In our 2019 Greats issue, out Oct. 20, T celebrates four talents who, in mastering their crafts, have changed their fields — and the culture at large. They have in common an essential and fierce desire to communicate, whether through beauty or provocation, or both.
Of all the questions we ask artists, “Where did you get your inspiration?” is both the most inevitable and the most impossible. To the artist herself, it can feel like a challenge, as if her interrogator needs a plausible origin story for the work before him: Surely it couldn’t just have come from within her — could it? We revere the imagination, and yet we struggle to accept it as fundamentally elusive: Every artistic biography or critical essay is, in some part, an attempt to pierce the mystery of creation, to explain what is so often inexplicable.
Answering that question can be a frustrating experience. Either your response is so straightforward as to deflate your work of its magic, or it is so opaque, even to you, the artist, that it defies articulation. Art can be comprehensible; where it comes from is often not. My night job as a fiction writer means I’ve answered that question myself many times (always with the suspicion that I’m being somehow untruthful either to myself or to my interlocutor while doing so) — still, I ask it as well, usually of artists who work in visual mediums, who are able to see in a way I cannot, and whom I envy and admire. (Having said that, I will add that I think it particularly unfair to ask people who generally don’t work in language to try to articulate what it is they do with language.)
Our annual Greats issue is the apotheosis of what this magazine tries to be every issue: a conversation between artists of different mediums, a place where a fashion designer can find inspiration from a playwright, and a visual artist from an architect. Whether they’re given to discussing their sources of inspiration or not, creative people, no matter their medium, have in common an essential and fierce desire to communicate, whether through beauty or provocation (or both): Editing this magazine, and learning from the people we feature in its pages, has given me a richer, more eclectic artistic education than I could have hoped. It’s also given me a deeper sense of awe for people who are able to express themselves — their anxieties, their concerns, their pasts, their obsessions — in ways I could never do myself.
How to explain, for example, the instinct — equal parts empathy, practicality and intellectual curiosity — that led the architect Shigeru Ban to create his now signature paper-tube housing for survivors of war, displacement and natural disaster? Or the genius of the artist Nick Cave’s much-imitated and profoundly moving Soundsuits, created in the aftermath of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, as an expression of the perils of being a black body in America? Or the majesty, grace and tenderness of the actress Rachel Weisz, able to reduce paragraphs of stage directions to a single facial expression? Or the wild fantasies of the fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquière, whose rule-breaking creations — which pair ’40s with ’80s, mud tones with candy colors, Ming dynasty with French Empire — are a series of juxtapositions as unlikely as they are, somehow, intuitive?
So how does it begin, and where does it come from? We’ll never know, not really. And in a world in which everything is mappable, that is something to be treasured: As spectators, all we can do is surrender to the fact of another’s genius, something that so often resists analysis. It simply is. And that is enough. — HANYA YANAGIHARA
The Louis Vuitton designer’s rigorous vision has shaped fashion for this era, with a reach that’s as wide-ranging as it is deep-seated.
FROM THE Louis Vuitton headquarters, which is housed in a corniced 18th-century building some 500 feet from the Right Bank of the Seine, one has a direct view of Notre-Dame. In February, Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of the Parisian fashion house’s women’s collections, urged me to look out of his office window, where the cathedral’s spire and bell towers could be seen shining against a pale winter sky. He shook his head slightly and shrugged a bit, as if to admit, wordlessly, to his good fortune, and to concede, again without saying anything, that when one is permitted proximity to such obscene beauty and physical evidence of humanity, it is barbaric to turn away.
Two months later, Notre-Dame was aflame. Ghesquière and his team, who usually work well into the night, had already gone home by the time the fire broke out around 6:30 p.m. on April 15. “Nobody stayed,” he recalled. “It was bizarre. It was like, ‘Let’s go, on y va, we have an early night! There’s nothing to do — we’re done for the day!’” It’s something, he said, that “never happens.” By the time Ghesquière arrived at Le Bristol, the hotel where he was living while his apartment in the Marais underwent renovation, he could see the smoke from the balcony of his top-floor suite. Within a few hours, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and C.E.O. of LVMH — and one of Ghesquière’s bosses — had pledged 200 million euros to the restoration efforts.
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Over the following weeks, the question of how, exactly, the 856-year-old church should be rebuilt became something of a national preoccupation in France, with politicians, activists, art historians, urban planners and philanthropists all weighing in. Some said Notre-Dame should be recreated to look exactly as it did just before the fire; others, citing the fact that the building as we knew it was actually an amalgam of many centuries’ worth of work, argued that from the ruins should come something contemporary; a small group contended that the charred wood should be left exactly as it is: a kind of architectural memento mori. “It’s a very interesting discussion,” Ghesquière said in late May. “It’s very symptomatic of our times, this discussion between the people who say we should reproduce [it] as it was and the people who wish instead for evolution.” He smiled a bit sheepishly while fantasizing about something “super, super modern.” “One of my wishes for Paris is of course more modern architecture,” he said. “I would love to ask the most crazy architect to do it.”
It could be argued that Ghesquière actually has a relevant perspective on the matter — that these were more than the idle, extemporaneous musings of a man famous for his futuristic fashion designs. Ghesquière, whose “favorite way to start a collection is with an anachronism,” arrived at the now 165-year-old luxury luggage company in 2013, after 15 years at the helm of another storied French fashion house, Balenciaga, where he was the artistic director from 1997 through 2012. He is familiar with the challenges of simultaneously preserving and updating a cherished symbol of French opulence and craftsmanship. “Don’t forget,” he likes to say, “that what you think of as normal and classic was once new.”
GHESQUIÈRE LOVES a well-functioning metaphor. His speech, which is articulate and convincingly cerebral, tends to be dense with analogies. It’s a common trait among fashion designers, but unlike some, Ghesquière’s figurative language actually makes sense. He avoids industry jargon (“color story,” “taste level”), and when speaking with him, one gets the impression that he is actively trying to communicate ideas rather than speaking impressionistically in the conversational equivalent of a mood board.
At 48, the designer compares his professional course to what has become the common Hollywood career trajectory of Marvel tapping young, independent filmmakers with little studio experience to direct the biggest movies ever made in the history of cinema. “If I were a director or an actor,” he said, “it would be like, ‘O.K., I did my indie movie, I did my small-scale thing. But then the indie movie became known — it went to Sundance, I got distribution, and then I went to do a big blockbuster.’”
Ghesquière often discusses his ascent in these terms. Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand, has a logo — three quatrefoils and a serifed monogram against a dark-chocolate canvas background, iterated constantly — that is, like Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s munched-on McIntosh, one of the most recognizable (and counterfeited) on the planet. More than just a symbol of wealth, it’s become a symbol of the unabashed pursuit of it. It’s not all that rare to see people who have literally branded themselves with the logo, the pattern repeated, in tattoo ink, up necks and across forearms. “Louis Vuitton,” said Ghesquière, “is the most visible, the most showy, in a way. Some people think it’s terrible, some people love it, some people just have a fascination with it, some people think the brand is cheap because there are so many copies of it.” He calls it “the big game.”
But what got Ghesquière into the big game in the first place was his transformative tenure at Balenciaga, which is considered to be one of the most important reigns in modern fashion history, one that permanently changed the way women dress. When Ghesquière began working there, he was a 24-year-old freelancer. It was 1995, and the house, which had been founded by the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1917 — and had at its height, in the 1950s, been worn by Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner — was floundering in obscurity. The only reason it hadn’t been shuttered completely was so that it could continue to license its name for fragrances. It was a blank slate, albeit one with an illustrious history. Over the next decade and a half, Ghesquière would create clothes — minidresses with football-player shoulders laser perforated with watercolor-pink peonies; a modernized cocoon coat with pinched shoulders in a sapphire-hued shaved bouclé tweed; biker jackets and slim-cut, high-waisted cargo pants; a schoolboy-inspired rowing blazer; shoulder-padded metallic tops and drape-waisted double-sided satin miniskirts (a “Dynasty” girl and Joan Crawford rolled into one); a skillfully tailored evening jacket cut in cascading cream organza and white lace whose bell sleeves and high ruffled collar resembled a courtly tailcoat; latex dresses with hand-printed motifs inspired by 18th-century chinoiserie screens — that were so distinctive, so harmonious, that even today they remain recognizable as his. The designer’s love for the uniforms of fencing and horseback riding, sports he practiced as a boy; a jolie laide palette of brash primary colors mixed with muddy earth tones; Mondrian-style color blocking; and his fearlessness in mixing silhouettes from the 18th century, the ’40s and the ’80s with classic couture shapes and high-tech, futuristic fabrications (sometimes all in one look) came together to create a singular vision that was — and still is — famously Ghesquière. His work at Balenciaga did nothing less than change how a woman occupied the space around her; they were clothes made for the street, not the runway. “My principle is to do clothes that I put on the catwalk, not clothes for the catwalk,” Ghesquière said. He spoke of the temptation to make “show clothes,” which he dismissed as possible to design according to “formulas” and “tricks.” His clothes, he said, had to make sense on their own; the spectacle of the show had to be incidental to the experience of seeing and wearing them.
Ghesquière’s time at Balenciaga didn’t just redirect fashion — it redirected business as well. His reinvigoration of the ailing luxury house was not the first of its kind (Karl Lagerfeld had signed on as artistic director of a sluggish Chanel in 1983, and Tom Ford to a struggling Gucci in 1990), but it remains a model for how to transform a moribund brand into a trendsetting one without cutting out its heart, of how to create house silhouettes that reflect both the person whose name is on the door and the one who serves as the house’s steward. He proved that an artistic director didn’t need to be well known in order to have a transformational effect: Ghesquière’s success at Balenciaga made possible the ascension of Phoebe Philo at Celine, Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Jonathan Anderson at Loewe.
Another reason Ghesquière’s aesthetic remains so dominant — in many ways, it’s the look of the 2000s itself — is in part because he trained so many designers who went on to lead houses themselves, and in whose own designs one can see echoes of their former boss’s. For his first few years as the head of Balenciaga, Ghesquière worked with a staff of four. By the time he left, he had a staff of over 400, 60 of whom were in the design studio. Among them was the now 39-year-old Natacha Ramsay-Levi, his deputy for over a decade, who currently leads Chloé; you can see Ghesquière’s influence in her fluid, athletic trapeze dresses, her equestrian-inflected jewelry and footwear and her attraction to earthbound color. There’s also Julien Dossena, the 37-year-old creative director at Paco Rabanne, who departed Balenciaga when Ghesquière left for Louis Vuitton. Dossena calls him a “life changer,” and in his designs as well — an expertly draped, flower-printed cocktail dress, a skinny rock-star pant or a decadent, ’80s-style rhinestone earring — Ghesquière’s influence endures. Dossena sees Ghesquière’s current work at Louis Vuitton to be something like “making personal style mainstream.” It’s important to Ghesquière, Dossena said, that his designs be legible: “He cares that people can read his clothes and that they desire them.”
