Doing Their Own Thing

U.S. architects: goodbye to glass boxes and all that

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building. It was a book, published in 1966 by an obscure architect and theorist from Philadelphia named Robert Venturi. Its title was Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

This text has the same importance for Post-Modernism as Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, published in 1923, did for Modernism. It is, in other words, one of the hinges of recent architectural history. In tone, Venturi's manifesto was almost diffident: "Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox modern architecture. I like elements which are hybrid rather than 'pure,' compromising rather than 'clean,' distorted rather than 'straightforward,' ambiguous ... and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity ... I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning."

Le Corbusier's book had put a generation on the spot. Progress or reaction? Architecture or revolution? Sheep or goats? Utopia or the dark backside of history? Which do you choose? Now Venturi was arguing for the Either, the Or and the Holy Both, and his text reads rather like the litany that Claes Oldenburg, the most powerful American artist of his generation, had written five years earlier: "I am for art that coils and grunts like a wrestler. I am for art that sheds hair. I am for art you can sit on. I am for art you can pick your nose with or stub your toes on."

In exalting the density and plurality of "everyday" architecture above the singleness of the Modernist ideal, Venturi's ideas joined up with the Pop movement, which by 1966 had already peaked in America. Venturi was roundly damned for this by Modernist critics, as Pop painting had been damned by formalist critics seeking to preserve the "purity" of canonical, Greenberg-style color abstraction. But young architects and architecture students thought otherwise; by the early 1970s Venturi, who had built very few buildings, had attracted a considerable following as a theorist and critic.

His most "shocking" venture was another book, Learning from Las Vegas (1972). That title said it all. After the high ambitions of Modernism, the glitzy show biz vernacular of Route 91.

"We believe," Venturi's group announced, "a careful documentation and analysis of the commercial strip is as important to architects and urbanists today as were the studies of medieval Europe and ancient Rome and Greece to earlier generations." Why? Because the strip was there; it was what the dominant American machine, the car, had actually done to cities. The architect's job was not to ignore the strip (it would not go away, whether Modernism liked it or not), but to learn to do the strip well. And this meant tolerating variety: of style, of lingo, of message. "For the artist, creating the new may mean choosing the old or the existing. Pop artists have relearned this. Our acknowledgment of existing, commercial architecture at the scale of the highways is within this tradition."

Venturi saw the everyday commercial vernacular—McDonald's, Ramada Inn, Burger King, Tastee-Freez, Fatburger. Kentucky Fried—as a source, just as the International Style had used the "styleless" metaphor of machinery, biplanes and ocean liners as its source.

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