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 minuscule 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.
The work is in three sections. The first is called “A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas.” This is drawn from the now celebrated, or in some circles notorious, study of Las Vegas made by a group of Yale architecture students under the Venturis’ direction in 1968. It is straight, stunning analysis. Part Two, a critical essay called “Ugly and Ordinary Architecture, or The Decorated Shed,” is the most provocative part of the book; here are the controversial theories and the assaults on contemporary practice. Part Three presents examples of the firm’s work.
The Venturis and Steven Izenour claim that modernism began with the credo that form followed function and expressed structure. Now, they say, program has become subordinate to the “image” of a functional building stressing structural principles. Moreover, structural systems are rarely as radical as these images imply. Largely because of costs, most building construction today is conventional. The architect’s more ambitious solution is frequently just as conventional, basically, as the speculative builder’s, but he disguises or contorts it to look “heroic and original.”
The authors invoke the familiar Long Island duck-shaped structure for roadside duck sales as an example in which the ultimate formalization of structure into image has taken place. “Heroic and original,” or H&O structures, as they call them, are ducks, they say; dead ducks. The modern building has rejected decoration only to become one big decorative object in itself. Modern architecture has not destroyed symbolism or images, as it has claimed to do; it has substituted one set for another. Naming names, they set up Paul Rudolph, for example, as an easy target.
In contrast to ducks, they posit the “decorated shed.” The decorated shed is a conventional box or container that does not deny its ordinariness with acrobatic architectonics. It does not suggest more advanced or progressive technology than it delivers. It adds decorative elements to the common container, much as the nineteenth century did; it does it this time with ornaments and signs.
But if the reader begins to get the idea that the authors are just suggesting acceptance of the spontaneous vernacular and rejection of the “artistic” product, it is not that simple. Again, by turning things inside out, they are proposing an artistic product based on the “principles” of the vernacular. And they propose this with the kind of vision with which the Pop artists turned the world of the real into the world of the patently absurd. They are not at all averse to this kind of manipulation; in fact, it is a prime part of their creative architectural process.
Guild House, for example, the Venturi firm’s housing for the elderly in Philadelphia, is a deliberately U&O, or “ugly and ordinary” building, as opposed to H&O, or “heroic and original.” It has been called “dumb and ordinary” by some well-known architects. It uses ugly and ordinary brick walls, catalogue windows, and conventional detailing. But it sets those walls back as trompe l’oeil wings, slits a parapet that is obviously false at the top, uses an ornamental, nonstructural arch, puts a round, fat, clearly non-supporting, marble-clad column at the entrance, and combines stock windows of varying sizes. This is all done with a careful, arcane mannerism—mannerism is an extremely important word in any discussion of the Venturis’ work—that brings as many of the ideas of complexity and contradiction into play as can be squeezed out of stock components. It is not dumb, or ordinary, at all. But the Venturis delight in paradox.
For while other modern architects will collect and house Pop Art, they won’t build it. Certainly, unlike the case of Guild House, they will not put a huge, gilded television aerial as the building’s crowning element, as art and symbol. We are told that such symbols, signs, and decorative touches are to be exploited for their “heraldic” associations. Even the tenants’ plastic flowers, the architects say, will fit into this kind of environment, where they would violate H&O.
If H&O is a bore, it follows in the authors’ reasoning that U&O is interesting. They make it extremely so in much of the book’s critical analysis of the contemporary scene, which is consistently revelatory and instructive.
The dissection of the cause and effect of the architecture of the super-highway—the building as billboard and architecture as communication with messages to be received in the moving car at sixty miles an hour—is first-rate interpretive architectural history. The breakdown of symbolism is masterful. At one point, in a few concise paragraphs, the history of a single aspect of modern architectural form is traced from Le Corbusier, to the tropical Brazilian interpretations of his buildings, to Miami, and to the motels that imitate the Florida vocabulary, pursuing modifications and meanings where conventional history and critics stop. From Latourette to Neiman-Marcus; the mind boggles. But this is historical reality.
A basic premise of the authors is that the modern movement created an abstract vision, in which buildings and spaces were looked at as related masses, voids, forms, textures, and colors. They point out that this is not the way the buildings of the past were designed or intended to be seen. They were rich in calculated symbolism and iconography and were meant to be read that way. Although it is no impediment to appreciation of Renaissance churches not to have absorbed Wittkower’s essays in the aesthetic symbolism of the age of humanism, they reveal intention and add to understanding
We are told that current building is still rich in symbolism and iconography, whether we like the cultural expression of the commercial strip or Levittown, or not. The use of signs and decorations is connotative of values and standards. The drive-in may not be the portal of Chartres cathedral, but there are propagandistic parallels. “The explicit symbolism of [the] virtually pedimented [Howard Johnson] doorway,” the authors write, “a rigid frame in heraldic orange enamels, matches the classical pediment with feudal crest over the entrance of a patrician palazzo, if we grant the change in scale and the jump in contrast from urban piazza to pop sprawl.”