Many of Ghesquière’s signature innovations from Balenciaga have traveled with him to Louis Vuitton: In the fall 2019 collection, you can see them in a floral blouse with a black lace panel, or a camel-colored double-wool-blend cocoon coat with black leather trim. The clothes are still wearable. What’s different is that the textiles Ghesquière now uses — thick cashmeres, hand-embroidered Italian silk brocades, ornate lace — are some of the most finely made and expensive in the world, a fact that has come to define his vision for the brand. “I still work with the same passion, fascination and involvement,” Ghesquière said. “At the same time, I’m not going to lie — I was 25 [when I became the artistic director at Balenciaga], and I was doing the cool thing. What I’m interested in today is how to talk about a brand that is the biggest in the world, that has the highest sales point. ... The reason for Louis Vuitton’s success are the resources — the industrialization, the production sites. It’s a machine that has a weight. If you try to fight against it, you are dead.”
A FEW DAYS before his fall 2019 runway show, Ghesquière and I met at Le Voltaire, a stately restaurant not far from his Paris office. The seats were upholstered in velvet; the walls were mirrored; the radishes were buttered and provided automatically. We spoke for well over an hour, and he interjected only to provide advice on the menu. He was very French about it — thorough, serious, somehow at once joyous and grave: “I usually take a beetroot and avocado salad to start, but there is also grapefruit and avocado in the same way. There is a crab salad that is quite good that could be taken as a main. The mushroom salad is the specialty of the starters. There is carpaccio of Saint-Jacques, but they put truffle on it. The steak is amazing, but I’m not going to prefer it today.”
Ghesquière was raised in Loudun, a three-hour drive southwest of Paris in the castle-dense Loire Valley, which he considers to be a “big village” but which his parents called a small city. Only in retrospect does he see that his childhood, which was wild and rural and free, was in fact “very extraordinary.” He lived with his parents (his father managed a golf course, his mother stayed home) and his older brother. He grew up sketching dresses and making jewelry out of chandelier crystals, and by 14, he was interning with the French designer Agnès B., who was at the height of her fame (she had opened her first boutique in the United States on SoHo’s Prince Street in 1983, two years earlier); in 1988, when he was 17, he forwent fashion school and moved to Paris, where he took a bedroom in an apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement without really knowing anyone working in fashion. “It’s funny to think about how I would sit around and think, ‘I’m a loser. I don’t have friends. I’m biking around in Paris alone on Saturday night,’” he said.
From 1990 to 1992, he worked as Jean Paul Gaultier’s assistant before designing at Pôles, a Parisian knitwear brand, and the Italian fashion house Callaghan. He was first hired at Balenciaga to design ready-to-wear, uniforms and funeral clothes under a Japanese license; two years later, in 1997, the then creative director, Belgian designer Josephus Thimister, left, and Ghesquière was appointed head of the house.
Then, in the fall of 2013, Ghesquière was summoned to a meeting by Bernard Arnault (Balenciaga is owned by Kering, LVMH’s chief competitor). The two began a casual but detailed conversation about handbags. Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 by a French box maker who had witnessed the rise of leisure travel and presciently expanded his business into trunks; European royalty hired him to, in the words of one empress of France, pack “the most beautiful clothes in an exquisite way.” Over 150 years later, packaging, in every sense of the word, remains central to the brand. Ghesquière, who at Balenciaga had designed the distressed, studded and tasseled Lariat bag (renamed the City and the Motorcycle over its years of popularity), which became one of the most iconic accessories of the 2000s, was interested in the luxe practicality of Louis Vuitton’s origin. The story — the resourcefulness of a founding artisan becoming, first unwittingly and then enthusiastically, a businessman — appealed to him.
After his meeting with Arnault, Ghesquière returned home and immediately began cutting up magazines, making a little collage of LV-printed paper. “O.K., what’s real for the normal girl?” he thought. “She goes out, she needs something small and sophisticated for the evening. How can I make it miniature but not cheap?” A few days later, he returned to Arnault with a paper mock-up of an undeniably darling trunk shrunk to the size of a 1,000-page Penguin Classics paperback. Arnault took one look at the design and said, “This will look very good in large numbers at the stores.”
“I was never trained as a businessman, and I will never want to be one,” said Ghesquière. But with that first bag, he recalled that Arnault “immediately approached the collaboration from the merchandising point of view. I had an idea that was creative. He recognized this.” Ghesquière realized then that he was chatting with “not only one of the biggest businessmen in front of me but also someone who could consider what I was doing and imagine the steps after I designed. It’s clearly what I was missing in my previous career, to be honest with you. I wanted that kind of vision. I wanted someone that I would work with on a story like that.”
A month later, in November 2013, Ghesquière replaced Marc Jacobs as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s women’s collections. Several iterations later, his mock-up, which he called the Petite Malle, debuted in stores, priced at $5,200. It’s one of a dozen permanent styles he has designed over his six years at Louis Vuitton. Ghesquière has developed a visual language for the clothes as well, one that emphasizes the company’s heritage while also modernizing his signatures: staples like crew necks and easy shifts in thick, color-blocked knits, sporty monogrammed trench coats, jeans and track suits, as well as his classic narrow trousers, tweed bouclé miniskirt suits and those powerful, print-clashing cocktail dresses with their familiar swirl of ’40s and ’80s excess.
“This job puts you in different spaces and times,” said Ghesquière, who renewed his contract last spring. “I know that this sounds mystical, but you have to be someone who lives in the present.” He explained that one of the existential oddities of the job is having to be simultaneously a person constantly confronted with “quotidian questions” of budgeting and expenses while also being capable of quickly and seamlessly assuming a spirit of “fantasy and lightness and intensity that gives you the freedom to escape and come back with something that is honest and creative.”
FOR ALL THE CRITICISMS one can justifiably hurl at luxury fashion, its efficiency is massively underpraised. The rate at which artisanal clothes are designed and manufactured is astonishing. It is not unheard-of for a small team led by a single person to dream up and physically manifest dozens of outfits and present them in a logistically nightmarish event that requires the approval of local government — all within a matter of weeks. Ghesquière does this three times a year: twice in Paris, for his fall and spring ready-to-wear collections (for which he typically designs around 60 looks, including shoes, accessories and bags), and once in a far-flung location for the increasingly important cruise collection, beloved by retailers for its long (typically three-month) season. Past locations include Bob Hope’s house in Palm Springs, Calif., Monaco’s Palace Square and museums in Brazil and Japan and on the French Riviera.
Earlier, Ghesquière had told me that even as a child he had been “meticulous and a little bit extreme.” He calls this tendency in himself “zoom power,” and it was on full display one cold morning in a studio in a northern suburb of Paris where two dozen people had gathered to confer about floor treatments and the nearly imperceptible differences between a handful of blue plastic tubes. The studio walls were black, and the spotlights shone down directly, turning everyone’s breath — some combination of carbon-dioxide and nicotine vapor — into noirish plumes. It looked not like a production meeting but rather the set of a movie within a movie. In fact, what was under consideration was a museum within a museum: a dramatically scaled-down version of the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s once-reviled Renzo Piano- and Richard Rogers-designed “inside-out” museum (structural elements typically engineered to be contained on the inside — snaking tunnels used to circulate water, air, electricity and the elevators — are exposed on the building’s exterior), which Ghesquière was excited to soon plant inside the opulent Cour Carrée courtyard of the Louvre. The matryoshka-like model — the Pompidou’s signature red-, green-, yellow- and blue-painted shafts and ducts faithfully recreated — took the team several weeks to construct.
The forthcoming fall 2019 collection had been inspired, Ghesquière said, by a mélange of Pompidou-adjacent neighborhoods he encountered upon his arrival in Paris as a teenager in the ’80s. He recalled coming upon Les Halles, whose marketplace had been razed and turned into a mall and train station after close to a decade of being only a gaping excavation site known as “the black hole of Paris.” There, he was struck by the intersection of the city’s chic and avant-garde with the demimonde — hustlers, drug dealers and prostitutes — and fellow youth stumbling off the train and into the city for the first time. Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler all had stores nearby; Philippe Starck had recently designed the instantly popular Café Costes, with a deep red, Memphis-style décor. With the contentious openings of the Pompidou in 1977 and the Forum des Halles shopping mall in 1979, the area had become a revolutionary scene in a city obsessed with the past.
“The integration of what happened at that moment, that fusion of different elements — the sports look of the time, the true thrift stores — that’s the root of how we dress today,” he said. “A lot of people thought the museum was ugly, but with time, it became a point of cultural reference. Like the body, the brain needs a gymnasium. Sometimes if we think something is ugly, it’s because we don’t know it and aren’t trained to look at it.” Ghesquière believes that one of the “wonderful freedoms of being a fashion designer is having your own interpretation that nobody can touch.” Of course, he admitted, “we are judged as designers and for the clothes — are they new, fresh or right? But we will never be judged by reproduction. People can judge period films’ costumes for their accuracy, but it’s extraordinary because we can say, ‘This is my point of view. It’s a little blurry, maybe, or plastic or extreme, but it’s my point of view.’”
Like the most exciting journalism, which is typically wrestled from the dullest of sources (court transcripts, financial records, deeds stored in dusty archives), the most extravagant fashion shows are born from the least glamorous labor (replacing electrical sockets, hoarding zip ties, repositioning speaker systems). Ghesquière wholeheartedly embraces the very aspects of his job that one would assume his level of success might free him from. Before taking a sip of espresso but after dragging an extension cord from one corner of the giant room to another, Ghesquière put on his Persol aviator glasses and examined a variety of floor treatments. Like many male designers of extravagant clothes, Ghesquière himself dresses with a kind of perverse simplicity: black Nikes, black jeans, navy crew-neck sweater. Today, he looked like the protagonist of an Antonioni film. “Gray concrete or terrazzo?” he wondered. A handful of people gathered around him, huddling far closer to their boss than any American might be inclined to. Together, they clucked in French: “C’est beau! Bonne question! Très jolie!”
In three days, the Pompidou replica would be installed at the Louvre. Ghesquière’s idea was to create a physical confrontation between one of the purest expressions of French culture and one that had once been considered monstrous — his love of aesthetic friction and contradiction on display once more. A day after that, he would present his fall 2019 collection: a decadent parade of leather skullcaps, exaggerated ruffles and bibs; a minidress in pink- and blue-marbled rooster prints; a clown shirt tucked into Katharine Hepburn-style caviar wool trousers; a lace ensemble embroidered with silvery sequins; jodhpurs cut from buttery scarlet lambskin; and an asymmetrical faux-fur cape in Lichtenstein green. It was a captivating scene, with confrontational clothes. Fashion critics for the American and British newspapers were divided: Was the collection an unwearable overload of prints, decades and materials — or a new look that hadn’t quite been seen before? The clothes felt rebelliously outré, somehow old and somehow new.
BARELY TWO MONTHS after his Paris show, Ghesquière was in New York City, where he hadn’t shown in almost 20 years, to present his cruise 2020 collection. In the amount of time it takes a normal person to successfully change internet service providers or polish off a small jar of mayonnaise, Ghesquière had devised and fabricated an entirely new 59-look collection and shown it at the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport in Queens for an audience of about 1,500 people.
