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Shoes and architecture: a walk on the wild side?

Architects seem to jump at the chance to design a shoe – but despite the rich possibilities they bring to how we move through space, footwear remains an area of untapped spatial potential

In his essay ‘Lumbar Thought’, considering his newly acquired blue jeans, Umberto Eco indelibly states how: ‘a garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently’. This raises a vastly neglected consideration in architectural thought: the ‘cladding’ of our bodies. Our garments, armour both in a literal and metaphorical sense, have throughout history influenced our exterior morality and behaviour; not only how we think, but how we negotiate space, perhaps even dictating the spaces we are able to enter in the first place.

Eco’s meditation would not have been complete without a consideration of the item of clothing that is almost always in direct contact with our material surroundings: the shoe, inside which our feet stride forward into the world, timidly, confidently, with great difficulty or running apace.

In ‘On Foot: Architecture and Movement’, Christy Anderson and David Karmon quote Eco, writing that ‘a human race that has learned to move about in shoes has oriented its thought differently from the way it would have done if the race had gone barefoot’. Similarly, a person who has learned to move deftly in high heels will orient their thoughts and body differently to a wearer of trainers. If walking has, as Anderson and Karmon declare, become something of an ‘anomaly’ or even a luxury with modern transport, walking and shoes have a vital part to play in altering our experiences of space.


The NOVA shoe by Zaha Hadid for United Nude. Extravagant in appearance, but conservative in its housing of the foot

As such, it comes as something of a shame that all of the examples on display at the V&A exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, save for some video clips, are inescapably static, akin to looking at a building without being able to move through it. This is not to lessen the formidable collection – and no doubt having a horde of visitors shuffling around in 20-inch shoes and stilettos would not be conducive to an enjoyable exhibition – but in reducing the exhibits to historical, cultural or fetishistic curiosities we seem to miss half of their story.

What the exhibition does prove is that examples of footwear that dramatically affect movement have been the rare and expensive minority – such as the minuscule slippers for bound feet. Beyond the commercial, what is it that makes the shoe such an attractive design proposition to the architect? In the past decade alone, Zaha Hadid has collaborated with United Nude to create the NOVA shoe, an impressive cantilevered form currently on display at the V&A, but one that belies a regular housing for the foot. Jean Nouvel has produced bizarre scuba boots for Ruco Line, and even Oscar Niemeyer worked with Converse in a jarring – and incredibly dull – meeting of minds, culminating in his scribbling of a poem on the side of a regular Chuck Taylor. Further collaborations with Lacoste and Melissa have again produced impressive forms, but do not indicate any real desire to affect how their wearer moves. These shoes may be marketed as revolutionary, but their pushing of boundaries stops at form and production methods. The shoe’s influence on how we move taps into the fundamental architectural concern of experiencing space, and yet it also serves a structural purpose. It is an obsession with movement that unites the two – after all, a work of architecture may appear static in the vacuum of the studio, but it will never be experienced as such; most of our encounters with architecture are entirely reliant on the act of walking, a fact that seems to be lost as soon as the architect becomes a shoe designer.


A 14th century illustration depicts a poulaine wearer standing on the right. Many paintings depicted these long shoes, which occasionally stretched out beyond the frame of scene

The relationship between architecture and the shoe has not always been so explicit or commercial – shoes have long been thought to follow in the stead of architectural trends and were once far bolder in subjecting their wearer to all manner of gaits. The incredibly long and pointy poulaine, popular from the 12th to 15th centuries and reborn as the winkle-picker by 1950s rock and roll fans, is believed by some to have taken its cue from the long, pointed forms of Gothic architecture. Apocryphal perhaps, but in line with art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s declaration that the Gothic style was just as visible in the architecture of the time as it was in the shoes. The rich sought to protect the points of their poulaines with laws restricting the lower classes from wearing them, and the wealthy could be identified by the distinctive shuffle caused by such long shoes, if they moved at all. Their impracticality was seen as a cause of laziness, but this was rather the point. It was a distinctly spatial display of status, one flipped on its head by Little Tich in 1902 for his acrobatic Big-Boot Dance in 28-inch long shoes.

Such a collision largely bypassed all other movements and has arguably remained unexplored until Hadid’s parametric shoe designs. Even the Bauhaus fashions neglected the feet, their theatrics calling instead for practicality. Our footwear has now lost much of its power as a key indicator of status – except for that of the monetary variety – and this is not in itself a bad thing. But what it has taken with it is any real sense of experimentation. If you are after an architect-designed concrete shoe that brings a rigid, inelegant walk the best you can get is a pair of flip flops with a housing block printed on.

Regular footwear – or arguably any footwear at all – regardless how flamboyant its appearance, flattens our experience of our environments. While it is not necessary for everyone to start walking on stilts or in pointed slippers, architects’ attempts to design shoes shed light on what they really are: a moving site of engagement with space, and an area that remains ripe for spatial exploration.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Where: The Victoria and Albert Museum

When: Until 31 January 2016

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