27 November 2009

Rock and Liberty

Açalya Klyak

Speaking bluntly, there are not many significant differences in the construction of the classically draped Liberty Statue and Frank Gehry's recent buildings.


Clothing is an area of concern that modern architects often dealt with, referred to in their writings and made direct comparisons with architecture. Similarly, tailors, fashion designers and editors talk about the 'construction' of clothes, which begins with flat patterns and becomes three-dimensional after a series of operations, i.e. cutting, sewing, and stitching. However, drapery is a word rarely mentioned in architectural discourse.
What exactly is a drapery? Basically it is a piece of cloth. It is the simplest method of clothing. It can be hung or laid over the body without cutting or sewing the material. A drapery can be made from either one rectangular piece of cloth or several cloths of various sizes, having no form by itself. It moves freely with the positions and movements of the body and it behaves differently according to the thickness of the cloth. In antiquity, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans used clothing of this kind.


The representation of the draped body, associated with luxury, wealth, and nobility, has been a widespread theme in fine arts for centuries. Yet, compared to sculpture or painting, the rendering of drapery in architecture is quite rare. One notable example is the 151 feet tall and 225 tons of Liberty wearing a green copper drapery, designed in 1880s by the French Neoclassical sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi in direct imitation of antiquity.
The Statue of Liberty is habitable; unlike other statues, its skin encloses an interior space. Her loose copper drapery is hung over the armatures placed on her iron skeleton, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The inner surface of Liberty's copper skin and the iron skeleton are not intended to be visually connected. This uncanny conjunction is also a part of the visitor's experience. Bartholdi conceived Liberty entirely in terms of its outer contours. After settling the final form in a clay model, it was enlarged to a full-scale set of plaster fragments in his Paris workshop. Following the contours of the plaster, massive wooden moulds are built. And then thin copper sheets (2.5 millimetres in thickness) are forced into shape of the moulds by hammering. The copper panels are fastened together, hung on the iron skeleton and eventually present her webbed 'skin'.

Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, opened in June 2000, was the first large-scale Gehry building after Bilbao. EMP is a music museum, dedicated to the memory of the Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix, thanks to the cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen's love of rock music and his 240 million dollars.
The museum's webpages explain that EMP's structure symbolises the energy and fluidity of music; while an electric guitar is the source of inspiration. One can imagine Gehry, a classical music fan, going to the guitar store in the neighbourhood and buying several electric guitars. After taking the guitars back to his office to examine, Gehry ends up being inspired only by their shiny finish. EMP shimmers in vivid red, purple, blue, gold, and silver, dominating the Seattle convention area.

Strictly speaking, in the complete monograph of Gehry, only one section and a few plan drawings if EMP appear. There is an obvious reason: try to imagine the difficulty of describing the building by means of conventional drawings. The traditional plan, elevation, and section are no longer employed by Gehry. Building EMP from orthogonal drawings would be nearly impossible. In a similar instance, Robin Evans wrote that in Scharoun's Philharmonie project construction workers confronted serious difficulties in setting out the foundations. Only after taking large-scale sections at very closely spaced intervals across the breadth of the building, could workers continue to build. To describe EMP one would need to chop the building into billions of thin slices. Instead of this burdensome task, Gehry's office employed a digital three-dimensional model as the single source of information for the entire project. Working with a wire frame model of the exterior surface of the building, EMP is conceived from outside in, not unlike the Statue of Liberty. The way in which EMP is constructed also presents similarities with Liberty. Gehry begins with a study model. Once he decides on the final form, the model is digitised and scaled to full-size in the computer environment. At this stage one can experience the building constructed virtually in three-dimensions. The software, acting like a weaving program, allows the three-dimensional forms to be charted two-dimensionally. In a method similar to tailoring, cutting machines produce each shape from flat sheets of metal.

One can speculate that L. William Zahner, the head of a steel company in Kansas City, Missouri, is equally a tailor. Working directly from the digital model provided by Gehry, Zahner's firm produced the nearly 4,000 panels that form the exterior skin of EMP. Each panel holds about seven shingles that have a unique shape and size, tailored to fit exactly in its designed location and each panel is woven together in situ. As a result, the building's surface looks like a patterned drapery. Consider the time, energy, and amount of money spent in draping the metal shingles over the EMP's structure. Given the materiality and weight of the building, rendering of a drapery is not an easy task.

What one sees in EMPs drapery is the representation of technology. The other representation beneath the glossy surface is the unlimited budget of the client. It seems that drapery continues to suggest luxury and wealth as it did in art for centuries. Recall the practice of depicting drapery in European Renaissance paintings linked to the rise of rich merchant families. There was no purpose for depicting drapery in those paintings other than 'to take delight in the way it looks'. It is also interesting to note that over-draped fabrics were derided by reformers in the nineteenth century because it was believed that they just represent 'a millionaire's notion of the pretty and nothing more'.

Anne Hollander, writing on the role of drapery in art, explains the concept of drapery as 'something which while it conceals, yet confers an extra ennobling or decorative dimension upon the essentially wretched and silly human form'. The question of what is behind the drapery in EMP comes to mind. Drapery directs one's attention to the presentation of the object, but what happens if the drapery becomes the main subject displayed? Unlike the Statue of Liberty, EMP is a museum — the structure is not its only material presence. The museum website tries to put the content forward: 'If you think its wild on the outside, just wait until you get inside. There you will find interactive exhibits, rare artefacts and a one-of-a-kind ride!' Paying $20 to get inside, rather than stopping at the exterior skin, is their aim.

The many connotations of drapery, luxury, excess, concealment and display seem unintentionally appropriate for EMP. The surface is almost a fetish. Although it appears as a loose drape laid over the structure, it is uniquely tailored, an expensive, shiny, boozy dress ready for a rock concert. Versace for buildings.

Of the statue and its structure, see Marvin Trachtenberg. The Statue of Liberty. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1976. p 119-50 Repoussé is an ancient technique (i.e. Greek bronzes, made of hammered sheets of metal), revived in many nineteenth-century large-scale architectural and sculptural projects, ibid., 121. Robin Evans. The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995. p 120-1 Anne Hollander, 'The Fabric of Vision: The Role of Drapery in Art' Georgia Review 29 (1975): 431. Gen Doy. Drapery: Classicism and Barbarism in Visual Culture. London, New York: IB Tauris, 2002. p 11 Anne Hollander. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking Press, 1978. p 15

Açalya Klyak. ''Rock and Liberty'
On Site review, no. 9 Spring 2003
©Açalya Klyak and On Site review

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