How do we live in the now?; Trying to define the tenor of modern design
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 May 2007)

Consider a man on the street, all alone but talking loudly. Ten years ago we would have judged him unhinged. Today, his tiny earpiece and tinier microphone identify him as just another citizen of the 21st century, keeping in touch.

He's an emblem of the urban scene, part of early 21st-century reality.

In a movie theatre the other night, a man sitting a few rows in front of me watched a baseball game on his telephone. Since the movie was boring, part of him went to the game, till he was informed that his little screen was creating an annoying distraction.

I sympathized with his urge to be in two places. Walking with my iPod, I'm partly elsewhere, in a place where Mozart or Ellington is playing. My earbuds are signs of the times and the iPod wafer is the most elegant of recent designs.

These are visual clues but they don't necessarily describe the character of the age. We usually define style retroactively. Confronted with an orange jumpsuit, we might guess the year in the 1960s when it was worn. It's harder to tell what's happening now. We can say more about the 1920s than about the present.

The big change in the landscape is the spread of wind farms with their towering, bladed turbines converting wind into electricity. They are one visual change created by the environmental movement. Another is the enormous proliferation of garbage- recycling bags and boxes, colour-coded for paper, containers and organic.

In clothing, this is the most informal of times. Maybe nonchalance was a pleasant change when Casual Fridays were introduced, but it's since crept like a plague across civilization.

People used to dress well while travelling, for instance; today, they wear T- shirts and shorts. Flip-flops, designed for beach and bathroom, can now be heard slap-slapping along busy streets.

When did it become permissible for men to appear publicly in track suits? The 21st century has embraced that change. Consider The Sopranos. In the old days, wise guys coming to whack you would wear respectful dark suits, black shirts and white ties. But Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano's close associate, wears nothing but Fila tracksuits.

Clothing styles are often mysterious. In a recent photo of a $19,000 Balenciaga dress, the model wore black lipstick and raccoon circles, an upscale version of the Goth style pioneered by neurotic teenagers. Goth's ascendancy, one noticeable 21stcentury fashion development, lifts another low-born style up to high society. Fashionable women now use dark-black hair dyes and black nail polish they wouldn't have considered in 1999.

Who killed the necktie? We have a myth that accounts for the undershirt's decline: 73 years ago, when Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and revealed his bare chest, sales of undershirts tanked. Whether we believe that or not, we can say for sure that fedoras began losing status when John Kennedy decided he looked better without a hat. Eventually, just about everyone made the same decision. Now the 21st century is bidding the fedora goodbye. Even hockey coaches, who habitually wore fedoras behind the bench for decades, have given them up. Soon, the only remaining fedoras in the world will be worn by tango dancers and men playing saxophones on television.

But neckties? They were fading at the end of the millennium and are now clearly unfashionable. Soon, a tie will mark its wearer as irredeemably square and the phrase "old school tie" will be archaic. Even TV anchormen sometimes do without them, and TV reporters often do. Funerals still call for neckties, also Easter services at the cathedral. In court you wear one, but only if you're a lawyer. I know guys who own one necktie, for emergencies. Sigmund Freud noted that in male dreams the necktie served as phallic symbol; I can't think what will replace it.

The 21st century has made advertising even more ubiquitous. Ads appear on buses, transit shelters, electronic rink boards, even in elevators. Cultural branding has grown just as fast. In Toronto we had a theatre called the Pantages, but in 2001 a fee from Canon Canada Inc. (the cameras and- copiers people) transformed it into the Canon. A smaller theatre, called the New Yorker for decades, became the Panasonic. When Toronto built an arena to replace Maple Leaf Gardens it was named the Air Canada Centre. These days nobody would name anything Maple Leaf Gardens. In Cleveland, the basketball team plays at the Quicken Loans Arena, possibly the only stadium named for a mortgage broker. Locals call it "the Q."

The last few years have greatly amplified the tradition of the naming grant. Recently, I went to the Toronto opera house for a Verdi opera. After I entered the building, called the Four Seasons Centre, I went to the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Ring 9 of the R. Fraser Elliott Hall, took my place in the Samuel McLaughlin Foundation South Seating Section and read in the program that this production was sponsored by Harry Winston diamonds. So far, the washrooms remain philanthropically unnamed.

It's architecture that often expresses an epoch's style, but in most ways the 21st century looks much like the 20th. Condo buildings now going up are exaggerated versions of 20th-century style, with their vaster-than-ever glass walls. Big houses for the rich are increasingly designed in very late Georgian or "neo-traditional."

The big change has come in cultural buildings. They express a civic urge to join the economic transformation of the near future, when ideas will distinguish a rich city from a poor one. Poor countries have taken over many manufacturing jobs and are now learning to handle computer-aided intellectual labour, such as accounting, software development and even medical diagnosis.

What's left to sustain the rich cities? Last year, in The Architectural Review, Peter Buchanan argued that they'll focus on work that computers can't replicate, decisions involving aesthetic discrimination and empathy, the qualities we group under culture.

Ideally, emblematic buildings will express our ability to work in this new context. Unfortunately, as Buchanan has pointed out, the competition for status has led us to use "the same small pool of superstar architects to enhance each city's unique identity." In other words, unique identity in the 21st century won't be easy to achieve. But perhaps that's always been the way with fashion.

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