Today I want to talk about a new term I’m calling “Personitecture,” or rather, people dressed as buildings a.k.a. building mascots a.k.a. the personification of our most identifiable buildings. Architecture has a rich and intricately woven history with fashion design that seems to be ignored in academia and practice today - or at least not as celebrated as it should be. Specifically, I'm talking about the traditional "costume ball" which is popularly coined the Beaux Arts Ball after the annual celebrations held at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
The traditional Beaux Arts Ball is a fashion show that has been abused and contorted - a bit of American Idol mixed with America's Next Top Model mixed with America’s Got Talent: absurdity, elaborately contrived imagery, and a judges panel!
Wikipedia tells us: "'It is a riot, a revival of paganism, known elsewhere only in Italy. It is also, in its way, a hymn to beauty, a living explosion of the senses and the emotions,' wrote E. Berry Wall in Neither Pest Nor Puritan. Its reputation for fabulously designed nudity, louche antics, cross-dressing and high style encouraged imitators in American cities. In 1931, in New York, famous architects dressed up as their buildings and today, many American architecture schools hold similar costume balls."
Those 1931 NYC architects, in dressing up as the buildings they had designed, embraces the
spirit and personality of their buildings. Where one ornate tower was matched with precisely trimmed facial hair and added “flair,” another building lacking upper floor observation decks was matched with a costume lacking eyeholes. People and buildings became one that night. To this day the tradition of the Beaux Arts Ball and costume wearing lives on, but rarely has it ever again reached the brilliantly humorous quality of the 1931 playful parody.
Most notable recent attempts were Phillip Johnson’s 1984 Vogue Magazine cover shot wearing a hat of his own building (in tribute to NYC’s 1931 architects). Also the 2000’s Conan O’Brien mascot characters fit this category of people-buildings. Memorable appearances include a mud-wrestling match between the Seattle Space Needle and the Toronto CN Tower, and the Sears (now Willis) Tower dressed in Sears Clothing (pictured above).
We also (rarely) see people-telephone booths, people-monuments, and building-people. To this date, it seems logical to say all of personitecture has been purely focused on structures that are widely loved - exhibiting nostalgic and/or place-defining characteristics - and continue to define our society today. Well, at Mockitecture, we question all of the rest of the world’s buildings. The iconographic buildings that are HATED by the people forced to pass by them daily. The anti-buildings, or non-uments of our day could be typified by the hastily made suburban McMansion home, or the billboard looming over the sidewalk on your walk to work. Add to this category brutalist concrete behemoths (my apologies, Owen), underwhelming mobile homes, and vacant/blighted factories and you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to rebrand the city – to make popular the very objects which are so hated by the public. These underwhelming buildings can be celebrated as personable follies of our time, encouraging the public to change their hatred into envy.
The other month, I constructed a replica of
Cincinnati’s infamous Crosley Tower. This is a massive brutalist tower/skyscraper – the first of its kind that I know of - is a monument to the brutalism movement of modern architecture. My building-mascot personifies the giant concrete building as a droopy-eyed, clumsy character unable to fit through most regular-sized walkways.
My very own building-mascot ran in a famed “Mascot Race” (borrowed from Milwaukee’s famous Sausage-themed Mascot Race) during an annual architecture event at the University of Cincinnati. The performance was an attempt to regain the spirit of the 1931 Beaux Arts Ball, and to engage the public in a dialogue regarding their (unexceptional) built environment.
Hopefully we’ll see more people dressed as buildings to come. After all, who can’t love a cheerful detached car garage shed, or a nuclear power plant man sporting sunglasses and bushy hair made of a cloud of pollution? The opportunities to celebrate and ritualize our ridiculously unexceptional buildings are endless. I'm sure Bad British Architecture would agree with me.