Building frocks

The distinction between art and fashion has become blurred. Now architects are moving into the game.

I live in Princeton, New Jersey, across the street from a house designed by the postmodern architect Michael Graves. The home of our neighbours Mel and Ruth Schulman, or the Schulman House, as it is known in architectural circles, is a former plain wooden structure redesigned by Graves with a portico and false facade, and painted in 17 colours keyed to the symbolic meanings of its entrances, windows, steps and other spaces. Occasionally, a tour bus of Japanese architecture students stops to have a reverent look, or a shelter magazine comes to take pictures. The neighbourhood has become quite proud of its architectural status symbol, even though Graves is strict about landscaping changes, and sometimes we wish there were a garden in front of it.

As Dietmar M Steiner argues in the architectural design publication Fashion + Architecture (Academy/John Wiley, 2000), buildings have always been expressions of lifestyle, fashion and status, with their meanings protected by architects; and when Le Corbusier photographed his houses, he carefully chose the appropriate cars to be parked outside them. But today interiors and exteriors alike have become extensions of architectural identity. Sometimes when the House has been photographed, the Schulmans' comfortable furniture has been replaced with objects trucked in from New York stores considered to be more aesthetically congruent with the exterior.

Moreover, the line between the art gallery, museum and shop is being blurred. These days, Graves has his own boutique in Princeton which sells his upscale home designs, including teapots and tapestries. The hugely successful chain superstore Target (which even the lowliest bargain-hunters refer to in the ironic French style as "Tar-jay") features a huge line of Graves-designed housewares in his trademark blue and white: toasters, loo brushes, dusters, spatulas, shampoo dispensers, picture frames, vases. We can all feel the satisfaction of knowing that somewhere on my street, there's a little bit of Michael Graves.

On the other hand, Graves has so far been unable to redesign the Schulmans. They remain stubbornly traditional rather than postmodern, and have not been replaced by Kate Moss and Brad Pitt, or re-outfitted in Prada and Rei Kawakubo. But, if the current trend towards the amalgamation of art, architecture, fashion and retail continues, that too may change. According to the architectural critic Martin Pawley, architecture is moving in the direction of total fashion, with ambitions to enclose our identities completely. For the new architecture, we are where we live. As Pawley writes, buildings which used to be heavy and solid shapes now aspire to the "enclosure of space by means of the thinnest and most translucent skin imaginable", just as fashion is no longer about construction but about bodies enclosed "by the thinnest and most translucent skins, just like buildings". Yet the more subtle and flexible the skins, the more tightly they cling, like Marcel Marceau's famous mime of the man stuck in a mask.

The latest step in the amalgamation of fashion and architecture is the trend for celebrated artists and firms to design stores. "Shopping," writes Catherine Milner in Tatler - and who should know better? - "is taking on a new life as a cultural activity with the same standing as spending an afternoon at Tate Modern." Indeed, she believes, shopping is no longer just a pleasurable activity, but a quest for aesthetic images and brands that extend beyond clothing labels and logos to bricks, mortar, paint and lighting, and to the brand name of the architect as well. Retail design, ranging from minimalist boutiques of white surfaces, mirrors and glass to spectacular mega-malls and shopping centres displaying artworks, is becoming a tourist attraction for design aficionados, as well as a status symbol for consumers seeking to disguise the naked appeal of the buy.

This sounds like a terrible prospect to me. I am all in favour of making museums as relaxing, entertaining and inviting as the best stores. I am very taken by the new catalogue from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is selling inexpensive dresses based on its paintings. (Check out the Milton Avery.) But while cultural life can be made more pleasant by bringing retailing to the museum, I am not at all convinced that it works the other way around. When shopping becomes an elite art form, you have to dress up for it, and bone up for it. You have to know that the jeans ad is shot in front of Peter Zumthor's thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, and that Future Systems does the surreal design for the Milanese fashion company Marni. You have to put up with the most alienating environments - cast iron, cold surfaces. Take even Rem Koolhaas's model for the new Prada emporium in LA, with its display counter that resembles an airport luggage conveyor belt (is this reference to our worst contemporary consumer experience meant to be witty?). Or the Win a Cow Free fashion outlet in Tokyo that parodies Damien Hirst by displaying cold-storage meat carcasses. Worst of all, in my experience, a minimalist space, with the shoes laid out like sculptures, tends to mean minimalist service.

I am more inclined to the concept of shopping as what the architectural historian Iain Borden disdainfully calls "retailment" - the combination of shopping, entertainment and leisure in planned environments (Bluewater), or even individual stores (TopShop, NikeTown). Borden describes such stores as "shops without shopping", advertisements for shopping, clubs of commerce which provide "short-term and multiple memberships in the city", rather than places to buy goods. (Maybe such stores should even have their own gift shops, in which you actually buy things you have seen.) To Borden, a place like Bluewater is really a fake city, "internalised, predictable, controlled, safe and sterile", and he much prefers risky, counter-cultural spaces such as the punk boutique Sex on the King's Road in the 1970s, the monocoque aluminium tunnel entrance into the Comme des Garcons store in New York, or the Katherine Hamnett store located in an old garage.

But I suspect that Borden does little serious shopping himself. And for those of us who do, the spectre of high-concept, architectural retail suggests that we have to change ourselves to fit the space, rather than demanding that the space adapt to our needs. Michael Graves has not yet redesigned Target itself, and I hope he keeps his postmodern mitts off the place. It's a vast unchic box, with all the goods on display on open shelves; a nice big ladies' room; a snack bar; and lots of check-out counters. I wouldn't want it to have classical references, artful lighting or sacred portals, let alone a tunnel entrance. While the trend for architecture and fashion to merge may work on Bond Street or Madison Avenue, and amuse the dilettante shoppers of Shoreditch or South Beach, it would be a nuisance to have my shopping trolley bumping into fibreglass pillars and sliding off display islands. I don't notice many women's names on the lists of celebrated architects producing these new designs. Is that just coincidence?

Elaine Showalter's Inventing Herself (Picador) is published this summer

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo