BOOK CLUB: RAFAEL DE CÁRDENAS / ARCHITECTURE AT LARGE
“Unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have disorder only without magnificence,” wrote Edmund Burke in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. The ideas of the 18th-century philosopher are among a series of quotes chosen by the sublime New York-based architect and interior designer Rafael de Cárdenas, who is celebrating the tenth anniversary of his highly unorthodox practice with a splashy new monograph, Architecture at Large (which is also the name of his firm). In projects spanning lavish private homes, Nike concept stores, restaurants, galleries, exhibitions, and furniture, de Cárdenas shows his mastery of the appearance of infinity in moods and spaces of luxurious, sometimes opulent, pop-infused, gauche romanticism — whatever the ambiance, really, as long as it’s never half-hearted. The native New Yorker and former Calvin Klein designer draws from a wealth of cultural sources in his work, from obscure B movies, Klaus Nomi, or a Toto song to the writing of Dave Hickey and Adolf Loos’s American Bar in Vienna. Where others insist on “genre” or “style,” de Cárdenas sees scenes and spectacles, and in his interiors and objects amplifies them to exhilarating new extremes (while never taking himself too seriously).
Co-edited by the patron saint of art books Karen Marta and PIN–UP’s Felix Burrichter, Architecture at Large showcases both realized and unrealized projects, from early retail and interior-design gigs to biennial proposals and some of the firm’s best-known large-scale interventions (such as their renovation of NYC restaurant Asia de Cuba, which is almost criminal in its perfection). Journeying through the multiplicitous mind of the designer-architect-decorator-set-builder with a clarity and joy rarely found in architecture books, Architecture at Large revels in its elaborate physical design, which includes a smorgasbord of paper changes and a flutter of double-page foldouts that also serve as cover flaps. While the index arranges projects chronologically, the themed chapters depart from any strict timeline to follow de Cárdenas’s idiosyncratic methodology of designing from particular “ambiances” or “moods,” a strategy which often eradicates any trace of recognizable “authorship.” His “flawless ability to synthesize elements and genres into a cohesive whole” — in the words of contributing author Jesse Seegers — has a queer sensibility to it, a post-Postmodern architectural roleplay with authenticity, style, and aesthetic “realness” that Seegers rightly compares to the art of drag, where styles are occupied to perfection only to be abandoned shortly after. In its 300-plus pages of gorgeousness, Architecture at Large paints the larger-than-life portrait of a multicolored manifestation of a queer academic arriving back in professional practice, parading an unmistakably American style of design freedom which the late New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp (another figure in de Cárdenas’s canon) once neatly summed up as “voluptuous, emotional, intuitive, and exhibitionist.”