Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Contemporary architecture has spent much time and energy making buildings that look as little like buildings as possible. It has been ably demonstrated over the last 10 years that it is feasible to make buildings look impossible – as though they are about to fall down or split in half. The constraints are no longer structural, or buildability. Given the right client, the right budget and the right site, absolutely anything is possible. But, to quote Archigrams David Greene, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’.

Debate about architecture has sunk so low as to concern the idea of icon-hood – from the point of view of an architectural elite who populate (or pollute) the shortlists and editorials of what they would consider to be architectural culture. It is architecture as entertainment and destination. Instead of learning from Las Vegas, architecture has become Las Vegas – uncritically and without a fight, seduced by power and celebrity and the promise of riches.

As Churchill might have said, surveying 21st century architectural culture: how have so few have done so little for so many. He might have also revised his quote: that ‘we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us’. The amount of time we have spent turning our buildings into shapes is a hollow parody of that phrase. The two way street between building and culture has been re-routed into an architectural cul de sac of spectacle.

The question that intrigues me concerns how we got to this position, and what has been sacrificed in order to get there. It seems to me that contemporary practice is the result of triumph of a particular strand of architectural history, one whose roots are of a very different nature to the current flowering.

Here is one take on the quicksilver trail of architectural history ?????? and architectural history is like quicksilver because its shape if fluid and moves without trace. The content of the architecture passed from personal comment to personal language. From an idea to a sensation. From an externalised expression to an interior monologue echoing in the vast empty caves of ego. At certain point in the 1980s. the manipulations of architectural language which were current at the time were suddenly cut loose from meaning. Think of Eisenmans House VI (1972-1975) or Frank Gehrys own house in Santa Monica (1978), or even Liebeskinds Berlin Jewish Museum (1989-1999). In these projects the architectural manipulations are connected to certain elements of culture that surrounds them. In Eisenmans case, the slice through the utopian modernist villa building cuts though the marital bed like a cold sword. In Gehrys house it is the everyday materials and ad hoc amateurism that remakes the suburban home into a DIY domestic explosion. And in Libeskinds Jewish Museum, it is the abstracted historical narrative that whips the architecture into a poetic musing on absence.

However esoteric, bizarre, or poetic these projects are, they share an attitude to architecture: one where architecture is distorted by external cultures and narratives. They are as much about architecture as they are architecture and they share the idea of architecture as a conceptual and critical idea made into built form. The trail leading to these projects – now, apparently stone cold – leads back to Venturi and Scott Brown.

These projects are explicitly and clearly Post Modern in that they are reworkings of established languages, of overcoding and recoding, of projects that undermine architectural purity. But instead they have come to be regarded as the origins of a period of shape-throwing architecture. This mis-understanding or mis-representation has served to rewrite architectural culture – and in the process airbrush Post Modernism from the record in the manner of some paranoid revisionist regime. The awkward, mouthy, challenging work of the 1970s and 1980s is all but forgotten. It is like a terrible memory that haunts you the morning after a drunken party – ‘Did we really do that?’ the profession thinks to itself in the sober light of day. The reality is that like surly teenagers, the profession turned its back on those who had nurtured and endeavoured to carefully position it. And then proceeded to squander their legacy.

But back to what I am claiming as the source of contemporary architectural culture – the Sanskrit, the wellspring, and the mother lode. The people who showed that architecture could be contemporary, who made Modernism modern. Bob and Denise are like a pair of inverse Hans Brinkers – the Dutch boy whose finger plugged the hole in the dyke – they have enjoyed breaching of the walls of architecture as a confined, ego centric, self-certain, pompous, blindly utopian practice, by flooding it with the confused reality of modern life.

There had been fumbled relations between architecture and contemporary culture before them, instigated by the Independent Group. But whilst the artists and critics managed to get it on pretty steamily with pop culture, the architects concerned were far more coy and ended up reasserting Modernist truths in a world which was rapidly becoming a far more complex place. It took Scott Brown – who had known the Independent Group through the AA – and Venturi to embrace a whole set of other interests: from fine art to the dirty realities of economics, politics, commercialism, and everyday life – and to have the courage to see it through from theory to building.

Venturi and Scott Brown are hardcore. They might be Pop, but it’s the kind of Pop made by people like Kraftwerk or the Ramones. That’s to say its not really about fun, its about a certain kind of truth. Not anything as straightforward as truth to materials, or the morality of construction – but a lucid, ruthless, unflinching gaze into the face of modernity. It is that strand of pop-ism that is as much about accepting the limitations of a medium, and refusing to give in to wanton, flippant artistry – about attitude rather than pose. Just as Kraftwerk and the Ramones turn the mechanisms of the popular song in on itself in order to explore the culture of the medium in its broadest context, Venturi and Scott Brown make architecture out of buildings – as they describe it ‘buildings that look like buildings’. The result may sometimes look conventional, but that belies their radical-ness. Indeed, in the current architectural climate, it makes them all the more difficult.

They maintain the strength of character to resist the easy escapes of formalism or theory. It is their determination to engage with the compromised realities of a situation rather than an idealised fantasy that continually forces their work into uncomfortable, ugly places. I still find their work hard to look at. I think because like everyone else these days, I expect to see something or feel something else when I’m looking at architecture.

