‘I saw this show,’ the man with the devil horns is saying, ‘by this French guy, Olivier Rebufa. He makes these, like, self-portraits playing with Barbie.’
‘Barbie the doll?’ asks the woman wearing plastic angel wings on her back.
‘And what are the pictures of?’ asks the woman, plucking a cherry tomato from a cheese table cornucopia.
‘He makes a photo of himself and then he sets up a tableau. He mounts his picture on cardboard and puts it inside. Then he rephotographs it.”
“There’s, like, one where he and Barbie are naked and holding hands in the surf. It’s surreal, but the technology’s quite simple.”
“That’s very Chien Andalou.”
“I mean, there’s no electronic or computer manipulation.”
“Just him and the doll.”
It is Saturday night at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Architectural League is holding its Beaux Arts Ball. As Bill Cunningham recently pointed out in the Times, Beaux Arts balls once were occasions for people to get into outlandish boho fancy dress, shepherdess drag, or else wear cardboard Chrysler Buildings on their heads. Nowadays that sort of thing only happens at John Galliano runways in Paris. This ball, partly sponsored by Prada, continues the tradition—sort of—with the Dantesque theme of Paradiso/Inferno. It’s being held in the cathedral’s 1913 Synod House—a ponderous neo-Gothic building alongside the cathedral and allegedly inspired by the Papal Palace at Avignon. The Synod House has a great hall, a vaulted undercroft, and a spooky stone stairway that puts one in mind of medieval oubliettes. It was originally built as a meeting place for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Tonight in place of skirted clerics, the place is crammed with hundreds of architects and interior and industrial designers; and with the semilegendary Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra; and with a group of hardworking performers from the House of Domination, an on-call “Method go-go” troupe at the Jackie Factory, a/k/a Mother.
“We were hired to play the Seven Deadly Sins,” explains Michelangelo Domination, a tall, mascaraed man whose whiskey baritone results, he explains, from vocal nodes. “I’m Pride.”
We’re in a makeshift curtained dressing area alongside the bathrooms. Michelangelo’s being costumed by designer Kitty Boots in the laces and satins of an 18th-century court dandy. The other sins are slouching around on folding chairs. There’s Sloth, impersonated by Betty Domination as Sleeping Beauty; Greed, drag performer Lavinia Coop Domination got up as a jester; and Lust, portrayed by Jessica Rabbit Domination wearing a stretch-vinyl jumpsuit, devil horns made from dental gutta-percha, and Marilyn Manson contacts she gets from an F/X shop called Sabertooth.
There’s also Wrath and Envy, of course, not to mention Gluttony, played by a superthin woman called Genocide Domination—”a 2000 version of gluttony: I’m bulimic”—carrying a giant strawberry on a fork.
If a “high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments or estate, which gives rise to a feeling and attitude of superiority over others,” or Pride, is a vice, then it’s obviously one that comes with a built-in dispensation for locals. Practically anyone who succeeds here has their “How to Be a Successful New Yorker” instruction booklet open to that page. Well, anyone but Michelangelo. “Do I have any association with the sin of Pride?” he replies to a visitor’s question. “Uh, no.”
In the 100 or so years since the League was formed, with the purpose of “helping artists, architects and the public enrich their understanding of the purpose and importance of the art of architecture, with a constant focus on the aesthetic, cultural, and social concerns,” the city has erected a total of two tough, world-class buildings (Seagrams, Guggenheim). At the same time, it has trashed any number of monuments to Industrial Age elegance, replacing them with neosuburban kitsch that increasingly threatens to make Manhattan a high-end strip mall. Still, the League has done its part over the years to inform the public, keep the important discussions alive, hold a line between the urban Paradiso and Inferno, even if at times the balance gets skewed. “I almost don’t want to get into the 21st century, if things keep going the way they are now,” says one partygoer, an architect and scholar whose fancy-dress contribution is a rumpled red cape. “It’s not a matter of retrenched classicism, it’s a matter of remembering some of the profound lessons of buildings and cities.” What are those lessons, again? “Wonder, enchantment, silence, awe. This is why I don’t want to have a telephone and beeper with me at every moment. I want to be by myself every once in a while.”
“He still thinks it’s smoke signals,” says the architect’s companion, dressed as a naughty nun.
Aside from clusters of garden gnome tables designed by Phillippe Starck (the same ones Ian Schrager deemed too kitsch for the lobby of his latest hotel), the principal enchantment at the Beaux Arts Ball takes the form of Chico O’Farrill, a superannuated figure with a pencil mustache, striped turtleneck, and Hush Puppy shoes. A throwback to the heyday of Goodman and Basie, O’Farrill shuffles splayfooted to the bandstand and opens a sheaf of ancient sheet music labeled Igor’s Suite. In a period where standard party entertainment is a turntable and mic, there is something awe-inspiring about a septuagenarian bandleader standing before a 20-piece band. As O’Farrill floats his hands to conduct, the ambient sound in the old church house reaches a din: chatter, floating laughter, clinking ice, a kind of swirl that, if you could capture it concretely, might resemble a fractal. O’Farrill prompts the horns. There is a blast of music. By some atavistic instinct, the entire crowd falls into line. “Check that out,” says the red-devil formalist. “Structure. It’ll get you every time.”