The 1962 terminal — all bright lights and biomorphic lines, once the picture of American neo-Futurism — had, in reality, been abandoned for 20 years. It would soon reopen as a hotel, but before that, Ghesquière wanted to exaggerate its now-neglected nature. Canopies of live plants had been trucked in to convey a sense of lush apocalypse; faint recordings of birdcalls played out through hidden speakers. Before the show commenced, actresses and faces of the brand (Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Williams, Léa Seydoux, Zhong Chuxi) arrived dressed in Ghesquière’s designs; they mingled with billionaires and Russian women with silicone faces. In the audience was a group of students invited from a local fashion college, some ostentatiously underdressed young people and several representatives from that anonymous class of very wealthy people who exist, usually invisibly to the rest of us, in major cities (and ski resorts) around the world. Many of them spend a lot of money at Louis Vuitton stores, and they were invited as a kind of thanks.
This collection was inspired by the idea of Gotham as it exists in the world of the DC Universe, but also the energy, power and privilege of Manhattan that Ghesquière remembered from the first time he visited the city, in 1990. There was a split-personality cape — the top half of a white-and-red leather motocross jacket tapering into a rhinestone- and bead-encrusted bed-skirt ruffle — worn over a silken sky-blue blazer, a patent-leather and Pepto-pink cashmere toggle-style coat, ultrahigh-waisted silk gabardine schoolboy trousers with kneepad-esque panels, Mennonite bibs and Victorian ruffles, belted striped safari dresses, combat boots with tongues discreetly printed with the house monogram and Siouxsie Sioux-style makeup. Some of the models carried minaudières shaped like the tip of the Chrysler Building; others had handbags whose flexible sides were actually screens, projecting images of “Blade Runner”-like cityscapes. They stomped past curved benches cleverly arranged so everyone in attendance had a front-row seat: a demonstration of democracy in a not-so egalitarian place. A lavish fashion show is perhaps the purest and most antiquated expression of luxury. It’s the representation of the best technicians and artisans collaborating on an originally soundtracked, dramatically lit parade of the world’s most beautiful people that lasts fewer than 20 minutes. Even if you are a person who cannot bear witness to one without mentally calculating how many lives could be saved with the amount of money it costs to put on, the sheer excellence is overwhelming, and it is impossible not to be impressed.
The next afternoon was a Thursday, and Ghesquière had a hangover. Over the course of the previous week, he had taken a trans-Atlantic flight, personally supervised 120 fittings, given nine interviews, escorted the actress and Louis Vuitton brand ambassador Emma Stone to the Met Gala, driven from Manhattan to Queens six times, presented a collection, attended the show’s after party at MoMA PS1 and celebrated his 48th birthday at a penthouse at the Greenwich Hotel, which he stayed at until 4 a.m. He had not not worked — not for one day — for months, and was looking forward to returning to Paris and enjoying a staycation, a portmanteau that charms him but which he can never quite remember. What Ghesquière finds the most tiring is not the creative effort but everything that surrounds it: the constant exposure to other people, the business demands, the meetings, the “amount of decisions or what you think are decisions.” He confirmed many times that he loved the job but that he found it draining. “Sometimes I have exhaustion,” he sighed.
Ghesquière’s job at Louis Vuitton — big and loud and important — doesn’t quite square with the actual nature of his influence, which while celebrated and known, is so pervasive as to be invisible. Ghesquière is, and has been for decades, at the top of his industry. But his impact on fashion — both on the runway and off — runs beneath it, deeper, like an undercurrent. He’s why our day-to-day handbags tend to be floppy, and why for years every third person you saw under 30 seemed to be wearing a kaffiyeh. Imploring people is easier than coercing them. Of course Ghesquière was tired.
Back in Paris, the first phase of renovations was finally finished on his apartment, which is itself just a 15-minute walk from his office and 30 from a small studio Ghesquière hasn’t lived in for a decade but which is filled with his own archives. Soon these will be moved to a different location, which he recently secured. “I realized that I need to have my past, my present and my future symbolized,” he said, laughing. “But I don’t know what the future space will be.”
Ghesquière’s hair: Alexander Soltermann. Ghesquière’s grooming: Min Kim. Models: Jing Wen at Women Management and Sara Grace Wallerstedt and Blesnya Minher at The Society. Hair by Jimmy Paul for Susan Price NYC. Makeup by Diane Kendal at Julian Watson Agency. Set design by Andrea Stanley at Streeters. Casting by Nicola Kast at Webber Represents. Production: One Thirty-Eight Productions. Manicure: Naomi Yasuda at Management Artists Group. Digital tech: Matthew Cylinder. Photo assistant: Isaac Rosenthal. Hair assistant: Cassandra Normil. Makeup assistants: Jamal Scott and Hiroto Yamaguchi. Set assistants: Phoebe Shakespeare and David Gimbert.
Through more than 40 intense and idiosyncratic roles — often in films a world away from typical Hollywood fare — the actress reveals a woman in complete command.
THE SCENE OPENS on a small doughnut shop in the East Village, where a young clerk with flaming red hair is talking about her life with a woman who has popped in to buy a sweet. The shop is not busy — it is May, close to dinner time — and the customer, a movie star dressed simply in a white blouse and jeans, gently draws the woman out: She hears about her beloved horse back home (now in horse heaven), her philosophy on eating doughnuts (all or nothing, and she has chosen nothing), how she moved to the city to make it in a band. Eventually, a man in a baseball cap walks in with a young boy, presumably his son, stops in his tracks and watches, a small smile on his face as he takes in this New York moment: an aspiring star chatting with an already established one, clearly unaware (the young woman later confirms) that her charmed and charming customer is an Oscar winner, a queer icon and the wife of an actor who embodies traditional masculinity. The actress soon realizes that it’s time for the next customer, but before she leaves, the younger woman offers her what she can: “Six free doughnuts?” The store is closing soon anyway. The actress smiles, demurs, wishes her the best of luck and exits. As soon as she does, the man turns to the boy. “Do you know who that was?” he says, and he sounds a little proud. “Rachel Weisz.”
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So much of an actor’s career is a mixture of conscious choice and luck; whether by design or happenstance, Weisz, now 49, seems to have reached a level of celebrity that could be described not as peak but optimal. From Weisz’s perspective, that means she can move freely, enjoying and observing the world around her (she says that her husband, Daniel Craig, now filming his fifth movie as James Bond, “walks very quickly” because he gets recognized so often). But something about her level of success also allows her a distinct relationship to her art and to her audience: For all her beauty and success, Weisz is still better known for her talent and taste than for an all-consuming and occluding kind of celebrity; it is an endearing pitch of fame, the kind that inspires more admiration than awe.
Earlier this year, Weisz was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her role in “The Favourite,” a film in which she displays, decades into her career, a fresh playfulness. One quickly sees how she cuts against the expectations of a period piece: She is irresistible as Lady Sarah, an adviser to the 18th-century Queen Anne of England, winning enough that it seems only fitting that her queen wants to reward her with the gift of a palace. By the time her character has been onscreen for 90 seconds, the viewer already grasps that Sarah herself is a performer with a wide range, and that she believes wholeheartedly that the kingdom rests on her ability to play her parts convincingly. Weisz is never more compelling than when the character she plays is also performing, or at least carefully choosing, her presentation — the calculations are so subtle that they are almost imperceptible, a reward for the viewer’s most careful observations, clues perceived just below the level of consciousness.
For much of Hollywood’s history, too many women actors found their careers stopping short just as they started to master the complexities of their craft. They got more interesting, the parts less so. And yet in recent years (especially with the increased opportunities that an explosion of television has brought), more women seem to be finding roles that embrace the nuance that comes with time: Consider, in 2019 alone, Kristin Scott Thomas, 59, a force of nature in season two of “Fleabag,” or Emma Thompson, 60, possessing the undeniable authority that fuels a dark comedy like “Late Night,” or Cate Blanchett, 50, attractive and acerbic in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Weisz, like many of the women in that cohort, chose wisely over the decades, playing the sweetheart in commercial movies well enough, with enough quiet intelligence, to give her the cultural capital to leave them behind. With films like 2017’s “Disobedience,” about a hidden gay relationship between two women in an Orthodox Jewish enclave, and, more recently, “The Favourite,” in which her character has a love affair with the queen, she has established herself as not just a great actor but as someone with the clout to create the kinds of female roles that are rarely seen: women in intense, erotic relationships with other women, without apology or explanation. In doing so, as the critic Josephine Livingstone suggested in The New Republic earlier this year, she has pulled from a typically male playbook to give her career a new element of gravitas: “Playing queer has raised her intellectual status, as it has also done for Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank, and Sean Penn.” There is power in playing, brilliantly, a woman fighting against corporate exploitation, as she did in 2005’s “The Constant Gardener.” But there is also power in creating a kind of film — as she did as a producer of “Disobedience” — that in and of itself represents a rejection of what decades of the Hollywood machine has presented a love story as being.
A month or so after she stopped by the doughnut shop, Weisz was back in London, where she grew up, and where she was spending the summer. Framed by a Skype screen, she appeared naturally cinematic, nibbling on the last remnants of a cantaloupe wedge, her laptop in front of her, her hair loose as she sat at a desk in her home office. She was wearing tinted aviators that gave her the look of someone who was about to take a road trip to the beach with some girlfriends, or maybe one bad boyfriend; they signified the opposite of what they actually were, reading glasses.
Weisz gave off the air of a woman fully in command of her life, even her body: Who was going to tell Weisz she could not, as she did a year ago, at the age of 48, give birth to a child? (She also has a teenage son, from a previous relationship with the director Darren Aronofsky.) Female control exists, in her world, in a way that was not possible for much of her career. The proof lies, for example, in her latest project, from which she was taking a break that afternoon: “Black Widow,” in which she has a supporting role. It is one of the first Marvel films directed by a woman — Cate Shortland, a respected Australian independent-film director for whom this job is a massive jump, at least in terms of budget. The details of Weisz’s character that have been revealed thus far are scant, but the actor is clearly enthusiastic about films that feature female relationships at their heart. “There is something that happens in a scene when a woman is across from another woman,” said Weisz. “It sounds really pompous, but you are free from the history of ownership — I really mean that. It’s liberating.”
DECIDING TO BECOME an actor is, for anyone, a tremendous leap of faith and ego, given the odds, but maybe less so for Weisz, a native of North London who was barely a teenager when the world started noticing her, that face that looks both innocent and knowing. By 14, she had already won a modeling competition to be featured in the British magazine Harpers & Queen; around that time, she had been cast to play the part of King David’s daughter in the titular 1985 film starring Richard Gere. Her Viennese mother, a teacher who later in life became a psychotherapist, was intrigued by the opportunity, but her father, an engineer and inventor originally from Hungary, had concerns about Rachel entering the film industry. Weisz’s parents, both affectionate and adoring with their children, often found themselves at odds. “They were very dramatic,” Weisz said. “My mom used to decide she was going to live in Cambridge, put my sister and me in the car, go live in a different city and come back. There was a lot of flamboyance. No stiff upper lip.” In acting, Weisz said, she found a space where there was room for that intensity — bad behavior, flare-ups, conflict, passion — but that was free from consequences: It was exciting and also reassuringly safe. “It’s the realm of the imagination,” she said. “No one gets hurt.”
