Temple Rome Tracy Huang

Uncommon Merit

Picture of Via dei Condotti, the “5th Ave” of Rome

While at Temple Rome, I have had a reprieve from my normal engineering schedule at Duke, and it has been wonderful!  I am following the news more, exploring ideas that have taken a backseat to labs and formulas, and enjoying la dolce vita!  Two passions of mine have always been architecture and fashion, and since I am in Italy, what better time than now to examine the most famous fashion houses in the world?  Walking down Via dei Condotti (equal to the 5th Ave of New York City), one is accosted by an enormous amount of luxury—from the thousand dollar Prada purses to the equally costly MaxMara coats.  And yet, I have found that this world is also a haven for artists attempting to express their thoughts on a far-reaching level.  Wandering around Rome, I am beginning to realize how blurry the line between architecture, fashion, and art has become.  For instance, Italian fashion house, Prada sought to elevate its status by calling upon the help of renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in designing runway, exhibition, and retail spaces.  Most notably, Miuccia Prada asked Koolhaas to make her stores “more interesting;” thereby resulting in the company’s Soho (New York City) location.  Apparently though, the Soho epicenter, Prada’s way of expanding into a new, younger market, is a huge failure.  The progressive architecture overwhelms customers and elevates Prada’s products to such a lofty height that revenue is far behind that of Prada’s 5th Ave location.  In this case, the fusion of fashion and architecture did not reap such fortunate results.  When I window shop along Via dei Condotti, I see how architects and fashion houses are undertaking increasing collaborations in order to offer products of higher artistic merit to society.  Yet, I am finding that the parasitic relationship between these two disciplines and their lack of vernacular or societal contributions has ignited much criticism.  Going back to my time in Venice at the Biennale, director David Chipperfield’s words echo in my mind. With the theme of “Common Ground,” the London-based designer urged architects to address the 99% of the rest of the world that impressive “one-off projects” like opera houses, theatres, and museums fail to serve.  Furthermore, Crimson Architectural Historians organized an exhibit entitled, “The Banality of Good: New Towns, Architects, Money, Politics,” in which the group cited specific examples of problems that have arisen ever since architects have begun disappearing from the master planning phase of facilities and housing for the greater good; instead favoring the comfort and celebrity status that come along with aesthetic consultancy and the design of commercial icons.  Taking into consideration the economic downturn of first the United States and then the European Union, more and more people are forced to survive on less and less.  Furthermore, the increasing political and socioeconomic upheaval in Africa and the Middle East has inspired sympathy and awareness for the 99% in all nations.  With these trends, I think it seems unlikely that society will care about the next architectural or cultural wonder of the world.

Sign for the Biennale’s theme, “Common Ground,” in Venice, Italy. Coined by David Chipperfield.

Questioning the rationalism of placing artistry above human life and the benefits of elevating fashion to the point of alienation, society will free architects, willingly or not, from commercial ventures in the hopes that they concentrate their talents in making a meaningful contribution to the physical world.  Just my two cents, but we will soon see what the future has in store!  (no pun intended)

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