Thinking about it from other perspectives however, and things click. Here we have the flatness of Jasper Johns, the reductiveness of Donald Judd, the art-through-utility of Dan Flavin, Warhols unflinching view of the everyday (who attended the opening of their ‘Signs of Life’ exhibition at the Smithsonian), the unromanticised modern landscapes of Ed Ruscha (who they took their Yale students to visit before heading off to Las Vegas). To really make sense, one needs to regard their work as part of this serious, determined and brutally honest American artistic oeuvre.

A small side issue in the same vein: It also seems to make sense that the Loft space that has become the model for much of Venturi and Scott Browns building output is related to the loft space of the New York arts scene in the 50s and 60s where artists turned vacated warehousing into studio, residence and gallery spaces. Whilst the open rectangular plan has many readings in architecture, Venturi and Scott Browns seems descended from precedents such as Warhol’s Factory rather than Mies’ Farnsworth House. That is to say, it is generic space transformed by use, rather than function speared, stuffed and displayed like hunting trophies on the wall of a lodge.

The Generic Loft space is an example of a particular kind of economy in their work. I was struck, a few years ago, when Bob and Denise were kind enough to take me on a tour of their office by their intense excitement at the boring-ness of their own projects. They seemed thrilled by their banality. In a world obsessed by exciting buildings, this seemed even more remarkable. Indeed, over the years, their projects have become more boring: projects seem to loose their explicit polemical content. Both the historical reference and the strip seem less significant. Instead the projects revolve around ideas that come out of their own specific context and issues. And with this, the buildings become ever more refined, edited, and reduced. They have moved from polemic – an illustration of a cultural position – to a kind of inert architectural essence. They are buildings about architecture. Or perhaps it is architecture about buildings: a way of relating to the everyday that does not depend upon poetic fetish.

The sheer simplicity is an economy – not only artful, but a budgetary economy, a moral economy, and a puritan economy which are perhaps an expression of Venturis Quaker roots. This is of course ironic, given Post Modernisms reputation for froth and bubble. It is a kind of elegance – not the elegance of artful posture, but instead of the pun. It is a kind of deadpanning where the sober face belies the undercurrent of fun. It is the pleasure of killing two birds with one stone. It is in this way that the Arcadia Arts Camp (completed in 1997 and designed by Steve Izenour) is revealed as an exercise in minimalism unrivalled since the Barcelona Pavilion. It is simple ‘A’ framed building that has two little jaunty letters ‘r’ and ‘t’ propped up next to it. This simple addition transforms the structure of the building from vernacular engineering into giant sized sign. It’s the kind of simplicity that glows with the righteous light of economy.

This is architecture, pared down and reduced to some kind of essence. But rather than Miesian minimalism, it is the pruning of unnecessary architectural artistry. It displays none of the tropes of contemporary architecture – yet is unmistakably architecture. It is the power of restraint.

The Biomedical / Biological Sciences Research Building at the University of Kentucky (completed 2006) is like much of their work architecture that is made out of building – and pretty banal, commercial building at that ?????? something like a 1950s factory with a dash of 1980s business park. But these techniques and materials are turned in on themselves. It shudders around the corner to create an entrance ‘fanfare’, a fractured brick pattern plays out across the public face of the building ?????? a pattern that is derived from but embellishes the structural organisation of the building. The BBSR building is caught between generic-ness and special-ness. It is made out of ordinary, ugly, boring things, but it aspires to gentle, human, idiosyncrasy. It unapologetically retasks the machinery of building into architecture.

Over time, many descend from youthful adventure into paranoid self-parody. Venturi and Scott Browns work has distilled in a way that sheds pretension. As their work has matured, the less it seems to need to generate its own head of theoretical steam. Instead, there is a candour and honesty, clear and open-faced. In the same way, Venturis academic text has evolved into a multicoloured, visual poetry of slogans, bon mots and lists of liked things that looks more like a chills book than the candid thoughts of a Pritzker prize-winner. It is as though the necessity to elucidate further would only serve to obscure. It is precisely this dumb/clever flip that turns your mind over. That??????s the thrill of Venturi and Scott Browns architecture.

They have been brave enough to face the present, but perhaps even braver to face the past. In a profession, which – like charlatan soothsayers – spends most of its time focussed on the near future, the idea of continuity between Lutyens and Las Vegas, between Borromini and Burger Bars is strikingly unusual. They combine academic knowledge with everyday experience. And it is this idea of architecture enriched by diverse sources that is so beguiling: from the billboard/chapel arrangement of the Football Hall of Fame, to the Nolli plan of the Vegas Strip, to the so-dumb-its-clever Arcadia Arts Camp. These mixed up cultural references are short circuits of histories and hierarchies. There are sparks that leap across the synapses of generations and categories.

Dialogues that have in other hands frozen and paralyzed architecture have found convivial company in the Venturi and Scott Browns work. Avant guard and convention, history and modernity, theory and practice continually bounce off one another. These pairings of opposites break down convention, and resist comfortable classification. They create modern hybrids: the most unsettling kind of historical nostalgia; unique and specific kinds of generic-ness.

For a younger generation, who have watched the Baby Boomers remake architecture in their own self-regarding image, the culture of architecture defined by Venturi and Scott Brown seems fresh, articulate and relevant. Punk declared ??????No more hero??????s any more??????, echoing Venturi and Scott Browns insistence on the ??????ugly and ordinary?????? rather than the ??????heroic and original??????. However, there are many kinds of heroism, and a million ways to be original. Venturi and Scott Brown are, of course, both. To repay a compliment Venturi gave to us at Fat ?????? in typically inverted manner: ?????Keep up the bad work??????.

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