Friday, May 4, 2012

From Bauhaus to ? - Lumpenproletariat Redux

There was once a time, not so terribly long ago, when architects had such a poor opinion of their clients, customers and inhabitants that they believed only they — the sui generis architect — knew what the future building dwellers needed and wanted. According to Tom Wolfe in his monograph “From Bauhaus to Our House” a small and eventually very powerful group of skillfully self-promoting architects of The International Style “policed the impulses of clients and tenants alike.” Wolfe suggested that the “the terms ‘glass box’ and ‘repetition’ first uttered as terms of opprobrium became badges of honor.”

As massive boring big box after big box began to populate the country, the buildings were met with ringing applause like that which greeted the debut of the emperor’s new clothes. Who would dare to challenge The International Style that had arrived from Europe and impregnated the country? Acceptance of Grobius, van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Oud steadily grew amongst the intelligentsia of urbane society cocktail circuits. The birth and nurturing of this impregnation occurred within the University of Chicago, Harvard and elsewhere outside the cloistered ivy walls, continuing essentially unchallenged until Robert Venturi dared to do so in 1966 at the age of 41 by writing the now classic book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Wolfe believed that “Venturi seemed to be saying it was time to remove architecture from the elite world of the universities – from the compounds – and make it more familiar, comfortable, cozy and appealing to ordinary people; and to remove it from the level of thing and restore it to the compromising and inconsistent but nevertheless rich terrain of real life.”    

While Mies van der Rohe is credited with coining the phrase “less is more” Venturi countered by saying that:  “less is a bore.”

According to Wolfe, “Not for a moment did Venturi dispute the underlying assumptions of modern architecture: namely, that it was to be for the people; that it should be non-bourgeois and has no applied decoration; that there was historical inevitability to the forms that should be used; and that the architect, from his vantage point inside the compound would decide what was best for the people and what they inevitably should have.” Yet Venturi led the way to a softening of the Teutonic rigidity of the previous generation of architects. Through his writings, Venturi demonstrated “an approach to understanding architectural composition and complexity and the resulting richness and interest.” He explored and celebrated the process of creating buildings that “typically juxtapose architectural systems, elements and aims to acknowledge the conflicts often inherent in a project or site.” This he referred to as “the difficult whole.”  He articulated the grueling task of integrating the old and the new without compromising either. He recognized that good architecture is a conversation and not a series of disconnected soliloquies.

“We are not free from the forms of the past, nor from the availability of these forms as typological models, but that if we assume we are free, we have lost control over a very active sector of our imagination and of our power to communicate with others….” (Learning from Las Vegas)
(Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown – 1972)
      Walking amongst a well-conceived and well-bred collection of buildings is like experiencing a three dimensional symphony. Each generation of building respects those that already existed. Walking into an inchoate collection of buildings is jarring and dissonant, unwelcoming and uncomfortable. It’s like a graffiti alley versus the Louvre. One wants to flee. Venturi understood an “inclusive” approach in contrast to the rudely egotistically deposited monolithic, non-contextual collections of glass and steel boxes from the 30’s through the 60’s.

A building that is out of sync and out of context in a protected national landmark historic block appears to be begging for attention of any kind – like a branding iron - seemingly willing to forgo adulation let alone respect. I guess there are still people in the world who still follow the old adage: - “if you can’t be good at least be memorable.”

Venturi wrote in the opening pages of his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: - “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 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.”  Also: “But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.” 
Venturi and Scott Brown at Drexel


From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe, Washington Square Press, 1981

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on The Drexel InterView  Robert Venturi Interview through Drexel

American Architecture Now  - 1984

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, by Robert Venturi, The Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture. 1977

Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, the MIT Press, 1977


So now the Emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, "Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor's new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!" in short, no one would allow that he could not see these much-admired clothes; because, in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the Emperor's various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.

"But the Emperor has nothing at all on!" said a little child.

"Listen to the voice of innocence!" exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.

"But he has nothing at all on!" at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bauhaus arrives in Shaw.