Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Expressway to reality principle: Inside the Barbie Dreamhouse

[director's cut of the review for ICON magazine]

For the first time I heard about Berlin Barbie DreamHouse, when the German branch of Femen activists and other feminist organizations were protesting against its opening and accusing it of sexist propaganda, and the Mattel company had it protected by the police. Frankly, one wonders what’s the point? Is the world really in such a bad state that the best way of entertaining girls is to put them through the possibly most reactionary experience of womanhood? And why in Berlin, a city afterall famous for its leftist political activism. Yet, the queues I encountered proved otherwise and a rise of tourism is also exactly what the city authorities are counting for.

The first “man-sized” Barbie fun-house opened in Europe confirms the design’s obsession with the ‘life-sized’ and the said ‘experience’. The idea, which partly originated from the Cedric Price’s “fun palace” and Situationists, idea of ‘interactivity’ and conceptual exhibitions in museums like Parisian Pompidou, posits experience always in the center of everything. And if we judged the House only by that, it definitely makes you experience. To an architecture connoisseur there’s a double pleasure/horror about it, depending on the way you look at it. The inflatable pink tent stood just next to Alexanderplatz, the flag GDR square, at the back of the new mall Alexa, so far as many thought the ugliest building in the area. Now there’s something to top this neoclassical kitsch.

With DDR blocks looming behind, it, the tent looks unbelievably tacky. Nobody will believe this is a castle, least of all the children. As the toys become ‘real’, the first association is that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with a gigantic shoe at the front turned into a fountain, around which little girls run and cry.

But they won’t ‘learn’ as Alice did. The color pink, an object of much mockery and attacks to stop making it the girl's colour, in BarbieHouse reaches levels of saturation surpassing the effect LSD or any other psychedelics could guarantee. A true pink-orgy. Which soon makes us nearly hallucinate, which I guess is the desired effect. The idea seems to be to “help” the girls to act out their fantasies, to which Barbie acts as an early catalyst. But is it really acting out or rather harsh conditioning to their future lives? The house is constructed as a magical sesame, a sequence of rooms unveiling little girl’s apparent desires. But is it realising them?

We start – of course – from the kitchen, but strangely the only thing you can make in this vast room is a cake. A cake small, medium or of a size of a little car. Not much nourishment, this is the “retro-feminism” kingdom, where cupcake is a king. The House is in constant whimsical indecision, whether Barbie is a princess or maybe an ordinary woman, with all hes weaknesses. A housewife, or a spaceship pilot? And tell me this isn’t ‘empowering’, huh? But who can blame her? From the salon with, in order: a piano, a horse, a 10 sq.m. bed, and a sofa, we gather she likes a bit of domesticity, and like all of us all she ever thinks of is shoes and handbags. Like all of us she looses her head during shopping (alleys of fake clothes, shoes and bags, imprinted on plastic, occupy several corridors) and dressing in sexy lace underwear in boudoirs and beauty parlours. Cosmetic fetishism is not even really the right word here. Finally, everything (as in life) must end in (cardboard) Paris, with girls hanging on a poor man’s paper Eiffel Tower. The construction is so tacky that lifting our heads we can see the plastic walls aren’t even touching the Styrofoam ceiling.

Hang on, this is for girls? The crudeness with which those adult desires are projected on girls is truly grim. As if seeing this might be too adult entertainment, the creators added some obviously childish elements, like slides, ponies or ballerinas. But it’s too late to be deceived. Soon girls also learn the reality principle: jewellery is secured to the tables, clothes are just the wall picture, dolls are behind the glass, the Barbie toilet doesn’t work and the blond women sitting next to them waiting for manicure smiling are dead. For an extra money, girls can do a catwalk or sing from playback on a rockscene. Yet, in the middle of that there’s a gigantic diamond ring – because all in all, Barbie is a traditionalist, she only wants to marry, and all those shoes were only for flirt. What is also striking is how we’re always made ready to buy: furniture is all made of arranged shelves, on which new and new versions of stylish dolls are packed, which lead straight to the shop. In the end, this is what Barbie House is, a man-size shop.

There’s nothing unnatural in transferring children’s anxieties and desires onto a doll, a human-resembling object, only why it has to be the one, which famously, if it was to become a real-size woman, it would die instantly from suffocation, and her neck and waist would break? By all means, if anyone could really live in the Barbie house, he’d instantly get a depression and lose the will to live. The fascination with Barbie on the side of the design world is then all the more objectionable. Why on the cover of the Architect's Journal issue on powerful women architects, they had to be symbolized by a Zaha-like dressed Barbie? Just mocking the stereotype or a casual, if quite astounding sexism? From what I know about life, if Zaha took after Barbie, British architecture world would’ve lost even this sole argument counter its feminist critics.