Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The featureless buildings that stole our humanity
Then it was jeans and miniskirts; now it’s veils and headscarves. We think we’ve become so clothing-tolerant and yet the Battle of the Burqa of the past year shoved the old ’60s issue right back onto the political stage. Only back to front. Instead of rigid orthodoxy resisting wild youth, it was a story of orthodoxy wanting to embrace difference and reject repression but finding itself trapped between opposing hypocrisies, between repressing repression and tolerating intolerance. In Sydney, the frenzy was fed by the infamous uncovered meat comment. But it’s no longer deniable; clothing matters.
It matters in three ways: symbolic, connective and behavioural. The symbolic value of clothing applies across the board; all clothes, not just formal or religious regalia, have social, sexual and political significance.
Clothing’s second, connective, role derives from its relationship with content. Clothing is the ancient art of hiding and expressing the body at once, concealing and revealing in a single gesture. This paradox is crucial. Clothes, in screening all thoroughfare between our inner and outer worlds, protect in order to help us connect.
And the third significance of clothing is the way it modifies behaviour. This last is the simplest. As The Spectator’s Petronella Wyatt says: “I live my clothes. When I bought a designer dress last summer I did so because its ’40s style made me think of women like Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Parker or heroines out of Raymond Chandler, who spent their lives in semi-misery. As soon as I put on this dress I felt sad and wronged for two days … It was an outfit to drink gin in and then throw oneself over the nearest bridge … In Italy I bought a genuine borsalino … as soon as I touch this hat I start talking slang out of the corner of my mouth, smoking cigarettes and turning up the collar of my coat. Clothes are made to create a new identity.”
This is why we love them; clothes renew and remake us. In dressing up, or dressing down, we acquire new selves and liberate old ones. These alternative selves can be non-porous and fraudulent but more often, and more usefully, the second skin expresses an alternative truth, freeing the vulnerable self within to connect in new ways.
This is classic masking theory. From shamanism to Commedia dell’arte, from Japan’s Noh theatre to Ancient Greek tragedy, the mask does not deny or replace the wearer’s self, but provides a screen through which a new, often deeper connection between inner and outer worlds can be established. Perforation was essential not just functionally, but to the mask’s moral capacity. The Greeks believed that imitating a particular virtue helped acquire it. So the mask was a moral tool; its resounding mouthpiece, or “persona”, the essential perforation that gave its name to the mask and, later, the wearer. The 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico extended this idea, saying of the Romans, “under the person or mask of the father of the family were concealed all his children and servants”.
Leaving the paternalism aside, the mask was not a deceit but an abode, and a connective to an alternative truth; an example of Friedrich Schiller’s theorem from 1794 that “truth lives on in the illusion of art”.
Architecture, one might argue, operates the same way. The ideal house is no mere shelter but a mask, or screen, charged with protecting our soft-bodied selves so that we can connect more strongly. It does this, in part, by creating a heightened symbolic significance, an idealised self into and through which the original or “real” one can grow.
As Alain de Botton says, the best architecture – he’s thinking of houses such as Andrea Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza – becomes a repository of our ideals, an idealised self-portrait that inspires us precisely because it is idealised. Which is another reason our habit of speculating on our houses is so destructive. If a house embodies dollars merely, but not ideals, what is its symbolic message, both outwardly, and inwardly?
So the house becomes a protected arena within which we can safely remove our own social mask and be private. Traditionally, office buildings have a similar function, providing a permanent public face, or facade. This is not just ego, or pretence. It’s also a kind of public obligation, a duty to the joint project we call culture. Contemporary buildings, like contemporary clothes, bother less and less with this role, having ditched proper attire for jeans and miniskirts, followed more lately by brushed-nylon tracksuits. But at least they maintain some expressive presence in the world.
Most offensive is the burqa-clad, full-face-and-body blankness of buildings such as supermarkets and telephone exchanges. Maskless, featureless, these are the buildings of total erasure.
And it offends on all three counts: behaviourally, connectively and symbolically. In prohibiting all professional or public engagement it is a behaviour modifier equal to footbinding. In all but prohibiting exchange between inside and out it breaks the life-giving connectivity rule. And in refusing any expressive persona it implies not only the chattelisation of the wearer but a contempt for public culture that seems to deny humanity itself.