“Like Abloh, architects can take these conceptual and sensorial aspects – the effect – explored in art of adding a second skin to something familiar and create a piece of design, of architecture, of not only effect, but of use and function also.”
WRAPPING AS A METHOD OF ARCHITECTURAL “CUSTOMIZATION”
Fashion has always thrived on collaborations, finding new forms and approaches in the creative intersection between itself and different disciplines. Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist ‘Shoe Hat’ in collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1937; the punk aesthetic forged by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the late 1970s; the Zaha Hadid designed bag for Louis Vuitton in 2006 and Prada backpack by Rem Koolhaas in 2018. Art, Music, or Architecture providing new ways of approaching the eternal need to clothe and furnish human beings.
Recently, this spirit of collaboration has taken a different, more insular, form between the established fashion house and leading exponents of ‘street-style’ – a concept which allows the styles of the street (and not the exclusive domain of the design studio) to influence and dictate future trends. This has given birth to a new hybrid aesthetic of high and low culture; street and studio, pioneered by brands like Vetements and Ricardo Tisci. Their work is characterised by prominent logos, baggy silhouettes, and an overriding sportswear / hip-hop influence – abstracted and elevated through their high concept lens. Many established fashion houses have now aligned themselves with this new culture by shifting their ethos, such as Balenciaga and Gucci, while other brands instead favour one-off collaborations while maintaining their traditional style and markets.
A key figure of this type of collaboration is Virgil Abloh and the brand he founded in 2012 – Off-White™. Abloh takes familiar, often iconic, items – re-sampling and deconstructing them to create something new. This is evident in his collaboration with Nike where he customized classic sneakers like the Air Force One and Nike Air Max, distinctly embodying his ‘grey area’ Off-White™ aesthetic, while preserving the form and spirit of the original.
Abloh is a bricoleur, fashioning his unique ensembles from recognisable objects and whatever he has to hand. What is unique about this customization approach is that the customizer and customized retain their autonomy. Both remain distinct entities – a distinct tension and clarity is evident between the two. This customization is not a watered down compromise or an uneasy clash of differences.
This approach is apparent in the recent collaboration between Off-White™ and the footwear brand Jimmy Choo. Abloh created 9 items wrapped in tulle, quilt and plastic which aimed to “combine the young exuberance of Off-White™ and the storied elegance of Jimmy Choo”
The truest embodiment of this combination of young exuberance and storied elegance is the CLAIRE 100. These satin pumps are wrapped in a loosely ruched TPU (Thermoplastic polyurethane) – effectively a classic shoe wrapped in plastic. Rather than try and re-interpret the spirit of the shoe himself, Abloh almost remains detached from the original form. Instead preserving its’ delicacy, sweeping silhouette and exquisitely crafted details – all the qualities which create its storied elegance – by wrapping it in a transparent, industrial material. Abloh straddles the line of subversion and deference here perfectly.
This transparent wrap however is not simply a conceptual conceit created for aesthetic reasons. Instead its’ employment exhibits three key principles – Effect, Use and Function.
EFFECT / USE/ FUNCTION
The concept of wrapping was generated by Abloh’s response to the muse for the project, Princess Diana. Referencing the Disney classic Cinderella, Abloh wanted to “make a shoe that gives that Princess feeling. ‘The New Glass Slipper.’” The translucent sheen of the ruched TPU creates this ‘glass slipper’ effect but in a subversive manner, true to the street-wear DNA of his own brand.
Wrapping also transforms the use of the original pump. By extending the TPU past the top strap line, Abloh transforms the heel almost into a mid ankle boot while ensuring the original silhouette and details are maintained. The wrapping creates a new volume, and a new function, allowing it to be worn in less formal situations and provide additional ankle support.
Finally, the original pumps are satin, so not resilient to damage from wear, or adverse weather. By wrapping the shoe in a durable weatherproof material Abloh increases their durability, thus extending their life.
These three principles always tie back into the original ‘glass slipper’ concept, but also back to the minimal, street influenced aesthetic of Abloh’s own brand, Off White. More importantly, the elegance and history of the original shoe is never compromised, instead made more useful, resilient, and relevant. The Claire 100 is an icon wrapped in plastic; history wrapped.
Abloh originally studied architecture at the Mies Van der Rohe designed, Illinois Institute of Technology, which he says had a “lasting effect on his aesthetic.” I think he could in turn offer some inspiration for our approach to architecture today, specifically to the re-modelling or extension of existing buildings. With reference to his customization approach, the customizing agent, the new elements of architecture; and the customized product, the existing building, remain two distinct entities working simultaneously with and against each other creating a distinct tension and clarity between the two.
Often when architects approach existing buildings they can show too much deference. Led by over zealous planning authorities – they can tip toe around the existing structure, scrupulously imitating and infilling the existing building with inferior copies devoid of the natural materials and craft employed by their predecessors. I once worked on the renovation of an existing building where we not only instructed the re-opening of a long defunct quarry to obtain the exact same marble, we then had to stain the marble with tea (yes, tea!) to ensure it had the same extent of ‘weathering’ as adjacent existing pieces of marble in the existing building which was over 200 years old. In trying to replicate the past we disrespect not only the integrity and quality of the original building, but also our own time, our own tools, our own possibilities such that the refurbished building becomes a well-masqueraded lie.
Often too, however, architects can not show enough deference. Eager to assert their own style regardless of the qualities and nature of the existing building, the new architecture can dominate and overpower the old such that its’ original elegance and subtlety is lost in the process. This is evident in Studio Libeskind’s extension for the Royal Ontario Museum which appears as if a explosion of glass and steel had ripped through the existing building, or in Zaha Hadid’s Port House extension in Antwerp which overhangs the existing building like a dark, diagrid cloud. What is consistent in this non deferential approach is that these extensions could exist on their own as separate projects, there is no sense that both new and old have reciprocally engaged.
