“All I wanted was...reconciliation—to live as myself, to clothe myself in a more proper body, and achieve Identity at last.” - Jan Morris, Conundrum (describing sex reassignment surgery)
Body modification has a complex and lengthy history in numerous cultures throughout the world, a history which continues to evolve. In September 1998, in Lyon, France, an international team of doctors completed the first (successful) hand transplant. Less than one year later, the first hand transplant in the United States was completed at Louisville's Jewish Hospital. The Cleveland Clinic, in October 2004—after an independent review board deliberated for ten months on the ethical, biological, psychological, and medical implications—became the first medical institution in the United States to receive approval to perform face transplants. The ethical debate re-emerged a year later when a team of French surgeons completed the first ever face transplant, which included a new nose, chin, and lips for a woman attacked and disfigured by a dog.
As the technological boundaries of medicine are continually widened, bringing what was once science fiction into the realm of daily practice, the ideological (more than the technological) limitations of medicine are called into question. Face transplantation becomes another anecdote in a long list of technological advancements that have transformed cultural mores, medical ideology, and human identity. Face transplantation also reinforces the inseparability of aesthetics and utility, a discourse historically seen in architecture. The architectural discourse on “form vs. function,” however, has widened, not only to the realms of furniture and fashion design, but to “body design” as well. Home modification, for example, has become prevalent in popular media for its ability to revitalize or transform the identities of the inhabitants.
In contemporary Western culture, identity—the “self”—has become increasingly malleable, perpetuated by medical advancements, new assistive and enhancement technologies, and innovations in engineering and manufacturing. Body modification has progressively become a viable means for transforming one’s identity, while architecture (especially housing) has become an extension, signifier, and modifier of the self.
Both human and architectural bodies, not unlike the automobile, have become customizable commodities—easily re-contoured, re-colored, and re-surfaced. The popular media has perpetuated this with such programs as Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. For some it is a search for a taller, more robust, more confident, more intelligent, sexier self. For others it is a pursuit of an exterior identity that correlates with the identity of the interior. Yet for others it is simply an expressive means (e.g. tattoos), a way to investigate the articulation of the space around, on, and in the body. Cosmetic surgery is merely one example among hundreds.