Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, Taku Sakaushi, Hirohisa Henmi, Nobuo Iwashita, Daiki Amanai, Yu Kishi, Hong-Yea Wu, trs., Tokyo: Kajima Press, 2021
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Japan, No.80, pp.128-132, March 2023
More than a quarter of a century has passed since one of Mark Wigley’s major works,White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995) was published, and now we finally have a complete Japanese translation. This reviewer is pleased to announce that, after five years of hard work, a team of six translators led by Taku Sakaushi has finally made this large book of over 400 pages available in Japanese.
White Wall is obviously Wigley’s second monograph after The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993). However, the latter is a theoretical book that neither introduces any architectural works nor showcases a single illustration. In it, one can see the image of a theoretician fed up with the misguided fever of architectural deconstructivism that followed the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988), curated by him and Philip Johnson. As the author himself stated, his motive for writing this book was more or less to serve as a retrospective.
In contrast, White Walls is driven by positive emotions. One might dare to say that, for all intents and purposes, this work represents the real debut of Wigley as an architectural historian, by giving form to his newfound research interests in a new research environment after becoming a resident scholar at the Chicago Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning (1989). The reader cannot help but be overwhelmed by the pioneering and wide-ranging nature of the topics covered, as well as the experimental approaches he has taken as a writer, which he has applied to the comprehensive design of White Walls. Likewise, his arrangement of chapters, words, and illustrations, as well as their mutual relationships, is uncompromising. After a considerable amount of work, he has completed a creative work that is rife with multilayered meanings. Wigley has truly dedicated his thirties to this book.
Yet just from the table of contents alone, we can see that this book is open to multiple readings. To begin with, it is crucial to review the reception of Wigley’s writings in Japan, as well as some of the assumptions that were made during the formation of this translated work.
It is generally thought that it was only after the 2000s that Wigley’s writings came to the attention of Japanese readers. Although Wigley was well known as the curator of the aforementioned exhibition, his own books and essays had rarely been introduced in translated form until recently. The only exception is the translation of White Walls by Tsuyoshi Matsuhata in the chapter “Deep Skin,” released immediately after its original publication (10+1 10, August 1997). However, Network Practices: New Strategies in Architecture & Design (Anthony Burke and Therese Tierney, eds., Takashi Yamaguchi, tr., Kajima Press) was published in Japanese in 2014, followed by Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Haruki Makio, tr., BNP) in 2017, and thus Wigley’s lineup of Japanese translations is starting to expand rapidly.
It was also around 2016 that Taku Sakaushi—one of the translators of White Walls and the initiator of the translation project—became aware of the existence and significance of this book. Therefore this translation project can be considered as a particularly ‘Japanese’ phenomenon, situated within the recent trend of Wigley’s reception in a national context. The fact that White Walls has now been translated into Japanese may be a sign that the issues that Wigley addressed more than a quarter of a century ago are becoming more widely recognized in Japan.
The various issues addressed in White Walls were each ahead of their time in the period in which he was working on this book.
This book exposes the contradictory reality of modern architectural discourse, which regarded “clothing” and “fashion” as virtual enemies of the universal qualities of architecture, and yet was founded—and depended—on the very underlying structure of this dual antagonism. In this way, the book reveals the fact that the paradigm of modern architectural aesthetics itself has been affected by the logic of “clothing.” The book therefore presents a wealth of examples of references to clothing in architectural discourse from roughly the late 19th century to the 1930s. One of the difficulties in translating the book into Japanese was the difficulty of differentiating between “fashion” as ‘clothing’ (in the sense of ‘cover’ or ‘coating’) and “fashion” as ‘vogue’ or ‘trend’ in general. The translator carefully differentiates the two meanings with the use of ruby (i.e., a glossing method used in Japanese language that consists of placing small letters at the top of a given word so as to convey its original meaning or pronunciation), which ends up clearing some of the haze that plagued readers of the original English text. This precision contributes to the readability of the translated version.
From the onset, the sub-theme of “clothing” immediately leads us to the issue of women’s absence from modern architectural historiographies, or rather the seemingly arbitrary concealment of women’s activities in them. If we overturn the facade of so-called ‘authentic histories’ depicted by men, with men as the main protagonists, it becomes clear that women’s activities in the development of modern architectural thought cannot be ignored. By pulling down the mask of historiographies that place their value on masculinity in architecture and tacitly regard femininity as a foe, the true visage comes to the fore, showing that neither the opposition between architectural gender constructs, nor the definition of gender itself was self-evident or fixed.
