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In Love With Times Square

Style exists on two levels. It is practiced and produced; something akin, creatively, to breathing. And it is talked about. One is art and the other is polemics. The connection can be tenuous.

Style—the product—is a reality, with or without polemical explanations. It is automatically and inevitably the result of all the confluent factors of a culture and a particular moment. It cannot be created artificially or imitated successfully. That is why the forger’s hand is almost always revealed, through slips of style beyond his control.

Theory is not an independent act. Only the work of art is absolute. Theory illuminates. The interconnections between art and theory are convoluted; sometimes, as with the modern movement in architecture, the rationale better served purposes of persuasion than of analysis. At worst, theory can be the most pretentious of exercises in ego gratification, full of egregious fallacies and hot air, clarifying nothing. At best, it offers devastating insights into art and reality.

Which brings us to the Venturis—Robert Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown—of the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch. The Venturis have been producing theory like hotcakes and buildings in miniscule numbers, and they are a continuing prime topic of debate among architects and intellectuals. Learning from Las Vegas, the book written by the Venturis with Steven Izenour, sums up a “radical” polemical attitude toward “architecture” in today’s world that has had those who think about the subject in turmoil for the last seven years.

For it is that long since Robert Venturi’s “gentle manifesto,” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, appeared, published in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art. A genuinely controversial tract, this slim volume deliberately kicked out the underpinnings of accepted modernist architectural theory. Seven years later Venturian polemics are still going strong and the new book, beginning with its aggressive 11” by 14 1/2” format, is not so gentle. (It is also, in spite of its size, inadequate for the reproduction of charts and pictures that were originally large-scale graphic presentations, and text and pictures are constantly at war.)

Now the Venturis have taken on the architectural establishment in lasting terms. Their ideas have made, and are making, many in the profession extremely uncomfortable and angry. Their theory is making architectural history. Whether it is making architecture is another question.

The answer rests a great deal on your definition of architecture, and the Venturis are offering a very new one, or a very old one with a new twist, depending on your perspective. They look back to a more symbolic, decorative, and literary time, and they devote considerable care to the resuscitation of what might be called a neo-nineteenth-century view filtered through a perversely sophisticated twentieth-century sensibility.

But the celebration of the commonplace, with its Pop Art associations, has been the most publicized and debated Venturi theme. Robert Venturi’s much quoted and frequently misunderstood comment that “Main Street is almost all right” has aroused relentless hostility among the intelligentsia to whom Main Street and the superhighway are classic aesthetic evils. What he is saying, cryptically and ironically, is that a lot can be learned from the Pop environment. Irony is a strong element of Venturi theory and practice, and one of the cardinal sins to serious middlebrow cultural morality and good taste. To the Venturis, good taste is the cardinal sin, and their work is full of unpardonable, elitist wit. They have succeeded in offending almost everybody.

By now it is reasonably common knowledge that the Venturis not only acknowledge the existence of the billboard and the roadside strip, Disneyland, Levittown, and Las Vegas, they like them. They accept all the environmental no-nos of the intellectuals. Moreover, they elevate them to icons. They infinitely prefer the commonplace to the designed architecture of the leading professional. The eye they cast on establishment practice is coolly scathing. If the book were not a great deal more, Learning from Las Vegas would still be a telling indictment of the pretensions and mannerisms that have succeeded, half a century later, in making much of the contemporary architectural revolution a mockery of its founding principles.

The Venturis tell us that the garishness, variety, scale, and symbolism of Main Street and the appointments of the superhighway are a genuine twentieth-century vernacular developed in answer to genuine contemporary preferences and needs. It is the expression of today’s life style. This is our culture, and it is our architecture, like it or not, much more than the approved monuments of the tastemakers, who treat the rest of the built environment like a bastard child.

Nor is this environment without practical and aesthetic application. In the broadest sense, Learning from Las Vegas is a lesson in seeing, and a challenge to evaluation of the contemporary man-made scene. It is a new vision and analysis of the trashy surroundings that we have been taught to disdain. Contrary to some opinion, it is not a put-on; that is an explanation that suffices to make those who are most disturbed by heresy more comfortable. This is original, brilliantly reasoned theory with a solid base of scholarship and an already assured place in architectural literature. And it is forcing a profession, mired in clichés and cant, to take a fresh look at the world and accepted architectural doctrines.

