Monday, March 3, 2014


While browsing through  aview, the Android app that improves on the much promoted ABCTV iview, an app designed for Apple products – why do corporations indulge Apple in this way when the percentages are changing? - the Channel 4 programme Secrets of the Living Dolls appeared near the top in the ‘S-Z’ listing. Something caught the eye as the finger tapped on the screen to further explore this image of, well, it was not clear. Perhaps this is what grabbed the attention. One saw a gold bikini-clad figure with long blonde hair blurred in its swaying, with a face that one might describe as classically made up. Indeed, it did look overly so, almost to the extent of being falsely styled to conform to every photo-shopped fashion magazine’s front page beauty: literally, just made up – see:

One had forgotten that a tap of the finger started playing the programme. After years of struggling with a clumsy and crude iview app, using aview was just so extremely simple and straightforward. One wonders why it is that the ABCTV refuses to promote aview for Android users. Why does it insist on its Apple bias when there is a parallel and better app for Android? The first images made one look again. What was this show about? It started with a seventy-year-old man in a mansion, who slept upstairs in rooms that were his exclusive domain. There was the suggestion of a deep secret being concealed. As he was shown reaching into his cupboard trying to decide what to wear, one thought that he must be gay; but no. He pulled out a silicone body suit, complete with breasts and vagina, and pulled it on. After adjusting the placement and fit of this shroud, he reached for the mask. This was a silicone hood painted with thick lips and wide eyes in an attempt to capture the essence of every fashion model in its extremes.

The mask was pulled over his head, juggled to get the match of holes with eyes, nose , mouth and ears, and then it was laced at the back like a shoe. The transformation was completed with a flowing, wind-blown wig that he habitually flicked aside with the backs of his hands, gestures that self-important stars use. Now, with the bikini on and carrying the options of a large pair of sunglasses and a chirpy cap, he swayed as though he was indeed on the catwalk, still performing movements learned from watching the style of the ladies in the shows. It was a difficult image to reconcile with the small, wiry, seventy-year-old person who was under all of this silicone glam, especially when he went swimming.

Forgetting about the question of why folk might behave in this way, one pondered on the skin-deep façade and its ambivalent quality that bounced from convincing identity to complete and utter fake farce in the one millisecond. One could see and feel both aspects fighting for the claim to dominance – truth. It was a remarkable experience that never faded throughout the whole programme. Others dressed up too – other ‘female maskers’ as they were called. All held something of this strange and contrasting duality. Even when one saw the factory where these masks and bodysuits were being made, the illusion was maintained. The facts were never strong enough to dismantle the evidence of theatre. One did get the impression that viewing too many silicone vaginas and their moulds might modify one’s perception and make the image just too familiar; but the faces were different. They held their primeval quality of immediate recognition and understanding - of empathy: see

One was confronted by each identity coming into existence. The faces were never identical. Each had its own character, just as each masker had his own name as her. The reactions to the dolled up men were interesting. Other men suddenly got the urge to give a big hug and a vague kiss. It seemed that silicone became real on the touch, unresponsive. When unmasked, this might have been an awkward move, but the shroud made all of the difference. It seemed to generate visions of the ‘Page 3’ girls. There was a somewhat raunchy feel about the whole affair, something clandestine, forbidden, hence interesting. More silicone than flesh could easily be revealed without any change in or threat to anyone’s emotions or sensitivities. The display of the shroud was simple and unthreatening; but this exposure could stimulate visions of fantasized possibilities that seemed to excite some. Perhaps this is why the discretionary vagina existed? Without going into any specific detail, it was explained that there was a pocket option for the vagina too. This was a very strange world indeed.

One was always left floundering between outrage and understanding; disbelief and conviction; irresponsibility and principle. There was a horrendous gap between the flighty falsehood of attractiveness and the reality being concealed that remained as the latent enigma. The flashy, tarty Shiela that blazed her way along the sunny ocean promenade in full flesh colours, was in reality a seventy-year-old, slightly wizened, wiry man. One thought of architecture, how it can be dolled up too.

c.f. image below

The parallel was interesting, as it was here, in this programme, that one could experience aspects of the charade that one is not immediately exposed to in the built environment. One could sense the extremes of this strategy, its true dichotomy; its falsehoods; its convincing games, far more clearly than when standing before a slick building. Our cities become theatres that we participate in, perform in, in much the same manner as the man and his doll interact. We enjoy the game rather than observe and critique. Here, in the show, life itself was exposing its shroud of pretence. If there ever was an example to illustrate how architecture can hold and maintain integrity, and lose it too, it was here. In its most extreme, the built form of a theatre set is the closest parallel to these ‘Living Dolls’ – the most explicit and obvious; but architecture is really never far from this shallow contrast between life and form – forms that shroud life.

There is much experimental shaping and creating with our computer facilities today that are making just about anything possible. While these stunning images might amaze and delight the eye, it is their match to life and their relationship to lived experience of place in time, in the ordinary everyday of existence, that becomes the critical and crucial measure of the art. It is really just too easy to doll something up and create a stunning identity, just as these ‘dolls’ do. It is far more challenging to create a shell for the mollusc, a fit for both physical, emotional and psychical beings and their inter-relationships. This is architecture. The ‘dolls’ show how it is that something other is merely theatre – a game of images: dolling things up for appearances only, ephemeral displays of fashion clichés. No matter how beguiling or expert the illusions might be; no matter how the glossy images in the magazines or the digital files might appeal; architecture is always more that this.

The silicone might be a perfect fit; the eyes, ears, nose and mouth might all work perfectly, just as the fake vagina could too, but there remains something more integral, more complete, more intimately true to the wholeness of an experience that can resonnate with unknown harmonies that enrich when there is coherence and completeness in complexity. Shrouds carry their own death knell. Architecture must never be a shroud. It needs to express reality, not conceal it. It is never like the advertisement that fakes an identity to stimulate desires. It is there to augment, improve, support; to enhance life in every way, be this function or form; form or function - or feeling. Architecture is never ‘dolled up.’ Art always has something of the shroud about it, but it becomes most challenging when the match is between emotions and feelings rather than other different shapes and objects. It is architecture that is most at risk of becoming a tarted-up form; of ignoring any substantial depth in its meaning for life.

Secrets of the Living Dolls needs to be a programme that is kept in the forefront of one’s mind, for it clearly highlights explicitly every problem there is with decorative art and slick architecture: lest we forget.

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