The aforementioned ‘arbitrary’ historiographies—produced by modern architectural historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner and Siegfried Giedion—which have overlooked the issues of clothing, fashion, color, and especially that of the “white walls,”—tantamount to a calling card for modernist architecture—are treated as a so-called ‘post-history’ in White Walls, and in this regard, there was no lack of effort towards collecting historical documents.
Among the architectural historians involved in this post-history, only Rayner Banham seems to have escaped Wigley’s censure, because in his Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), Banham was the first to cast a light on Le Corbusier’s forgotten work L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925); and in another of his written works, Banham shifted away from a saint-like view of Le Corbusier, thus proclaiming him as a “master of the fashion of his time.” By following in the footsteps of Banham’s problematizing approach, Wigley’s White Walls is fully determined to establish the historiography of modern architecture as a form of empirical study. The fact that L’Art décoratif—which Banham focused on, especially the chapter “Law of Ripolin”—is regarded as the guiding principle of White Walls as a whole can be taken as an indication of Wigley’s will to follow in the footsteps of Banham’s achievement.
In the background of such a complex narrative that ties together a wide range of issues within the history of architecture, we cannot ignore the blossoming of studies concerning Gottfried Semper in the English-speaking world during that period, as well as the growing interest in his theories of architectural cladding. Among the publications contemporaneous to White Walls we find, for example, Harry Francis Mallgrave’s Gottfried Semper: Architect of the Nineteenth Century (1996). Wigley’s reference to Semper in White Walls was mainly indebted to the 1989 translation of The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, co-translated by Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann. It was this reconsideration of Semper that inspired Wigley to bring in sub-themes normally found outside of architecture, such as clothing, into the history of architecture. It is the referencing of Semper’s theory as a “pre-history” that provides the central axis and impetus for Wigley’s orientation towards interdisciplinary research.
As such, White Walls addresses an unexplored theme and brings to the forefront countless figures who had not yet been in the limelight. For this reason, it is necessary to reconstruct as much as possible the collective history of modern architectural discourse in Europe, especially in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, from the late 19th century to the mid-1930s, based on the testimonies of its actual participants. This work is a challenging one that brings forth many polemic issues against the historiography of modern architecture, but Wigley does not stop at merely raising such issues; he consulted a wide range of sources in many languages in order to weave this story together. As a result, the vast number of endnotes were not included in the translated book, but can be accessed on a server via a QR code. In fact, this is one of the book’s most enjoyable features, as the lengthy quotations from important essays can be enjoyed as an anthology in themselves. The bibliography serves as a compass for dating his original narratives, which sometimes jump from period to period.
In order to present a complete picture, Wigley refers to chapters as “Takes,” which he likens to filming a movie. The following table of contents lists the number of characters in each “Take” (with the total number of characters in parentheses, and the number of new characters in brackets) and the number of new characters in each chapter section, serving as a reference for reading this ensemble drama.
【TABLE OF CONTENTS】
Re-reading Modern Architecture by Taku Sakaushi
Take 1 The Naked King（8［7］）
［Introduction］（1）／The Look of Modernity（1）／The Clothing of Space（5）／Prosthetic Fabrications（0）／Architecture after the Eye（1）
Take 2 The Fashion Police（14［12］）
［Introduction］（1）／Pedigreed Watchdogs（10）／Closet Operatives（3）
Take 3 Scratching the Surface（41［29］）
［Introduction］（1）／Building Modern Clothing（15）／The Architects’ Dresses（18）／Dressing Down the Feminine（7）
Take 4 Redressing Architecture（44［22］）
［Introduction］（0）／Unsecuring the Line（16）／Arresting the Fashion Police（16）／Disciplining the Surface（5）／Anyone for Tennis?（7）
Take 5 The Antifashion Fashion（33［17］）
［Introduction］（1）／The Architecture of Antifashion Dress（17）／Fitting Architecture into the Type-Suit（7）／From Mode to Modern and Back（8）
Take 6 White Lies（34［10］）
［Introduction］（0）／The Fashion for Reform（18）／Putting on the White Coat（7）／Just Looking, Thanks（2）／Purifying Fashion（8）
Take 7 Deep Skin（15［8］）
［Introduction］（3）／Blinding Color（9）／Delirious White（1）／Beyond the Cream Jug（2）
Take 8 Machine-Age Wallpaper（15［9］）
［Introduction］（1）／Recounting White Cells（12）／Dressing up the Nomad（2）／Window Shopping（0）
Take 9 Sexual Charges（16［7］）
［Introduction］（7）／Coral Fingertips（7）／Tormented by Skin（2）
Take 10 Whiteout（83［46］）
［Introduction］（2）／Color-Blindness（32）／Outmoded Suits（3）／Colored History（27）／Naturalizing White（6）／Nudism Dress（7）／Returning to the Surface（6）／After-all（0）
Annotated Bibliography by Hirohisa Hemmi
As a whole, the book is an ensemble drama featuring a total cast of more than 180 characters. Wigley’s mastery in organizing the story lies in the way he distributes the characters. In the beginning of the book, only the main characters are introduced, and new characters from take 3 onward are limited to about half of the total number of characters present in the same take.