Her parents divorced when she was 15, a time in her life when she was dressing up with her girlfriends and hitting Twist & Shout, a dance party at Camden Palace. In her early teen years, she was not particularly riveted by class work or her teachers, which she made evident, and was eventually asked to leave the private school she attended. “I was absolutely not paying attention,” she said, “and I was not deferent.” In her last year, at another school, she pulled out good enough grades to gain admission to the University of Cambridge. She clearly looks back at those teenage years with great affection. “I was rebellious,” Weisz had offered a few weeks before, when we met in New York. She had smiled, thinking about it.
Celebrities of Weisz’s stature either seem to go for total entitlement or excessive politeness, and Weisz is someone who has clearly chosen the latter — but her friends confirm that she has always had a subversive bent. Watching the child actress Lilly Aspell play a young Wonder Woman in 2017, Weisz said, had been something of a recent revelation, starting with a scene of the character as a young girl running away from her tutor: “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a little brunette tomboy being naughty,’” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ and then for the rest of the film, I was with her in a way that’s hard — ” She was about to say that it could be hard, as a woman, to identify as easily with a male character, then cut herself off for the requisite caveat: “I mean, the hope is that one can identify with any character, irrespective of age, race or gender … but you want to see yourself reflected back. You want to see yourself.”
In “Black Widow,” Weisz joins Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in making a relatively new kind of Marvel movie — one that focuses on female characters: All three play skilled assassins, and at least one is on the side of justice. Weisz might have seized the chance to work in a Marvel project under any circumstances; a role in one now creates, for an actor, a kind of currency that can help finance other films, films that fall into the struggling category of everything-but-action. But Weisz says she was enthusiastic as well about her character and the script’s premise, and about the prospect of working with Shortland. She had admired the director’s work, including the 2004 film that Shortland wrote and directed, “Somersault,” about a young woman from the suburbs of Canberra, Australia, who runs away from home. Abbie Cornish, the film’s star, “is a beautiful, sexy girl,” said Weisz, “and a lot of it is about her sexuality. Cate didn’t shy away from that. But she wasn’t objectified. Watching that, as a woman, you know immediately when a character is subject or object — she was always subject. I had never seen anything like it. For that reason, I never forgot it.” The film, which made its way to the Cannes Film Festival, swept the Australian film awards that year. “You’d be thinking about a project and often say, ‘If only we could get Cate Shortland to direct it,’” said Weisz, who had approached the director in the past to discuss a collaboration, without success. “She was always kind of totemic to me.”
INSTEAD OF BEGINNING her own career as a nubile royal, then, Weisz arrived at Cambridge determined to make theater that skirted the usual roles for teenage girls. She had the benefit of discovering one of her creative collaborators early in Rose Garnett, who would go on to be an executive producer on “Disobedience” and “The Favourite,” and was already a friend from high school. “She was very clever, quite wild,” said Garnett, recalling Weisz at Cambridge. “Actually, that is the wrong word — she was bold. And she was funny and confident. But it wasn’t the complacent confidence of entitlement. It was a curious confidence. Her beauty is a part of who she is, but clever people also knew quite fast that it was a red herring — that that wasn’t what she was about.”
There is a long history of English male actors emerging from venerated theater institutions at Cambridge or the University of Oxford, forming helpful professional contacts along the way: Ian McKellen, John Cleese and Hugh Laurie all took that path, collaborating for years to come with people they first met just out of their adolescence. Weisz, too — working with Garnett, Sasha Hails (now a successful screenwriter) and David Farr (who went on to become the associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) — established a new theater group called Talking Tongues, one with distinct physicality and characters that had a heightened, even clownish quality, sometimes in a style known as bouffon. Over the summer, Weisz studied bouffon with the French theater professor Philippe Gaulier, who also taught Sacha Baron Cohen. Talking Tongues created innovative work, such as one piece in which Weisz and Hails formed a metaphorical love triangle with their only prop, a ladder. The women fell in, then out, of love, with some brutality: In one scene, Weisz swung the ladder round and round, faster and faster, with Hails, on her knees, ducking the massive object whirling around her head. They were two beautiful young women, but they created the play to “transcend our age and gender,” as Weisz put it. “Our genders didn’t matter; we just were,” she added. “Actually, thinking about it now, what’s more liberating than that? Nothing.” She said it again, with emphasis: “Nothing.”
Weisz likes to think that the group, which won a prestigious student theater award at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, would still exist had Hails not moved on. Instead, Weisz started auditioning, first getting cast on British television, then alternating small, arty films (such as “I Want You,” a 1998 film that Variety described as “Euro-noir”) with more commercial fare (including the 1996 action thriller “Chain Reaction,” with Keanu Reeves). Weisz was always working, but she didn’t approach stardom until 1999, when she was cast in the unexpected hit “The Mummy,” playing a brilliant, determined librarian in a loopy horror spoof beset by zombies and no small amount of Orientalism. That film’s success led to her role as a sort of romantic reason to live for Hugh Grant in 2002’s “About a Boy,” and then finally, at age 34, the age when many actresses are starting to fear their expiration date, Weisz was cast in “The Constant Gardener.” Her character was as charismatic as any great love interest in film, except that her charms — her intelligence, her sexuality — were also trained on exposing the corporate abuses of a powerful pharmaceutical company operating in Kenya. The role of a young woman who looks like an English rose but is, in fact, a fierce rebel was the part for which Weisz won her Oscar for best supporting actress in 2006.
Rather than focusing exclusively on projects with obvious commercial appeal, Weisz approached the director Yorgos Lanthimos, who is known for quasi-experimental films like 2009’s “Dogtooth” and 2015’s “The Lobster,” a surreal drama in which Weisz co-starred as a woman struggling to maintain her humanity in a regimented, dystopian world where love, in particular, is highly controlled by those in power. While remaining faithful to the director’s call for a general flatness of affect in her voice-over narration, Weisz allowed humanity, humor and a quiet, dignified yearning to filter through her onscreen performance. Her acting — in that film, in many of her films — shows enough restraint that the emotions that surface inspire all the more ache. Garnett sees, in Weisz’s work, a certain privacy. “But that’s a shut-down word, and it’s not a shut-down kind of thing,” she said. “You are watching someone be true, but not for your benefit.”
In one scene in “The Lobster,” in which Weisz and her co-star, Colin Farrell, are trying to pass as a married couple, Farrell’s character reveals, through his almost frenzied declarations, that he is, in fact, hopelessly besotted. For their safety, however, that actual feeling must be kept a secret, and Weisz’s face, as she processes what she’s hearing, is a marvel of real-time reaction: confusion, then surprise, then affection, all of which plays out despite her character’s evident effort to control every one of those emotions. One sees the psychological nuance, perhaps, of someone raised by a therapist, the commitment to the layers of complexity and conflict. Weisz, who herself was in analysis for many years, seems to have done whatever work is necessary to allow for great acting by intuition. “I don’t think she even knows where she is going most of the time,” Lanthimos told me. “Which is very brave, and a rare quality. Actors want to have control.”
Early on in the making of “The Favourite,” which Lanthimos also directed, Weisz and her co-star Olivia Colman, who played Queen Anne, were rehearsing a sensitive scene. The script called for Weisz’s character, Lady Sarah, to put her hands between the legs of the queen in an act of sexual possession. Colman had assumed that Weisz would merely gesture toward her for the purposes of rehearsal; there they were, in jeans, just trying to get the feel of the roles. Instead, Weisz unexpectedly made the grab, just as the script dictated. “I roared,” said Colman, who at the time started laughing uncontrollably. “I nearly pissed myself. We were all laughing. I’m quite square — I don’t normally play these kinds of parts. But right there, my fear went away. She was utterly brave, so I didn’t have to be scared. She was brave enough for both of us.” (Weisz, it’s worth noting, doesn’t see herself as brave: “I’m shy in real life,” she said. “But if I have a role in the script and a story to tell, I’m not going to shy away.”)
THAT DAY IN her London home office, Weisz was in the relaxed mood of someone about to be on holiday. She would be working on “Black Widow” for the foreseeable future, but even still, it was summer. Colman had just popped by unexpectedly for lunch. Weisz and Craig were for once filming in the same place. She was enthusiastic about future adaptations of books she was producing, including Raymond Kennedy’s “Ride a Cockhorse” (1991), which she described as a “reverse-menopause story” about a 45-year-old widow who has a sexual resurgence and suddenly amasses power, Sarah Palin-style. And she was enjoying working on the Marvel set, where she had been struck by the passion of the producers overseeing the project. “It doesn’t feel Hollywood to me, big budget — it feels like the people there are the stewards and guardians of this storytelling they care about,” she said.
It’s an astonishing fact that after being featured in more than 40 films, Weisz is only now, for the second time in her career, being directed by a woman (the first time was 1997’s “Swept From the Sea” — it was called “Amy Foster” in the United States — which was directed by Beeban Kidron). At a “Black Widow” panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con this past July, before a crowd of some 8,000 people, she spoke, seemingly jacked up on the manic energy of the audience, about her enthusiasm for the project’s femaleness, in response to a question about what drew her to the film. “[Marvel has] put at the forefront female — strong, powerful, female — characters … and my character, Melina, too, is a pretty tough chick,” she said, before tacking on, in what had the comic effect of an overly official statement, “I love men, as well as women.”
Gay Twitter seized on that last line with joy. (“We got her, we got her … yeah,” wrote one woman. “She owns me,” wrote another.) Word of that reaction had not reached Weisz, apparently, based on her response: “I don’t go on Twitter,” she said — a statement that sounded, coming from her, as obvious as “I don’t tend to eat McDonald’s.” But that she might be something of an icon in the gay community — “That thrills me,” she added. At the same time, she had not intended, at Comic-Con, to make any statement about herself or her character; there was no subtext or big reveal. “I just meant that I love female characters and male characters,” she said. “I wasn’t saying something with sexual innuendo.”
Weisz alternates between reveling in the newness of truly female-driven films and seeming frustrated by their ongoing status as anomalies. “I hope that one day soon, in the not-so-distant future, we don’t get asked, ‘What was it like to share the screen with other women?’” she said in an acceptance speech at the Gotham Independent Film Awards last November. “Because I don’t think you ever ask men that. But I could be wrong.” Weisz later regretted that her response sounded “inelegant,” like a rebuff to the press; during award season, that line of inquiry had started to sound almost patronizing, condemning the collaboration as an exception to the rule. “I hope for the day with all my heart when that’s no longer interesting. I really do — it seems so crazy to me that it’s as if we were these outliers,” she told me. Weisz was likewise hesitant to make any grand claims about how working with Shortland, so far, differed from working with any male directors in her past.