An alternative approach, could be the concept of what I would call, Architectural Customization. Not the concept of ‘Mass Customization’ relating to digital fabrication techniques as originally explored by Gregg Lyn, SHoP Architects and Foreign Office Architects among others, but customization as a conceptual approach to working with existing structures. Architectural Customization is not a watered down compromise or an uneasy clash of differences. Instead, it is a collaboration between the old and new. They both remain autonomous, the old retaining its original form and ‘storied elegance’; while a separate fresh aesthetic is carefully added bringing with it a ‘young exuberance’ . Both share a collaborative dialogue with each other.
One way to achieve the collaborative dialogue of Architectural Customization is in the same way the Claire 100 shoe does – by wrapping the old with the new. Use the technique of wrapping as a way to customize the existing building for effect, use and function.
Wrapping is not a new concept in architecture. The Deconstructivist movement, of the late 1980s and early 1990s, sought an architecture of disruption, dislocation and distortion by wrapping an often dissociated form around a core structure. This detachment of structure and skin, of wrapping, has continued to the present day. The work of New York office SO-IL, often involves simple, reductive structures wrapped in translucent material (be it mesh or fabric), best manifest in the enigmatic elegance of their Kukje Gallery in Seoul, 2012 or their Mini Living house prototype in Milan 2017. The office of Kirsten Geers and David Severen wrap a seamless metal mesh around the core structure at their Traditional Music Centre in Bahrain. The mesh provides shade from the desert sun, while acting as a visual filter which can also be mechanically lifted like a theatre curtain during performances. Both practices employ the wrapping of fabric in order to lend an ambiguity and softness to conclusive, solid forms.
WRAPPING AND ARCHITECTURAL CUSTOMIZATION
However, as an approach to existing buildings, of Architectural Customization, this concept remains much less ubiquitous. Yet this is a concept which has been explored in Art through the work of Christo and Jean-Claude since the 1960s. Their various projects across the globe cover recognisable, usually historic, structures in fabric. Structures such as the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, the Pont Neuf in Paris, or the Reichstag in Berlin are wrapped in an act of subversion ambiguating the solidity of their solid recognisable forms while making the building an artwork itself. The fabric becomes a second skin, something tactile, almost sensual to engage with.
The artists’ work exhibit the same subversiveness and sensoriality found in the Claire 100. Like Abloh, architects can take these conceptual and sensorial aspects – the effect – explored in art of adding a second skin to something familiar and create a piece of design, of architecture, of not only effect, but of use and function also.
There have been some recent examples of this to varying degrees of success. Hertl Architekten’s 2010 Aichinger House, Austria takes a rather perfunctory existing restaurant building, converted into apartments, and wraps it externally in a grey fabric which can be drawn like curtains. A direct descendant of the work of Jean Claude and Christo, the use of material provides an arresting visual aesthetic, almost of rippled concrete, best exhibited in the teasing glances it gives of the existing building. However, the new wrapping does not engage with the function of the building by creating new spaces or moments between old and new; nor does the idea of having to open a window to then reach out and draw an external curtain every time a user wishes to allow in or block out sunlight seem particularly useful. The wrapping is an albeit successful way to mask, animate and ambiguate the aesthetic of the existing building.
Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter’s unbuilt proposals for the Wadden Sea World Heritage Partnership Center in Wilhelmshaven, Germany uses wrapping as a way for the new architecture to engage functionally and usefully with the existing. An existing WWII concrete bunker is used as an ‘anchoring point’ around which to wrap a glazed screen which is transparent at ground level and semi-opaque at the upper four levels. Functionally, this allows an events and exhibition space to inhabit the enclosed space around the existing building, while allowing it to remain visible from across the site and protecting it from the elements. However, one of the defining features of the existing Naval bunker – an almost sculptural lookout tower is obscured as the external wrapping changes from transparent to semi opaque. The complete form isn’t revealed giving the external impression of it being simply a concrete circulation core rather than an important relic of recent history. Here the effect seems negated by the needs of the buildings use and function.
Perhaps the boldest and truest reflection of Abloh’s customization concept in architecture is Sanaa’s 2011 proposal for the iconic Parisian department store, La Samaritaine. The original Art Nouveau building, a listed Historic Monument, is cloaked in a semi transparent, undulating glass wrapper along its primary Rue de Rivoli elevation. This serves to give the effect of not only de-materialising the buildings’ monumental scale and heavy stone facade but also softening and illuminating it. The wrapping combines with the ‘storied elegance’ of the existing building – shrouding it in a new, modern identity, to use Abloh’s term, of ‘young exuberance’. Functionally, the wrapping creates an interstitial space between old and new; street and building – establishing a new connective threshold. The wrapping also has a use in the preservation of the existing building, protecting many of the existing and refurbished delicate stone and ironwork details from the elements.
ARCHITECTURAL CUSTOMIZATION: EFFECT, USE AND FUNCTION
This proposal is an act of Architectural Customization which, through wrapping, allows both existing and new to exist autonomously, but create new spaces, futures and aesthetics when combined. Wrapping as a means of creating a new effect, enhanced functionality and use.
Our historic buildings need not be preserved in aspic, slavishly in-filled with inferior materials and techniques; nor should they be overpowered and disrespected. Instead through Architectural Customization, and the technique of wrapping, we can carefully add our own aesthetic, our own values, our own methods while preserving and enhancing the old. To paraphrase Abloh, allow the ‘storied elegance’ of our built history to reciprocally engage with the ‘young exuberance’ of its’ built future.