The comparison is tremendously intriguing, if we are willing to substitute the most impoverished commercial production for art and craft, and cheap convenience for any kind of quality. Contrary to rumor, quality, particularly of ideas, has not gone totally out of style. Still, you can’t bring back what is gone, in comprehension, skill, and cost, and you have to come to terms with the world as it is.
Certainly you can be thoroughly intrigued with the very special way in which the Venturis come to terms with that world. Within the unavoidable straightjacket of common, low-cost construction that dictates almost universal conventional systems and results today, they propose to restore to architecture complexity, contradiction, symbolism, and a lot of other high-toned values. This is to be done by the sophisticated manipulation of the most mundane elements of the ordinary commercial scene.
If the layman has problems with the hermetic intentions of modern art, he is going to be floored by the Venturis’ buildings, representing their theory in action. But he is not alone; so are a lot of the Venturis’ peers. It is hard to accept the basic assumption that what is, is therefore good, that the cheap and easy compromise is also good art. Because it would be a serious mistake to think for a moment that the Venturis don’t care about good art, or about the art of architecture; this is their version, and never has a more elaborate polemic been devised.
And so the last part of the book illustrating the authors’ work—thin in examples because their production has been small—is the most controversial of all. The work is skillful. This reviewer believes they deserve to do more. In spite of the aggressive use of stock parts and methods, there is nothing raw or crass about it. It intellectualizes the most vulgar aspects of Pop practice as a worldly, witty, creative vocabulary. Full of sophisticated ironies, it is often as much commentary as construction. And although the Venturis profess to admire the vulgar, they simply cannot be vulgar, no matter how much they try. It comes out tasteful.
But nagging doubts persist whether we really love the Pop American landscape so much, or believe that it is so right, or feel that the products of the fast-buck operators have such social and aesthetic validity. Is this really what we want our buildings to be, is the sleazy so worthy of emulation, even when run through a mind that marries it to arguments for high art? The visual jokes are so “in.” The rules are so self-conscious. The work, in the hands of imitators, immediately becomes a superficial set of images, or another kind of duck.
The style of Las Vegas, of the highway strip, of the decorated shed, is a legitimate expression of time and need, of purpose and function. It is, therefore, real style, and it must be reckoned with. The Venturis have made us look at it with a fresh and discerning eye. The Pop landscape has its validities and its lessons.
To intellectualize the results of this analysis as a system of design, however, and to attempt to produce deliberately the same effects, to reduce spontaneous evolution to a conscious gesture of imitation, to make schlock the standard-setter, is a dangerous design game. It invalidates the very genuineness and meaning of the natural product by turning it into artifice. And this is very high artifice, indeed.
That is the hazard of polemics translated into practice. Theory, even brilliant theory, when pressed into use, can also force its proponents into arbitrary and artificial positions. The act can, of course, produce quite a different effect that history will reckon in totally different terms, as Ruskin’s exhortations for the imitation of the Venetian Gothic produced a distinct phase of High Victorian style. That will be amusing for future generations to see.
Moreover, the Venturis proclaim catholicity and then do just what their revolutionary predecessors did, damn all existing establishment practice. Once again, the bath water is going out with the baby. We do not agree, for example, that the Boston City Hall is a duck that would better be a box with a sign saying “I Am A Monument,” no matter how amusing the suggestion. There is room for the legitimate descendants of Le Corbusier, and symbolism is a far more complex and ironic subject than even the Venturis convey.
Simplification, which the Venturis decry, remains an intelligent and essential part of art and problem solving. The rejection of simplicity opens a can of worms for those who disguise or confuse a functional problem with appalling visual flimflam instead of solving it—a truly awful part of popular design that the Venturis do not deal with. There is ignorant pretension, as well as the educated pretension of the elite architect, and it is hard to espouse one over the other. Simplification, in the true sense, is the analysis of a program with a constructive and creative concern for an almost forgotten quality: logic.
Commercial expedience is in itself a kind of simplification, although it is not necessarily the best or only kind, and it has its own logic. But it is not a virtue to settle for the lowest common denominator, no matter how artfully interpreted. It is a little too deliberately clever. Elite translations of run-of-the-mill cruddiness are a dubious way to deliver the sense of fitness and beauty that has served for thousands of years as a working definition of architecture in one form or another, and for many needs. There are also questions of spirit and sensibility. There is much more for the architect in 1973 than the big sign and the hard sell.
The tony irony that now includes fake columns and red-flocked wallpaper for its Pop symbolic associations has no impact on the quality of the environment, which is far from being all OK. It is a witty gesture for the cognoscenti, of sublime irrelevance. It is rapidly going to get to be a bore. Actually, the Venturis’ solutions frequently rely much more on an almost fetishistic common sense—an exotic commodity in itself today—no matter what shocking banner they choose to bear. And whatever serious reservations are held, their contribution is beyond debate. It passes the one conclusive test of art and history: we are never going to look at the world in the same way again.
October 18, 1973