That is, after all, the point: To generalize about female directors would be absurd, and not only because she doesn’t have nearly enough data points. As someone interested in capturing complexity, Weisz seems to be trying to avoid the way that certain lines of pop cultural conversation can flatten out the richness of experience, regardless of whether it belongs to a man or a woman. She has spent plenty of her life, like most successful actresses, pouting for the camera or being saved by a man or playing the rebel who inevitably ends up dead, punished for her strength, strength that is all but conflated with her sexuality. In every one of those roles, she has added depth and richness while still operating within the constraints of a male-driven industry. But the idea all along, since she was in college, seems to be to escape familiar talking points of any kind, to defy tidy boxes that place her neatly in some category. On Weisz’s left hip, she has a tattoo, one she got in the early ’90s. It is tiny and black and of a ladder — a fond memento of her early work, but also a reminder, maybe, that the goal is not climbing up, but out.
Hair by Orlando Pita using Orlando Pita Play. Makeup by Susie Sobol at Julian Watson Agency using Chanel. Set design by Piers Hanmer. Production: Prodn. Manicure: Kayo Higuchi at Bryan Bantry Agency. Tailoring: Angela Donhauser at Lars Nord Studio. Digital tech: Nicholas Ong. Lighting assistants: Nick Brinley, Alex Hopkins and Will Cudd. Makeup assistant: Kuma. Set assistants: Erick Benevides and Ryan Maleady. Stylist’s assistants: Victor Cordero and Susan Walsh.
Using materials that range from twigs to crystals to rainbow-colored hair, the artist makes sculptures that, for all their beauty, are visceral and necessary critiques of racial injustice.
THE INAUGURATION OF Nick Cave’s Facility, a new multidisciplinary art space on Chicago’s Northwest Side, has the feeling of a family affair. In April, inside the yellow-brick industrial building, the classical vocalist Brenda Wimberly and the keyboardist Justin Dillard give a special performance for a group that includes local friends, curators and educators, as well as Cave’s high school art teacher, Lois Mikrut, who flew in from North Carolina for the event. Outside, stretching across the windows along Milwaukee Avenue, is a 70-foot-long mosaic made of 7,000 circular name tags with a mix of red and white backgrounds, each of them personalized by local schoolchildren and community members. They spell out the message “Love Thy Neighbor.”
The simple declaration of togetherness and shared purpose is a mission statement for the space, a creative incubator as well as Cave’s home and studio, which he shares with his partner, Bob Faust, and his older brother Jack. It’s also a raison d’être for Cave, an uncategorizable talent who has never fit the mold of the artist in his studio. Best known for his Soundsuits — many of which are ornate, full-body costumes designed to rattle and resonate with the movement of the wearer — his work, which combines sculpture, fashion and performance, connects the anxieties and divisions of our time to the intimacies of the body.
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Exhibited in galleries or worn by dancers, the suits — fanciful assemblages that include bright pelts of dyed hair, twigs, sequins, repurposed sweaters, crocheted doilies, gramophones or even stuffed sock-monkey dolls, their eerie grins covering an entire supersize garment — are compulsively, unsettlingly decorative. Some are amusingly creature-like; others are lovely in an almost ecclesiastical way, bedecked with shimmering headpieces embellished with beads and porcelain birds and other discarded tchotchkes he picks up at flea markets. Even at the level of medium, Cave operates against entrenched hierarchies, elevating glittery consumer detritus and traditional handicrafts like beadwork or sewing to enchanting heights.
In invigorating performances that often involve collaborations with local musicians and choreographers, the Soundsuits can seem almost shaman-esque, a contemporary spin on kukeri, ancient European folkloric creatures said to chase away evil spirits. They recall as well something out of Maurice Sendak, ungainly wild things cutting loose on the dance floor in a gleeful, liberating rumpus. The surprising movements of the Soundsuits, which change depending on the materials used to make them, tend to guide Cave’s performances and not the other way around. There is something ritual-like and purifying about all the whirling hair and percussive music; the process of dressing the dancers in their 40-pound suits resembles preparing samurai for battle. After each performance, the suits made of synthetic hair require tender grooming, like pets. Cave’s New York gallerist, Jack Shainman, recalls the time he assisted in the elaborate process of brushing them out — “I was starting to bug out, because there were 20 or 30 of them” — only to have Cave take over and do it all himself. Much beloved and much imitated (as I write this, an Xfinity ad is airing in which a colorful, furry-suited creature is buoyantly leaping about), they can be found in permanent museum collections across America.
Their origins are less intellectual than emotional, as Cave tells it, and they’re both playful and deadly serious. He initially conceived of them as a kind of race-, class- and gender-obscuring armature, one that’s both insulating and isolating, an articulation of his profound sense of vulnerability as a black man. Using costume to unsettle and dispel assumptions about identity is part of a long tradition of drag, from Elizabethan drama to Stonewall and beyond; at the same time, the suits are the perfect expression of W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, the psychological adjustments black Americans make in order to survive within a white racist society, a vigilant, anticipatory awareness of the perceptions of others. It’s no coincidence that Cave made the first Soundsuit in 1992, after the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991, a still-vivid racial touchstone in American history; almost three decades later, the suits are no less timely. “It was an almost inflammatory response,” he remembers, looking shaken as he recalls watching King’s beating on television 28 years ago. “I felt like my identity and who I was as a human being was up for question. I felt like that could have been me. Once that incident occurred, I was existing very differently in the world. So many things were going through my head: How do I exist in a place that sees me as a threat?”
Cave had begun teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with its predominately white faculty, two years before, and in the aftermath of the incident, followed by the acquittal of the officers responsible, he felt his isolation painfully. “I really felt there was no one there I could talk to. None of my colleagues addressed it. I just felt like, ‘I’m struggling with this, this is affecting my people.’ I would think that someone would be empathetic to that and say, ‘How are you doing?’ I held it all in internally. And that’s when I found myself sitting in the park,” he says. In Grant Park, around the corner from his classroom, he started gathering twigs — “something that was discarded, dismissed, viewed as less. And it became the catalyst for the first Soundsuit.”
For many years after he began making his signature work, Cave deliberately avoided the spotlight, shying away from an adoring public: “I knew I had the ability, but I wasn’t ready, or I didn’t want to leave my friends behind. I think this grounded me, and made me an artist with a conscience. Then, one day, something said, ‘Now or never,’ and I had to step into the light.” Initially, he wasn’t prepared for the success of the Soundsuits. For much of the ’90s, “I literally shoved all of them into the closet because I wasn’t ready for the intensity of that attention,” Cave says. He began exhibiting the Soundsuits at his first solo shows, mostly in galleries across the Midwest; he’s since made more than 500 of them. They’ve grown alongside Cave’s practice, evolving from a form of protective shell to an outsize, exuberant expression of confidence that pushes the boundaries of visibility. They demand to be seen.
Following the phenomenal success of the Soundsuits, Cave’s focus has expanded to the culture that produced them, with shows that more directly implicate viewers and demand civic engagement around issues like gun violence and racial inequality. But increasingly, the art that interests Cave is the art he inspires others to make. With a Dalloway-like genius for bringing people from different walks of life to the table in experiences of shared good will, Cave sees himself as a messenger first and an artist second, which might sound more than a touch pretentious if it weren’t already so clear that these roles have, for some time, been intertwined. In 2015, he trained youth from an L.G.B.T.Q. shelter in Detroit to dance in a Soundsuit performance. The same year, during a six-month residency in Shreveport, La., he coordinated a series of bead-a-thon projects at six social-service agencies, one dedicated to helping people with H.I.V. and AIDS, and enlisted dozens of local artists into creating a vast multimedia production in March of 2016, “As Is.” In June 2018, he transformed New York’s Park Avenue Armory, a former drill hall converted into an enormous performance venue, into a Studio 54-esque disco experience with his piece — part revival, part dance show, part avant-garde ballet — called “The Let Go,” inviting attendees to engage in an unabashedly ecstatic free dance together: a call to arms and catharsis in one. Last summer, with the help of the nonprofit Now & There, a public art curator, he enlisted community groups in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood to collaborate on a vast collage that will be printed on material and wrapped around one of the area’s unoccupied buildings; in September, also in collaboration with Now & There, he led a parade that included local performers from the South End to Upham’s Corner with “Augment,” a puffy riot of deconstructed inflatable lawn ornaments — the Easter bunny, Uncle Sam, Santa’s reindeer — all twisted up in a colossal Frankenstein bouquet of childhood memories. Cave understands that the lost art of creating community, of joining forces to accomplish a task at hand, whether it’s beading a curtain or mending the tattered social fabric, depends upon igniting a kind of dreaming, a gameness, a childlike ability to imagine ideas into being. But it also involves recognizing the disparate histories that divide and bind us. The strength of any group depends on an awareness of its individuals.
FACILITY IS THE next iteration of that larger mission, and Cave and Faust, a graphic designer and artist, spent years looking for the right space. Creating it required a great deal of diplomacy and determination, as well as an agreeable alderman to assist with the zoning changes and permits. And while it evokes Warhol’s Factory in name, in intent, the approximately 20,000-square-foot former mason’s workshop has a very different cast.
“Facilitating, you know, projects. Energies. Individuals. Dreams. Every day, I wake up, he wakes up, and we’re like, ‘O.K. How can we be of service in a time of need?’” says Cave, who gave me a tour in the fall of 2018, not long after he and Faust settled into the space. Dressed entirely in black — leather pants and a sweater, and sneakers with metallic accents — the 60-year-old artist has a dancer’s bearing (he trained for several summers in the early ’80s at a program in Kansas City run by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and an aura of kindness and irrepressible positivity. One wants to have what he’s having. “Girl, you can wear anything,” he reassures me when I fret about the green ruched dress I’m wearing, which under his discerning gaze suddenly strikes me as distinctly caterpillarlike. It comes as no surprise that Cave’s favorite adjective is “fabulous.”
In contrast to his maximalist art practice, his fashion tastes have grown more austere, as of late, and include vintage suits and monochrome classics from Maison Margiela, Rick Owens and Helmut Lang. “I have a fabulous sneaker collection,” he says. “But you know, the reason why is because those floors at the school are so hard,” he says, referring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is now a professor of Fashion, Body and Garment. (I also teach at the school, in a different department.) “I can’t wear a hard shoe, I have to wear a sneaker,” he says. Faust teases him: “I love how you’ve just justified having that many sneakers.”
Cave met Faust, who runs his own business from Facility, in addition to supporting the artist as his special projects director, when he happened to stop by a sample sale of Cave’s clothing designs in the early 2000s. The Soundsuits are, for all intents and purposes, a kind of clothing, so fashion has been a natural part of Cave’s artistic practice since the beginning — he studied fiber arts as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he first learned to sew. In 1996, he started a namesake fashion line for men and women that lasted a decade. If the Soundsuits resist categorization as something to wear in everyday life, they arrive at their unclassifiable beauty by taking the basic elements of clothing design — stitching, sewing, understanding how a certain material falls or looks with another kind of material — and exaggerating them into the realm of atmospheric psychedelia. That he teaches in the fashion department at an art school further underscores the thin line Cave has always walked between clothing and sculpture, all of it preoccupied in some way with the human body, its form and potential energy. His own clothing designs are slightly — only slightly — more practical variations on the Soundsuits: loud embroidered sweaters, crocheted shirts with sparkly jewelry. “He came in and was like, ‘These clothes are so out there, I can’t wear any of this,’” Cave recalls, laughing. (Faust politely bought a sweater and still wears it today.) At the time, the artist was about to publish his first book and asked Faust to design it; the collaboration was a success, and Faust has subsequently designed all of Cave’s publications. About eight years ago, the nature of the relationship changed. “Before that, I was single for 10 years. I was always traveling, and who is going to handle all of that?” Cave says. “But Bob already knew who I was, and that makes all the difference. Being with someone who is a visionary in his own right and using this platform as a place of consciousness — it’s very important to me.”
