Gene Sherman on exploring architecture and fashion as forms of cultural expression
by Jincy IypeNov 04, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Nov 22, 2022
A deep-seated paradox lies at the heart of architectural programming in our contemporary world. Unlike other realms of creation–design, art, and all their intersections and overlaps, including fashion, and even film, architecture seemingly isn’t mobile enough to be ‘carried’ over to exhibitions and displays. It’s often visual imagery or evocations that travel, representative of the architecture in question. The pedagogy, the implication, is either supposed to follow or is imperative. Even then, however, it struggles for visibility, access, and action. I am reminded of a conversation in this context, from earlier this year, with the co-founder and curator of 'The World Around Summit,' Beatrice Galilee, on the severe lack of architectural programming on a global stage, and the dire need for that programming to radically reinvent the way architecture is presented away from its context, and its literal and pedagogical foundation. In a number of ways, this strand of thought might even assume primaeval proportions to go back to the modernist debate of architectural representation using photography, and the claims that it inevitably alters the offering and its perception, never quite fully embodying what the architecture, situated in its place and time, has to offer.
The question then persists–can its juxtaposition with other disciplines help improve that visibility, or add to the discourse? Additionally, in a time of internationalism, can conversations across borders contribute to its agency? Being in attendance over two extended weekends of the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas’ Fashion and Architecture Hubs at the Design Museum in London helped me frame these questions and thoughts, with a curated set of talks and symposiums orientated toward adding to this discussion. There are obviously no easy answers, nor one-glove-fits-all solutions–only steps that further the impetus. The SCCI x Design Museum hubs, with an admittedly heavier focus on the realm of fashion, nonetheless, remain a testament that we could do with lesser labels and borders if at all an initiation in that direction needs to be made; and those remain my key takeaways from the gala-like event.
In the context of the talks that brought together a mix of eclectic talent, industry and thought leaders, practicians, and academics from the continent-nation of Australia and the United Kingdom, here in London, I found the usage of the term ‘hub’ to describe the congregations particularly interesting. Myriad topics ranging from history to politics to the future—all invariably tied, and with the present appreciably only a rendezvous point—were discussed, debated, and pondered upon, with an obvious urgency dedicated to the need for more sustainable initiatives. Like everything SCCI, Dr Gene Sherman’s presence at the talks was a driver of revelations, provocations, and the occasional snickers from the audience, at once galvanizing and energizing this creative confluence across hemispheres. Speaking to STIR, just last week, in an interview on the importance of philanthropy, cultural landscapes, and institutions, and storytelling in our creative disciplines—a sentiment she fully echoed through the two weekends. The undertone that the hubs were Sherman’s swan song, with her stepping down from any major public appearances for the foreseeable future, earmarked the events and the informal receptions that followed.
While the overall curation remained exciting and variable over scales, forms, and disciplines, often pitting practitioners with vastly contrasting ‘styles’ in conversations, making for interesting peeks into their endeavours, inspirations, and precursors, the conversations that I inherently found more interesting were those that made Australia unique in the canon of Western forethought, despite being in neither of the hemispheres that our communal creative narrative still finds itself transfixed upon. A developed nation with one of the most powerful and resilient economies in the world, with much of its socio-cultural fabric akin to the UK, owing to it being a former British colony of settlement and not mere conquest, Australia still faces the geographical and climatic ramifications of global acceleration quite differently. Much like the UK, Australia’s increasingly metropolitan social fabric is influenced by migration. Added to that, its rich aboriginal and indigenous history and culture, which still survives and thrives. It continues to remain aptly and impressively adapted, and subsequently manifested through architecture and fashion, all bound by the theme ‘Who Are We Now?’ under-current of the 2021-22 UK/Australia season, culminating in December this year.
The series of talks over the weekend(s) received a vibrant, energetic kick off in renowned body architect, artist, and futurist Lucy McRae’s keynote address, who explored the etymology of her style and works as a ‘body architect,' the relevance of labels, and how she prefers shunning them, coupled with her completely radical thoughts on biotech and 'fashioning the future self.' Her recent work at 2021’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Heavy Duty Love, received massive acclaim, and expounded in relevance in the wake of the pandemic, while McRae shifts mediums to completely new terrain for her new work as a consultant on a new Blade Runner project. The keynote ended with a screening of her provocative albeit sensual short film, Delicate Spells of Mind, revealing yet another facet of McRae’s multifarious work, marking an imperfect but fitting collude between the two disciplines defining the event.
From within the fashion weekend, Art & Fashion and Communities, Craft & Commerce came to be definite standouts. The former—a conversation between Alex Seton, an artist and sculptor with a near brutalist sensibility, and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, an interdisciplinary artist with Sri Lankan roots and an aesthetic drenched in colour and irrefutable cultural texture—was a testament to the power that curation may wield in modern programming. The latter—a panel discussion between artists and designers Grace Lilian Lee, Teagan Cowlishaw, Florence Jaukae Kamel, and Caroline Sherman, moderated by Philip Fimmano of Trend Union/ Studio Edelkoort—was an inspiring coming together of drivers of a ‘parallel fashion movement’ through indigenous crafts and ethical engagement with local populations, with impeccable apparel in intricate weaves marking the cycling scenography for this panel. Lee was a particularly impassioned, spirited speaker, fierce in her criticism of the government's lack of support, fair representation, and the perils of being trailblazers in indigenous fashion.
The same kind of angst and lament carried over to the Architecture Hub the following weekend, and suitably so, for the more issue-laden discipline. As a result, perhaps, the talks and panels this time around were much more sombre, much more contemplative. Beginning with a fitting summation of how far Australian architecture has come, Professor Cameron Bruhn, Dean at the School of Architecture, The University of Queensland, presented his book MMXX: Two Decades of Architecture in Australia, serving as a compendium of the best of Australian building in the 21st century, and a step in charting a semblance of a style for a national architecture for an entity as diverse, both climatically and socially, as Australia. Bruhn’s book appreciably includes homes and remarkable residential architecture alongside institutional and commercial, monumental structures in this charting, reflectors of Australia’s simultaneously urban and rural architectural aspirations.
Bruhn further moderated a regionally itinerant panel conversation, The Regional Reimagined, bringing together Andrew Burns, founder of Andrew Bruns Architecture, Ka Wai Yeung, Kaunitz Yeung Architecture, and Phillip Nielsen, architect and co-director of Regional Design Service, to explore how regional Australia became the new haven for major infrastructural developments in the country, providing the necessary impetus for a lot of what we may call quintessentially Australian architecture today, driven by the regional and aboriginal fused with an incumbent internationalism. As a parallel to the closing panel for the Fashion Hub weekend in spirit and urgency, Private Lives and Public Spaces pitted Mark Jacques, urban designer, landscape designer, and founder of Openwork, with Nikos Kalogeropoulos, director and co-owner of Molonglo Group, in the Architecture weekend’s penultimate talk moderated by Dolla Merrillees. Advocating for sensitive densification, the conversation traversed myriad topics including real estate, home ownership, urban exodus, and thresholds to press on real praxis issues in social housing today.
Put together, the talks and panels curated for the two SCCI x Design Museum hubs serve to question the status quo and current position on a nationalistic sentiment in architecture and design, in a time of increased internationalisation and homogeneity, a continual search for identity, and indigenous methods and crafts emerging as renegade markers in that debate, set against the backdrop of international collaboration.
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