The order in which the topics are presented in the takes makes it easy to understand Wigley’s consideration for the process of reading through the book as a whole. Take 1 presents Le Corbusier, L’Art décoratif, and the theme of ‘whiteness’ as its main points of criticism. In Take 2, the hypothetical foe of historiography, Giedion, and the theme of ‘fashion’ avoidance are added. The ensemble performance begins with Take 3, which features the practice of (women’s) dressmaking by male architects from German-speaking countries. Take 4 addresses the discourse around ‘dressing’ and the architectural practice of (male) dressing. Take 5 builds on the previous two takes to explore the theory and practice of women on the same theme.
It is not until Take 6 that the premise, along with other subthemes, comes into play and the complex issues posed by ‘white walls’ come to the fore. In this take, the architectural practice of using white in the 1900s (prior to Le Corbusier) is discussed. Since Le Corbusier made use of actual ‘pure white’ architecture—in a literal sense—in only one of his buildings, Take 7 begins with this point and moves on to a discussion of his relationship between ‘white’ and ‘color.’ Take 8 explores the primary influences behind Le Corbusier’s turn to ‘color’. In Take 9, we read about various aspects of sexual desire in relation to ‘color’ in Le Corbusier’s ‘white,’ the sign of rationality. In Take 10, the final chapter, we trace the process by which the true facet of discourses concerning the cultural representation of ‘clothing,’ ‘fashion,’ and ‘white’ started to get dismissed in the historiographical record since the end of the 1920s.
This is an overview of White Walls. However, the charm of this multifaceted book cannot be conveyed merely by introducing the ‘correct’ story or the ‘adequate’ way to read it. Here, this reviewer would like to attempt an in-depth reading, so as to provide clues for reading such an oblique book.
First, let’s talk about the designation “Take”. This is the author messaging the reader that he relentlessly ‘re-shot’ ten times the target subject in the same approximate time period. But the reader will soon notice that the order of the takes featured in this book is not the actual order in which they were taken. The order of the takes in this book is actually carefully calculated to effectively tell the ‘white’ story that runs through the book. It is not exactly correct to say that the covered time periods are the same. As the takes are presented to us, the starting time of each take is pushed out of the nineteenth century and into the future, thus approaching a climax in the mid-twentieth century. Essentially, each chapter of White Walls is composed of multiple ‘cuts’ with clearly different décors so that it may just as well be called a “Scene.” It seems like a wicked move on Wigley’s part to call it a “Take.”
As one can see, White Walls is full of tricks that are difficult to notice on a first reading. For this book, however, the words ‘delude’ and ‘deceptive’ are not meant as an indictment. Wigley’s schemes, which run throughout the whole span of the book, can be seen as an experiment in writing a new history of modern architecture.
In this book, the author himself has carefully prepared a number of hints to help us see through his schemes, based on dichotomies: architecture/clothing, clothed/naked, fashionable/universal, surface/depth, male/female, reason/lust, presence/absence, concealment/exposure, or white/color and black. The multilayered interweaving of various mutually opposing axes brings about a complexity that cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy.
However, the presentation of these dichotomies is not intended to separate or discontinue the opposing terms in this book. The purpose is to confront the reader with the ambivalence of reconciliation, mixture, or even subversion of the opposites that have become apparent.