Upstairs is the couple’s living space and selections from Cave’s personal art collection: a Kehinde Wiley here, a Kerry James Marshall there. (A lesson from Cave: Buy work from your friends before they become famous.) Cave and Faust opted to leave the floors and walls scarred, bearing the traces of its former use as an industrial building. In a small, sunny room off the kitchen, one corner of the ceiling is left open to accommodate an abandoned wasp’s nest, a subtle, scrolled masterpiece of found architecture. Faust’s teenage daughter also has a bedroom, and Jack, an artist with a design bent, has an adjacent apartment.
Downstairs, in the cavernous work space big enough to host a fashion show, musical or dance performance, are Cave’s and Faust’s studios. Some of Cave’s assistants — he has six of them, Faust has one — are applying beads on a vast, multistory tapestry, a project for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport called “Palimpsest.” “It’ll all be gathered and bustled, so there’s layers and layers of color. Kind of like an old billboard that, over time, weathers, and layers come off and you see the history,” Cave explains. A front gallery is a flexible space where video art visible from the street could be projected — a nod to Cave’s first job out of art school, designing window displays for Macy’s — or young artists could be invited to display work around a shared theme. Facility has already established an art competition and prizes for Chicago Public School students and funded a special award for graduate fashion students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There are lots of creative people that do amazing things but just have never had a break,” Cave says. “And so to be able to host them in some way, these are the sort of things that are important to us, so we thought, ‘Why not?’”
AWKWARD PERSONAL disclosures. Long evaluative silences. Talk of “coming to form.” Art-school crits — sessions in which a professor reviews his students’ work — are all pretty similar, but Cave’s are famous both for their perspicacity and warmth. For all his multi-hyphenates, “teacher” may be the role that best sums up his totality of being. “When someone believes in your work, it changes how you see your future,” he says when we meet in the vast, light-filled studios in downtown Chicago, where the graduate fashion students are working.
It’s the second-to-last crit of the year for Cave’s first-year students in the two-year M.F.A. program, and the pressure is on to develop their own distinct visual language before they begin their thesis projects in the fall. One woman from Russia has made a set of dresses from delicate organic 3-D-printed shapes — mushrooms, flowers — sewing them together and arranging them on a mannequin; they resemble exquisite body cages. Cave suggests that she should work in muslin on a flat surface rather than directly on the mannequin in order to make the silhouette “less uptight.”
Next up is a student from China, who directs our attention to an anchor-shaped object suspended from the ceiling. It is made of small blue squares of fabric she’s dipped in batter and deep-fried to stiffen. She plays Björk’s “The Anchor Song” for us on her iPhone and explains that the textile sculpture is an expression of homesickness, longing and the mourning of a long relationship. We stare up at it silently. There’s a faint whiff of grease. After some back and forth with the student, Cave delivers his verdict: “Your tent is big, but you need to get on your boxing gloves and get in there,” he says. “You should be completely, 100 percent in it, and not let your will dictate. Bring all the parts together.”
“That was pretty raw,” says Cave, once we are back in his office, noting that, when given a push, the student with the anchor astonishes everyone with what she can do. He clearly adores all of his charges, and sees teaching as a way of passing on his own teachers’ lessons: a way of liberating the creative subconscious within the technical rigors of design. “You’re looking at what’s there — fabric, shape and form — and asking, ‘How are you coming to pattern, how are you coming to design?’ And some have just opened up for the first time, and the moment you open up, there are bigger questions, there’s a lot more responsibility, there’s so much more to grapple with.”
A second-year student, Sean Gu, stops by to say hello. He’s just returned from China with a suitcase full of completed samples he wants to show Cave. The garments, jackets and vests, have zips and seat-belt-like buckles and artfully drooping corners that were inspired by Chinese political slogans. Cave and I take turns trying them on: One piece, a vest made of reflective polyurethane with multiple armholes and zippers, is our favorite. (Cave wore it best, of course.) The look on his face is one of pure delight in the cool, fabulous thing his student has made.
Where, one might ask, did Cave’s seemingly boundless reservoirs of optimism and joy and productive energy come from? The short answer is Missouri, where Cave, born in Fulton, in the central part of the state, and raised in nearby Columbia, was the third of seven brothers. His mother, Sharron Kelly, worked in medical administration (Cave’s parents divorced when he was young), and his maternal grandparents lived nearby on a farm filled with animals. “Now that I look back, it was really so amazing for my brothers and myself to be in the presence of all of that unconditional love,” he says. “We were rambunctious, and of course you fight with your brothers, but we always made up through hugging or kissing. It was just part of the infrastructure.” Personal space was limited but respected, a chart of chores was maintained, and creative projects were always afoot (his aunts are seamstresses; his grandmother was a quilter). Hand-me-downs were individually customized by each new wearer. “I had to find ways of finding my identity through deconstructing,” he recalls. “So, if I didn’t want to be in my brother’s jacket, I’d take off the sleeves and replace it with plaid material. I was already in that process of cutting and putting things back together and finding a new vocabulary through dress.”
The artist tells an illuminating story about his mother, who managed the household on one income and would still often find ways to send food to a struggling family in the neighborhood. Once, during a particularly tight month, she came home from work to realize that there was no food left in the house except dried corn. And so she made a party of it, showing her sons a movie on television and popping the corn. “It doesn’t take much to shift how we experience something,” says Cave, recalling how she would entertain them simply by putting a sock on her hand and changing her voice to create a character. “It’s nothing, but it’s everything,” he says. “You’re just totally captivated. It’s these moments of fantasy and belief that’s also informed how I go about my work.”
Fashion’s transformative power was also something he understood young, beginning with watching his older female relatives attend church in their fancy hats. In high school, Cave and Jack, who is two years older, experimented with platform shoes and two-tone flared pants. High fashion came to town, literally, via the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling show launched and produced between 1958 and 2009 by Eunice W. Johnson, the co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony and Jet magazines, both cultural bibles for black America. “Ebony magazine was really the first place we saw people of color with style and power and money and vision, and that fashion show would travel to all of these small towns,” he reminisces. “Honey, black runway back in the day was a spectacle. It’s not just walking down the runway. It was almost like theater. And I’m this young boy just eating it up and feeling like I’m just in a dream, because it’s all fabulous and I just admire beauty to that extreme. I was just completely consumed by that.” His high school teachers encouraged him to apply to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he and Jack would stage fashion shows, which felt more like performance pieces thanks to Cave’s increasingly outré clothing designs. “I just had what I needed to have in order to be the person I need to be,” Cave says.
Also harrowingly formative to Cave’s outlook was the AIDS crisis, which was at its deadly height while he was in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the late ’80s. He became painfully aware of the function of denial in our culture, and the extent of people’s unwillingness to see. “Watching my friends die played a big part in my perspective,” he says. “In those moments, you have a choice to be in denial with them or to be present, to be the one to say, ‘This is happening.’ You have to make a decision to go through that process with them, to pick up their parents at the airport, to clean to get their apartments ready for their parents to stay. And then you have to say goodbye, and then they’re gone, and you’re packing up their belongings to send to their families. And then you’re just left there in an empty apartment, not knowing what to feel.” In a single year, he lost five friends and confronted his own mortality waiting for his test results. “Just — choosing not to be in denial in any circumstance,” he says.
THE VULNERABILITY OF the black body in a historically white context is a subject generations of African-American artists have contended with, perhaps most iconically in Glenn Ligon’s 1990 untitled etching, in which the phrase “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” adapted from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” is printed over and over again in black stencil on a white canvas, the words blurring as they travel the length of the canvas. In her book “Citizen: An American Lyric” (2014), the poet Claudia Rankine, writing about Serena Williams, puts it this way: “The body has a memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
The individual body has a memory, and so do collective bodies, retaining a longer and longer list of names — Eric Garner on Staten Island, Michael Brown in Missouri, Trayvon Martin in Florida and so many more innocent black people who have suffered violence and death at the hands of police — within it. But that day in 1992, hurrying back to his studio with a cart full of twigs and setting out to build a sculpture from them, Cave had no idea that the result would be a garment. “At first, it didn’t occur to me that I could wear it; I wasn’t thinking about it.” When he finally did put it on and moved around, it made a sound. “And that was the beginning,” he says. “The sound was a way of alarming others to my presence. The suit became a suit of armor where I hid my identity. It was something ‘other.’ It was an answer to all of these things I had been thinking about: What do I do to protect my spirit in spite of all that’s happening around me?” Throughout the Soundsuits’ countless iterations, Cave has tinkered with their proportions, thinking about the shapes of power, constructing forms that recall a pope’s miter or the head of a missile. Some of them are 10 feet tall.
But no matter their variations, these Soundsuit designs have always felt personal and unique, as if only Cave himself could have invented them. And yet he is also aware of how the pain he is addressing in these works is also written into our culture: There is a long lineage of casual cruelty that has shaped Cave’s art. His 2014 installation at Jack Shainman Gallery, “Made by Whites for Whites,” was inspired by an undated ceramic container Cave found in a flea market that, when pulled off the shelf, revealed itself to be the cartoonishly painted disembodied head of a black man. “Spittoon,” read the label. Renting a cargo bay, Cave toured the country in search of the most racially charged memorabilia he could find. The centerpiece of the show, “Sacrifice,” features a bronze cast of Cave’s own hands and arms, holding another severed head, this one part of an old whack-a-mole type carnival game — simultaneously lending compassion to the object while implicating its beholder. Look, Cave is saying. If we’re ever going to move past this hatred, we have to acknowledge what it is that produced it.
“It’s not that Nick doesn’t have a dark side,” Denise Markonish, the senior curator and managing director of exhibitions at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., tells me. Markonish approached Cave in 2013 about planning an exhibition for the museum’s largest gallery. “He wants to seduce you and punch you in the gut.” The result, the artist’s most ambitious seduction to date, was his 2016 show, “Until,” a twist on the legal principle of innocence until guilt is proven. For it, Cave transformed the football-field-size room into a sinister wonderland, featuring a vast crystal cloudscape suspended 18 feet into the air made up of miles of crystals, thousands of ceramic birds, 13 gilded pigs and a fiberglass crocodile covered in large marbles. Accessible by ladder, the top of the cloud was studded with cast-iron lawn jockeys, all of them holding dream catchers. It’s an apt and deeply unsettling vision of today’s America, land of injustice and consumer plenty, distracted from yet haunted by all of the things it would prefer not to see.
