et al 2011, 21). As opposed to this, they are aiming for a tone – and this is seen by their best critics – that is ‘cool’, ‘objective’, ‘non-judgemental’, almost like an autopsy (Jencks et al. 2011, 70). Indeed, they acknowledge the influence of the Pop Art of Warhol and Ed Ruscha on their work, in which repetition produces difference and the lack of obvious emotion paradoxically heightens it. FAT’s signature architectural device – which it mobilises in full awareness of how it cuts against current architectural orthodoxy – is the ‘facade’ or the ‘figural section’ (Jencks et al. 2011, 68). It is to be found in a wide variety of their buildings, from their early Blue House, Hackney (2002), in which an entire under-scale house motif is used as a cut-out billboard, through their Islington Square (2006), Manchester, in which residents’ DIY interior renovations are used for exterior brick surfaces, to their more recent De Grote Koppel, Amersfoort, Holland (2010), in which over-scaled classical window surrounds have grown to become the entire exterior wall. It is a facadism that is not just vertical and seen at the front, but horizontal and takes place at the top. In 1998 FAT renovated a writer’s house in Clapham in London, in the course of which they added a two-story external library, which is now visible through backlit windows from inside the main house, producing an effect described as a ‘grand Palladian house’ squeezed into a small, Victorian terrace (Jencks et al. 2011, 81). Here, however, we want to consider for a moment the recent commission by FAT for the BBC drama production studios in Cardiff, which was undertaken with the firm Holder Mathias. Holder Mathias built the multi-purpose studios in which television shows for the Corporation were to be shot and staged, and across the front of these nondescript and factory-like buildings FAT have added a 300-metre long clip-on facade made of wood that does not completely cover the surface to which it is attached.

Fat Blue House 2002 FAT Islington Square 2006

The radical point here is that there is deliberately no connection between the front of the building and what lies behind it. Sean Griffiths of FAT describes the incoherent planning process behind the building, insofar as the municipal authority had to complete the project by a certain date and effectively the two firms had to undertake two separate commissions without time to work together (Olcayto 2011, 26-7). However, the facade works here not, as is usually the case, to provide a coherent surface image to what might otherwise appear disparate, but on the contrary to bring out a gap not just between the front and the back of the building, but between the different elements of Holder Mathias’ production facilities themselves. As Chris Patten, the BBC Trust Chairman, put it, the resulting combination is like ‘Ikea crossed with the Doge’s Palace’ (Olcayto 2011: 32). And this internal and not merely external disjunction can be seen in other aspects of FAT’s practice, such as sudden jumps in scale between doors in the same room (The Blue House) or the insertion of a suburban living room inside a nightclub (The Brunel Rooms, Swindon, 1995).

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