Let’s take the title of a single “Take” as an example. What the sequence beginning with Take 1, “The Naked King” (originally titled “The Emperor’s New Paint”) first makes the reader imagine is a series of movements in which a manic exhibitionist goes from ‘naked’ to ‘clothed’ (after being captured by the police), then undressed and ‘naked’ again; and through the penetration of the ‘skin’, the depths of their sexual nature are exposed. The clothing phase is completed once in Take 5. If we interpret this take as a central axis, then the first half of this take is ‘masculine’ and the latter half is ‘feminine,’ with the aim of creating the image of a ‘clothed man who takes off his clothes and becomes a woman.’ Incidentally, in Take 5, seven of the newly-introduced 17 characters are women, clearly the largest number in the book. This may be another evidence that this take is considered as the core axis of the book.
However, the title of Take 10 implies a suspension of judgment against the absolutism of such gender distinctions. The ‘masculinity/femininity’ binary literally whites out (i.e., becomes indistinguishable) in the face of a blizzard of confusing, convoluted, and contradictory narratives.
The illustrations are also skillfully arranged in order to express the author’s covert intention. For example, Figures 10 and 11 at the end of Take 4 are arranged in the order of ‘female to male,’ which intentionally goes against the progression of the ‘male to female’ order of the take titles. They are printed on the left and right sides of the spread in the original, and on the exact reverse side of the page in the translated version, but it is the latter that is more dramatic. The opening illustration of Take 5 impresses upon the reader’s unconscious mind the notion of ‘gender subversion’ as a theme that runs throughout the book.
The title of the final chapter, “White-out,” also includes the meaning of ‘erasing with correction fluid.’ However, who or what is being erased also leaves room for a variety of interpretations.
Many of the new characters, totaling forty-six in the last chapter, were those who had been obscured by ‘authentic’ historiographies during the compilation of modern architectural history. Until Take 9, Wigley’s discussion of non-English historical sources relied almost exclusively on English translations (even l’Art Décoratif, or Decorative Art of Today!), but in this particular take, his zeal for reading primary source documents in the original language shows his enthusiasm for a new, non-English-centric history of modern architecture.
Wigley’s decision to showcase previously ignored works, such as Gustav Platz’s Die Baukunst Der Neuesten Zeit (1930) and the modern architectural manifesto Acceptera by Gunnar Asplund and others (1931), may have helped them to attract greater attention. The former was reprinted in 2000 together with Roland Jäger’s critical biography Gustav Adolf Platz und sein Beitrag zur Architekturhistoriographie der Moderne, and the latter was translated into English in Modern Swedish Design Theory: Three Founding Texts (2008), edited by Barbara Miller Lane and others. In any case, the issues raised in White Walls certainly seem to have had an impact on later research trends.
On the other hand, Wigley himself, who objected to the concealment and erasure of actual modern architectural history by means of ‘authentic’ histories, also conceals many things in this book. The obviously unnatural and deliberate ‘absences’ are cleverly placed in key places.
For example, in the “Acknowledgments” section and thereafter, Wigley omitted illustrations of the Charnley House where he once worked, and almost erased Frank Lloyd Wright from the book altogether. These are suspected to be a foreshadowing of Take 10; thus, from the very opening roll, the film of White Walls is already unfolding. It is more enjoyable if you have on hand the books to which this book refers, including Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936).
What this reviewer finds to be the most dramatic ‘whiteout’ in the book is the scene in the final chapter when Wigley gives Banham—for whom he had shown a pretense of respect throughout the book—the boot on the neck. By means of a nonchalant reference, Wigley exposes the deception of the ‘king’ of modern architectural history scholarship, who had been sitting in a privileged chair until then, and cuts off his head with a single stroke. The final illustration, taken from Bruno Zevi’s Storia dell’architettura moderna (1950), visually complements this scene; the fact that no one is sitting in a chair that is unnecessarily depicted may also be a metaphor to achieve the same intent. The author has managed to break even his own unshakable axis with a laugh, thus leaving the reader dumbfounded.
This book, White Walls, is filled with a spirit of experimentation and playfulness that befits the name of the theorist of architectural deconstructivism. Behind its ‘whitewash-like’ considerations, such as for example the concern for clear thematics and readability, there are layers upon layers of black touches of humor, with an eye towards the reconstruction of the historiography of modern architecture. It is a masterpiece that deserves to be read multiple times and smeared, with pen in hand.