While they were sourcing the materials for the show, Markonish tells me, they realized how expensive crystals are, and one of the curators, Alexandra Foradas, called Cave to ask if some of them could be acrylic. “He said, ‘Oh, absolutely, 75 percent can be acrylic but the remaining 50 percent should be glass.’ She said, ‘Nick, that’s 125 percent,’ and without pausing he said, ‘Exactly.’” After the show, Markonish asked Cave and Faust to create a graphic expression of the exhibition, which resulted in a tattoo on the inside of her index finger that reads “125%.” “Of course, at that point, it wasn’t about his use of material,” she says, “but about his dedication and generosity. It was his idea to open up his exhibition to people from the community, to performers or for discussions about the difficult things he wants to talk about in his work.”
One of those themes is the gun violence that has ravaged many black communities; Chicago, Cave’s home of three decades, had more shooting victims (2,948) in 2018 than Los Angeles (1,008) and New York (897) combined, largely concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. (Cave had hoped to open Facility on Chicago’s racially diverse West Side, only to run into intransigent zoning laws; he wants to find a permanent home there for “Until” and has art projects planned with the area’s high schools.) Cave’s most recent gallery show, “If a Tree Falls,” which featured sculptural installations and opened at Jack Shainman Gallery in fall 2018, strikes a more somber, elegiac note than his previous work, juxtaposing body parts in bronze monochrome, including casts of his own arms emerging from the gallery walls, holding delicate flower bouquets, which suggest a sense of renewal, of hope and metamorphosis. He’s now working on a new series of bronze sculptures, which include casts of his own hands, topped with cast tree branches, birds and flowers, the first of which is meant to debut at Miami’s Art Basel in December. The sculptures will be on a much bigger scale — a human form made larger than life with embellishment, not unlike the Soundsuits in approach but with a new sense of gravity and monumentality (they are intended to be shown outdoors). The man famous for bringing a light touch to the heaviest of themes is, finally, stripping away the merry trappings and embracing the sheer weight of now.
When I ask Cave how he feels about the critical reception of his work — he is one of that select group of artists, like Jeff Koons or David Hockney, who is celebrated by both high art and popular culture — he tells me that he stopped reading his shows’ reviews, but not because he’s afraid of being misunderstood or underappreciated; instead, he seems to be objecting to a kind of critical passivity. “What I find peculiar is that no one really wants to get in there and talk about what’s behind it all,” he says. “It’s not that I haven’t put it out there. And I don’t know why.”
I push him to clarify: “Do you mean that a white reviewer of your show might explain that the work provides commentary on race and violence and history but won’t extend that thinking any further, to his or her own cultural inheritance and privilege?”
“They may provide the context, but it doesn’t go further. They’re not providing any point of view or perspective, or sense of what they’re receiving from this engagement. I just think it’s how we exist in society,” he replies.
Is art alone enough to shake us from our complacency? Two decades into a new millennium, these questions have fresh urgency: By turning away from stricken neighborhoods and underfunded schools, we’ve perpetuated the conditions of inequality and violence, effectively devaluing our own people. We’ve dimmed the very kind of 20th-century American dreaming that led so many of us, including Cave, to a life filled with possibility. Whether or not this can be reversed depends on our being able to look without judgment and walk without blinders, he believes. It means reassessing our own roles in the public theater. It means choosing not to be in denial or giving in to despair. It means seeing beyond the self to something greater.
“I just want everything to be fabulous,” he tells me, as we part ways for the afternoon. “I want it to be beautiful, even when the subject is hard. Honey, the question is, how do you want to exist in the world, and how are you going to do the work?”
Rather than going from one high-profile commission to the next, the architect has an alternative focus: designing shelters for the displaced.
WRITING ABOUT Shigeru Ban is unlike writing about nearly any other living architect, in the sense that most of his important work cannot be seen or experienced in person. This is not to say that it is hidden or out of the way. He has, like many architects, designed a panoply of private homes, many of them unusual and innovative. He’s built a prefab plywood hotel in the Japanese ski town of Karuizawa; a new Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, (created in partnership with Jean de Gastines and crowned by a roof intended to resemble a Chinese bamboo-woven hat); and a museum in Aspen, Colo., its curtain wall fronted by a resin-pressed cardboard lattice screen. His recent Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Shizuoka is an inverted cone half-contained within a glass box capped by a flat roof: a building that is in some sense pure image, and a commanding presence in this sleepy town at the foot of Japan’s most recognizable symbol. But seen against the full spectrum of Ban’s projects, this “normal” architectural output is unusual, for his significant work is temporary — made to disappear when the clients for whom the work is created no longer need it. Those clients are victims of disaster.
Ban, a designer of houses and visitors’ centers and condominiums and towers, is perhaps more famous as a designer of emergency shelters, for people suffering from earthquakes and floods, for people escaping violence and genocide. For them, he has employed a signature material — recycled paper tubes of variable length and thickness. These are available all over the world: You find a smaller version of them at the center of a toilet paper or paper towel roll. Not only are they abundant, they are structurally sound and can serve as the basis for a shelter, a house or even a church. Ban has built all of these — for refugees from the Rwandan genocide in 1994; for victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan; and for himself, in 1995, a weekend house at the foot of Mount Fuji. The latter was made to test the paper tubes and acquire government approval for their deployment as a structural building material in Japan. Their success meant that he could use them for constructing a paper-tube church in Kobe, which has since been removed and reconstructed in Taiwan. But he has hardly ever spent time in his vacation home. “I have no weekends,” he said in an interview last spring at his Tokyo office, “so the house is not used at all.”
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In person, Ban displays considerable self-possession, rarely moving from his seat except to flip hurriedly through pages of a catalog to illustrate a point, and his practice in speaking about his work means that he anticipates questions and answers them efficiently, with an occasional touch of impatience. Invariably dressed in all black, he is box-shouldered and stocky — lingering evidence of his youthful rugby-playing days — and his recognizable cone of hair has thinned. Now in his early 60s, he finds himself at once the most recognized and laureled humanitarian architect of this era — he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014 — but also beset by rivals who seem to have belatedly taken up his mission to direct their architecture toward the world’s most vulnerable populations. Ban’s work is rooted in empathy and charity, but it reflects a volatile world, and his most important structures require disaster and death in order to exist. Climate change, refugee crises, mass migration — these have been Ban’s inspirations in a field that has been guided by cults of personality and museum-board donations. And yet, Ban’s success also marks a possible shift in the field of architecture as a politicized endeavor, a kind of solution (if a temporary one) to unavoidable crisis. After a decade or more of “starchitecture,” of architects and buildings as brands, the profession is increasingly being discussed as a social mission. But Ban has been doing it for several decades. He spoke of contemporaries whose sudden interest in sustainable materials was “fashionable.” He himself considers “sustainability” an empty buzzword; he is simply concerned about waste, he says — with a sort of disdain that makes him seem like the hipster of humanitarian architecture. I was into this stuff, Ban seems to say, before it was cool.
But he also expressed pleasure about the growing number of students at architecture programs around the world who seemed interested in doing work that had public benefit. This was a change that had the power to reshape the profession at a time when it might be desperately needed. He remained at once sanguine and grim. “We think more problems are coming,” he said. “I need to solve them one by one. I’m sure these natural disasters will continue happening. There’s no solution.”
BECAUSE OF THE somewhat hermetic nature of Japanese traditional architecture, which was shielded from global influences for centuries, as well as longstanding debates among modern Japanese architects about what is and isn’t “Japanese” in their architecture, it is common to try to situate contemporary Japanese architects within some specifically Japanese lineage. A problematic gesture under any circumstance, it is also an inadequate way to understand the work of Ban, and it is an interpretation that he rejects. “I never studied architecture here,” he said, referring to Japan, “and I grew up in Tokyo in a nontraditional building.” The spirit of his architecture is international. Of course, there are many varieties of internationalism in architecture, most of them venal and repulsive. Plenty of architects are wealthy jet-setters who plop down signature buildings around the world regardless of context.
But Ban’s is an alternative International Style. Though Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the principal figures in his early architectural education, it is nonetheless a different, more motley group of figures — Alvar Aalto, Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto, as well as the architects of Southern California’s Case Study Houses, begun in the 1940s — whose impression is most palpable in his work. Unless it is a paper-tube shelter — his only signature — a building by Ban is not obviously his in the way that ribbons of aluminum glinting in the sunlight will immediately signify Frank Gehry. With every new structure, he seems to be trying out a new version of himself.
Ban’s early life was surrounded by carpentry. His parents’ home in Tokyo was made of wood, which itself was not so strange, but renovations to the house were constant. His mother, a fashion designer, regularly enlarged the house to accommodate her seamstresses; his father worked for Toyota. Ban observed the carpenters moving in and out of his house. “I ended up watching what they do with beautiful tools, and I enjoyed the smell of wood,” he said. Not knowing that there was even such a profession as architecture, he wanted to be a carpenter. It was in art class in middle school, where he was tasked with making a basic model of a house, that he discovered his talent and love for architecture. By chance, he stumbled upon a magazine article about the work of John Hejduk — the dean of the architecture school at Cooper Union in New York from 1975 until his death, in 2000 — and the extraordinary group of figures he had assembled there, including the architects Peter Eisenman, Ricardo Scofidio and Bernard Tschumi. Ban decided that he wanted to study at Cooper Union, but they didn’t accept applications from non-United States residents, so he obtained a visa and moved to California to study English. He also looked at architecture schools throughout the state. Eschewing a traditional large institution like University of California, Berkeley or U.C.L.A., he ended up enrolling at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, a new school where then iconoclastic architects like Gehry and Thom Mayne were teaching.
SCI-Arc was housed in a repurposed factory building in Santa Monica; studio spaces were built by the students themselves using scaffolding. Created in 1972, its co-founder and first director, Ray Kappe, envisioned “an autonomous self-governing institution based upon the premise that the 200 students and 25 faculty members work together to determine its academic direction.” The net result was an extremely open environment in which there were no letter grades, debate was frequent and constant and, as the British architect Peter Cook wrote, one had “to listen hard to tell which is Master or Pupil.”
What Ban drew upon most was the inheritance of California Modernism that animated the school and punctuated the city’s landscape. He was most impressed by the Case Study Houses, a famous series of numbered experiments in prefabricated single-family housing — 36 in all, though not all were built — initiated in 1945 around Los Angeles by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and Ray and Charles Eames were among the homes’ designers. These were attempts to expand upon the ideas embodied in early Modernist homes, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, which had opened up living quarters and dissolved boundaries between rooms and also the exterior landscape. It was through the Case Study Houses that Ban discovered traditional Japanese architecture. “My Japanese influence was made through Case Study Houses by accident,” he said. “Case Study Houses have many Japanese influences: for example, the connecting inside and out, like a Japanese traditional house, and also the way to use the materials, and also the post-and-beam structure. There were many innovative ways of using materials. That really amazed me, and really made my architecture experience in California.”