The earlier book by Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, was the first significant break with the theory that sustained the modern movement a philosophy of purification through rejection of the past, the espousal of “functional” design, and the glorification of a highly romanticized machine aesthetic. It was essential to the rite of initiation to don blinders both to the past and to the grubby products of the actual world. Next to purity was consistency. The modern architect had a straight, hard line to toe.

Robert Venturi, a man of enormous sensibility and appreciation of the art of building, failed to toe the line. Faced with dictated choices, he rejected them. He admired all of history—the impurities of Hellenistic Rome, the complex spatial skills of the Renaissance, the artful tricks of the Mannerists, the exuberent intricacies of the Baroque, the revivalism of the nineteenth century. His personal tastes are, sin of sins, catholic. He goes even farther to admire the mixtures that an equally catholic continuity have brought into being in our cities—the complexities and contradictions that make cities rich and multifaceted places as well as chaotic disasters, strong in references to art in the disorder of history.

He can tour Philadelphia, where he lives and works, with a knowledgeable enthusiasm for the past that ranges from the Victorian “excesses” of Frank Furness to the discreet neoclassicism of the city’s museums and waterworks. What he likes best is the all-inclusive scene, with its no-holds-barred inconsistencies, its quota of the excellent and the atrocious given equal, nonjudgmental weight, as they truthfully exist. The reality of the environment, he says, “is in its totality or implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”

His “manifesto” reads:

I like elements which are hybrid, rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality…. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus….

He damns with incisive statements that draw blood. “Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.” He dismisses the “cult of simplicity.” He cites, with scholarly delight, the complexities and contradictions of Michelangelo, Palladio, Borromini, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Soane, Ledoux, and Butterfield. He pinpoints establishment failures, citing, for example, Philip Johnson’s curiously disturbing Wiley House as a failure of form that comes from a failure of “inclusion.” The house’s arbitrary separation of the complexities of living into “either-or” functions, with separate space-containers, he dismisses as artificial formalism that defeats art and life. He has a point. The false order and reduced devices of modernist architectural doctrine led inevitably to diminishing returns.

Beyond its avowed role as a manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture gave new interpretations to the perception and design of cities. Both the Piazza San Marco and Times Square in its prime, we are told, have equal urbanistic validity. Contradictions in scale and texture and the varying heights and styles of surrounding buildings (in the Piazza San Marco) and the jarring inconsistencies of signs and billboards (in Times Square) are both “contained within the consistent order of the space itself.”

Cities, like architecture, are complex and contradictory,” he writes. The unity of the city is “derived from a complex and illusive order of the difficult whole.” The book ends with the observation that “it is perhaps from the everyday landscape, vulgar and disdained, that we can draw the complex and contradictory order that is valid and vital for our architecture as an urbanistic whole.”

Much of this once-shocking doctrine has gained acceptance in recent years. Some of it is simply an idea whose time has come. Some of it is the recognition of truths repressed by the modernist pioneers for consistency of theory and style. A good deal has been an eye-opening exercise for urbanists. It is in this field, in particular, that architectural pluralism is now recognized not only as valid, but as the missing element in the destructively sterile plans of the last twenty-five years.

But it is one thing to see reality whole, and another to turn the vision around for the production of new buildings. Because something is there, and somebody likes it, does not always mean that it is universally desirable as a model. Because it contains elements of validity, it does not necessarily suggest optimum answers. Expediency is frequently the opposite of excellence, and excellence has not yet been willingly scuttled by society. The giant step from theory to practice may contain some giant fallacies.

It is here that so many architects part company with the Venturis—an older generation with the wrath of doctrine scorned, and a younger generation with a new-found delight in the abstract formalism of a revival of Le Corbusian and early modernist aesthetics. There are ironies within ironies.

Learning from Las Vegas begins where Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture left off. It shifts its emphasis from history to contemporary America. The book moves from the earlier generalities and principles to specific studies and examples of the current scene. It deals with the iconography of the roadside strip, of speculative development, of vernacular production and the Pop elements of the built landscape.

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