Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
How the chill wind of commerce killed off the bow tie
Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald
‘WHEN did architects stop wearing bow ties?” was the whispered question at the Great Man’s wake. Well, when did they? A glance revealed all. In a dress circle replete with eminences, grises and not so, there were black shirts, corduroy jackets and collarless suits aplenty, but not a bow tie to be seen. So the question, despite its wife-beating overtones, is apt, especially if metaphorical. When did architecture depart the gentlemanly mindset to become that saddened and compromised shadow of itself we see today? Could it have been that same moment when our excitement at a proposed new development nearby turned to dread?
Perhaps. Certainly, the dress thing flags deeper changes. As Sydney sociologist “Dr Garry” Stevens notes on his eccentric but good-for-a-giggle website, “architects always like to dress ‘differently’ … The bow tie, especially, has been the motif of the devil-may-care architect since the modernists pioneered it almost a century ago … Architects like to project themselves as chic radical artists.
“The truth is that [architects] are the most slavish servants of those in power … No ‘art’ depends more for its existence on toadying to the good and the great than architecture. So how to project an air of dangerous radicalism, while in fact spending all your days doing the work of those with power and money? Simple: wear a bow tie.”
For Stevens, the bow tie is a disguise, concealing the bruises of enslavement. It’s an interpretation that ignores the bow tie’s observed decline which actually coincides with enslavement’s onset, like a neat dovetail joint. But Stevens has, nonetheless, fingered something that might ease, for example, Alain de Botton’s anxious mind.
De Botton’s success is to ask on behalf of us all: why do we no longer trust our unbuilt future? Why do we reflexively resist the new house or town next door, not welcome it? After all, he says, in 1770 or thereabouts “when bands of workmen arrived to sketch out the crescents of Bath or Edinburgh’s New Town … few tears would have been shed at the impending destruction.”
This question underpins de Botton’s book, The Architecture of Happiness and TV series, The Perfect House. His answer, also implicit throughout, is that we no longer do beauty like we used to. Architecture used to be about beauty. Now, it’s just about money.
Can this be true? The architect’s traditional role is to synthesise diverse inputs into a visually harmonious whole, using beauty as a binder in the mix. Beauty, indeed, is architecture’s only unique contribution to building. Everything else – technical, planning, political, economic and structural – can be provided by other professionals. Beauty is the only thing no one else does.
Beauty – or if you prefer, aesthetics – is what makes architecture meaningful; what makes it architecture. Why, then, is so little of what we build visually tolerable, let alone beautiful? That architects still obsess over the visuals only makes it more mysterious that they produce so little beauty. Has architecture abandoned its core territory?
There are three arguments for the affirmative, all linked. They’re three revolutions relly; social, theoretical, cultural.
The social revolution happened when democratic capitalism, taking money monopoly from a cultured aristocracy and giving it first to the mercantile classes and then to the plebs (us), fitted architecture with an entirely new client class. Two classes, really: the developers who build and the people who buy, neither of them especially cultivated.
Then again, cultivation has become pretty much irrelevant as the revolution has transformed the developer class to comprise almost entirely shareholder companies, for which motives other than profit are virtually inconceivable. The populace, meanwhile, is viewed as bland consumers, all individual tastes subsumed beneath ever-more conventional developer wisdom as to “what sells”.
So even if an educated client class did exist, there’d be nothing for it to buy, since the market works to a single overwhelming value: size per dollar. You can buy idiosyncratic clothes (even if it means spending a weekend in Melbourne) but you want a non-ordinary house? Forget it.
The second revolution was, if not theory led at least theory coated. In the mid-20th century, design meisters Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius jointly marched architecture towards an engineering aesthetic of bare functionalism. That they did not practise their creed made their preaching of it no less effective, and it led, inevitably, to a wholesale burning of the books.
And this was the third revolution. It’s not only the people who know what they like but can’t get there. In schools and academies across the planet, ignorance of the ancient (or indeed, modern) rules of beauty is profound. Which is not to argue beauty as a rule thing; more that knowing the rules is an essential, especially for those who would break them.
Now it’s not just the lack of clients with taste and money. The knowledge itself, one has to suspect, is no longer in architecture’s dillybag. Beauty has become an embarrassment, never to be discussed outside those inner-sanctum slide nights where architects warm their hands against the tiny flame that flickers even now at the profession’s core, blowing protectively on the coals lest the chill winds of commerce extinguish it forever.
In The Hanging Man, which played in the Opera House recently, architect Edward Braff hangs himself loud and long for fear his latest half-built work, a cathedral, will be mediocre. And perhaps that’s what it’ll take to soothe de Botton’s tortured mind; more of a life-and-death take on beauty. Perhaps, indeed, this is the bow tie’s real significance; less sartorial pretence, more symbolic noose, proving just how deeply your architect cares.
Photo: AP/Stefan Rousseau