It was also in California that Ban learned about the work of Fuller, the still-uncategorizable self-taught genius of 20th-century American design. At SCI-Arc, Ban and other students were instructed to create a geodesic dome, the classic elemental sphere of interlocking triangles that Fuller pioneered in the 1950s, which then made its imprint all over the world, from hippie communes to Disney’s Epcot Center. Fuller believed that the dome would be a solution to the global housing crisis, an inexpensive and intuitive structure that could be assembled with a minimum of materials. For Ban, the impressive fact was Fuller’s relentless quest to find a new kind of structure and his total resistance to stylistic trends. Speaking of Fuller and the German architect Frei Otto, who created light, membrane-like roof structures in the 1960s, he said, “They were developing material and structure to create their own architecture without being influenced by the popular style of the day.” It is not hard to hear in Ban’s words an attempt to find a description that suits him as well.
FOR A WORLD-RENOWNED architect, Ban has a quiet personal life. He and his wife, a jewelry and handbag designer, have no children. He maintains a demure, fairly nondescript three-story office building on a side street in Setagaya, Tokyo, with around 40 employees. The surrounding neighborhood, where a number of Ban’s works can be found (the office will give you a guided map), illustrates the exceptional diversity of Japanese single-family housing, each building different from the next. One of Ban’s early buildings, the Hanegi Forest apartments (1997), gives the impression of a glass brick apparition in the woods, hoisted on thin pilotis, surrounded by trees, its entrances shielded by one- and two-way mirrors. Nearby, a 2006 building, Atelier for a Glass Artist, couldn’t be more different, with its decisively simple steel angle-shelf system as the core structure, its blue steel frame and its charming porthole window above the main entrance, giving the whole thing the feel of a postmodern barn. Traipsing from house to house, you get the sense not of a unifying style but of an architect in promiscuous search of new means to realize his ends.
After transferring to Cooper Union in 1980, Ban soon found himself in a more rigorous but also more combative environment. He studied with Eisenman; the two did not get along. Ban said Eisenman told him his name was “too complicated to remember,” so he called him “Sugar Bear” instead. He also recalled Eisenman saying things to the effect of, “Because you’re Japanese, you cannot understand this theory, and that’s why you are doing totally different things.” (Eisenman confirmed the nickname, though he claimed it was affectionate. Of the subsequent statement, he said, “That’s not the way I would have said it; I might have said, ‘Because you’re Japanese, you cannot understand Western ideology or Western theory’ — just as it’s difficult for Western students to understand a Japanese idea called ma — that’s really what I meant.”) In a class on the concept of grafting, in which the task was to combine two different architectural styles, Ban repeatedly brought in work that, he said, Eisenman did not appreciate or understand. Ban also had an altercation with another professor. This professor (whom Ban declined to name) and Eisenman decided that they would not accept Ban’s thesis, and he would have to redo his project. (Eisenman said that two voices alone on the committee could not have failed Ban, and that it was more likely under the purview of the dean, Hejduk, who “ruled the school with an iron hand.”) Completely dispirited by the situation at Cooper Union, Ban took a year off from school in 1982, at which point he returned to Japan to intern with the stylistically mercurial Arata Isozaki, who tempered heroic gestures in his architecture with references to the bombing of Japanese cities in World War II, and who would go on to win the Pritzker Prize himself in 2019.
Ban’s purpose in returning to Japan was to reacquaint himself with the country from which he had been away for several years. “Working for Isozaki one year was not only learning architecture but understanding Japanese society,” he said. Somewhat ironically, he was also impressed by Isozaki’s commitment to working outside Japan — to being an international figure, not limited by the strictures or modes of Japanese architecture. After graduating from Cooper Union in 1984, Ban returned once again to Japan. He worked part-time as a gallery curator while also designing his first building — an atelier for his mother that he later converted into the headquarters for his architectural practice. He also began working for the photographer Yukio Futagawa, the founder of the Japanese magazine Global Architecture, more commonly referred to as GA. It was under the auspices of this job that he first traveled to Finland, where he came across the midcentury work of Alvar Aalto, an experience that seems to have been life-changing. It was not something he had been prepared for. “While I was studying in Cooper Union, I was not interested in Alvar Aalto at all,” he said. “The attitude of Cooper Union was more toward so-called International architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; Alvar Aalto was not well respected.” Aalto’s work, like 1939’s Villa Mairea in the Finnish countryside, an L-shaped retreat that is also a monument to and celebration of the birch trees in the surrounding forest, depended on the sensual experience of common materials, especially wood. Ban learned about Aalto from books, which made his stature difficult to comprehend. You can understand some architects’ work through pictures, but Aalto’s needed to be experienced: “His work is about context — the environment, the local community, the cultural background,” Ban told Design Build Network in 2007. “He proves that you can design unique, sculptural buildings that clients will want and still be in context, that you can reflect the surroundings, use natural materials such as wood and brick and experiment with new methods of design.”
In 1986, he was commissioned by Axis Gallery in Tokyo to design an exhibition about Aalto, for which he wanted to recreate Aalto’s bentwood designs. The wood was too expensive, so instead Ban created undulating partition walls of paper tubes. Paper had been a kind of recurring motif throughout his development: He had applied to the Tokyo University of Arts in high school, where he was not accepted, by making paper structural models and drawings. At SCI-Arc, paper became a touchstone material because it was cheap and easy to source. At the gallery, paper tubes were used to prop up display cases, and Ban suspected he could get more use out of them. There was nothing special about the material at all — it was not so much developed in any scientific method as willed into existence, made from recycled materials, fire- and waterproofed, if need be, and then recycled again once it was no longer in use — and yet its banality is what made Ban’s use of the material so remarkable.
I VISITED Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Center on an early summer day that was so heavy with rain that I was unable to see the otherwise unmissable mountain itself. (“In the misty rain Mount Fuji is veiled all day,” Matsuo Basho wrote, in a famous 17th-century haiku. “How intriguing!”) To compare this work to Ban’s other proclivities and inclinations is to feel something jarring. The large upside-down “mountain” at the center of the structure is a very clear reference of the sort that is otherwise unknown in Ban’s work, since he rigorously avoids the monumentality and symbolism that is typical of contemporary architecture. But in the cypress-wood latticework that covers the cone, you see a descendant of Fuller’s structural emphasis as well as the alternative Modernist preference for sensuous material.
Ban’s houses are usually neglected by critics in favor of his shelter architecture, but each of them represents a version of his ongoing experiment with removing and adding various elements that historically have been considered essential to a structure. In 1995, he created a Curtain Wall House in Tokyo, which is quite literally wrapped in an enormous curtain hung from its roof. Meanwhile, his 1997 Wall-less House is a box on a sloping site in Nagano that dispenses with most of the mullions and walls, using sliding panels to separate the rooms, creating an extreme version of the open floor-plan. Ban called these “my Case Study Houses.” “I wanted to create something experimental,” he said. “Wall-less House, Curtain Wall House, Paper House — every house I built in that period has a different theme.”
His move to create shelter architecture came out of seeing the temporary structures offered to Rwandan refugees in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1994. At the time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was handing out plastic tarps and aluminum poles to hold them up, but many people were instead selling the aluminum and harvesting nearby wood to frame their tents, contributing to massive deforestation. Ban wrote to the U.N.H.C.R. several times before flying to Geneva. There, he encountered the organization’s senior physical planner, Wolfgang Neumann, who became interested in Ban’s idea of using recycled paper tubes to build shelters. Ban was hired as a consultant and the concept was later implemented at a camp in northern Rwanda. The first time Ban used paper tubes for a disaster relief project was in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, where a series of small houses — about 170 square feet each — were constructed for victims of an earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. As is typical for Ban’s humanitarian projects, each shelter cost less than $2,000 and took a single day to construct; according to Ban, about 30 were built over the span of a few weeks, mostly by volunteers. These shelters remained in Kobe for about a year, after which they were dismantled and recycled. But a church and community center in the city, also designed by Ban and built out of recycled paper, stood for 10 years, a testament to the durability of his work. He has also used shipping containers to build thousands of small housing units in Onagawa, on Japan’s northeast coast, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there, and beer crates weighted with sandbags have occasionally served as the foundation for his Paper Log Houses (including in Kobe), illustrating Ban’s commitment to relying on “local materials” in the most expansive sense: whatever is cheap and locally available that won’t result in waste. These structures are off-the-cuff, constructed quickly by staff members of the Voluntary Architects Network, a nongovernmental organization founded by Ban in 1995, along with the help of local students and volunteers. Initially, he was able to pay for them through donations and his own earnings; some of his relief projects now receive public funding. But he often uses his expensive commissions to test out ideas for his aid work, toying with cheap materials in structures for the rich so he can use them later to help those who have lost everything. In this way, his career presents an argument that paper and other cheap, sustainable, recyclable materials are no less durable than the more conventional tools of the architect, and are in fact as appropriate in the facade of a museum or weekend home as they are in a shelter for the displaced. It is in one sense a political gesture, a democratic leveling of class and finance and other subtexts that haunt every architect — but of course, these materials have also become a brand. “Developing a material and structure was important to me, to make my own style,” he said. As we spoke in his office, we were sitting on chairs with seats and backing made of paper tubes.
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Ban is not given to displays of pity or indignation; he usually explains his humanitarian efforts by citing his horror at waste rather than some charitable impulse. It is an austere, utilitarian front for the architect to present, considering that, at the moment, he is trying to expand his humanitarian efforts beyond temporary structures and has just begun working with the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to develop housing for its new capital, Amaravati — multistory units for which paper tubes would not likely be appropriate (he has instead been considering fiberglass foam-core panels). But disasters will continue to preoccupy him. He spoke of doing larger urban-scale planning, preparing cities for disaster relief. More earthquakes, certainly in Japan, are likely, to say nothing of climate-change induced nightmares. “This moment, the beginning of the 21st century, is a big moment to change the direction — toward sustainability and disaster relief,” he said. “This will continue as the main theme of this century.” Times had changed since the Modernist era: “Those times, people believed that they would have utopia some day. But we know that it’s not true. There’s no utopia.”
It was the rare idée reçue in Ban’s otherwise searching manner of speaking: that the Modernist quest for utopia is over, and we now live in fallen, or at least more sober, times. That was a commonplace I didn’t need to travel to Japan to hear. Nor did it seem true — not of Ban’s work, nor of the growing political conviction around the world about fighting against the very tragedies to which Ban has spent years responding. In addition to the architects, partly inspired by Ban, discovering, or rediscovering, their sense of social responsibility, we are regularly reminded, whether through the demolition of yet another Brutalist social-housing project or through a new exhibition on the architecture of the former Yugoslavia, that it was not too long ago that entire societies, and their architects and planners, committed themselves to climbing out of the most devastating wars, and to providing for their laboring, needy and vulnerable populations. Though he continued to build “normal” buildings, Ban had at some point recognized the non-normal conditions so many lived in and committed himself, at least partly, to a different cause; what remains to be seen is how many can be convinced to do the same — or even more. In one section of the Mount Fuji World Heritage Center, a sign reminds tourists that the mountain is a still-active volcano. This was, I realized later on, a threat — but it was also a promise.
Digital production and design by Katherine Cusumano, Hilary Moss, Jacky Myint, Caroline Newton and Daniel Wagner. Illustrations by Ilya Milstein. Animation by Jonathan Eden.
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