behind the scenes

ottositions 2

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junk with irony

Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew. He has made me, for example, who once focused upon the proto-Wrightian continuities of the Shingle Style, revalue their equally obvious opposite: the complicated accommodations of inside and outside with which those architects themselves were surely entranced. And he has even called attention once more to the principle of accommodation in Le Corbusier's early plans. So all inventive architects bring their dead to life again as a matter of course. It is appropriate that Le Corbusier and Venturi should come together on the question of Michelangelo, in whose work heroic action and complex qualification found special union. Venturi fixes less than Le Corbusier upon the unified assertion of Michelangelo's conception in St. Peter's but, like Le Corbusier, he sees and, as the fenestration of his Friends' Housing for the Aged shows, can build in accordance with the other: the sad and mighty discordances of the apses, that music drear and grand of dying civilizations and the fate of mankind on a cooling star.
In that sense Venturi is, for all his own ironic disclaimers, one of the few American architects whose work seems to approach tragic stature in the tradition of Furness, Louis Sullivan, Wright, and Kahn. His being so suggests the power of successive generations, living in one place, to develop an intensity of meaning; so much of it is carried in Philadelphia: from Frank Furness to the young Sullivan, and on through Wilson Eyre and George Howe to Louis Kahn. Kahn is Venturi's closest mentor, as he has been for almost all the best young American architects and educators of the past decade, such as Giurgola, Moore, Vreeland, and Millard.
Vincent Scully, "Introduction" in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 13-14.

It is significant in this regard that Venturi's ideas have so far stirred bitterest resentment among the more academic-minded of the Bauhaus generation--with its utter lack of irony, its spinsterish disdain for the popular culture but shaky grasp on any other, its incapacity to deal with monumental scale, its lip-service to technology, and its preoccupation with a rather prissily puristic aesthetic. Most of the Bauhaus design of the twenties, in buildings and furniture alike, can be distinguished by exactly those characteristics from Le Corbusier's more generous and varied forms of the period. Two strains in modern architecture seem to separate here, with Le Corbusier and Venturi now seen as working the same larger, more humane, architects' rather than "designers'" vein.
Vincent Scully, "Introduction" in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), p. 15.

I make no special attempt to relate architecture to other things. I have not tried to "improve the connections between science and technology on the one hand, and the humanities and the social sciences on the other . . . and make of architecture a more human social art." I try to talk about architecture rather than around it. Sir John Summerson has referred to the architects' obsession with "the importance, not of architecture, but of the relation of architecture to other things." He has pointed out that in this century architects have substituted the "mischievous analogy" for the eclectic imitation of the nineteenth century, and have been staking a claim for architecture rather than producing architecture." The result has been diagrammatic planning. The architect's ever diminishing power and his growing ineffectualness in shaping the whole environment can perhaps be reversed, ironically, by narrowing his concerns and concentrating on his own job. Perhaps then relationships and power will take care of themselves. I accept what seem to me architecture's inherent limitations, and attempt to concentrate on the difficult particulars within it rather than the easier abstractions about it" ... because the arts belong (as the ancients said) to the practical and not the speculative intelligence, there is no surrogate for being on the job."
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 20-1.

But now our position is different: "At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity, and difficulty they also change faster than before," and require an attitude more like that described by August Heckscher: "The movement from a view of life as essentially simple and orderly to a view of life as complex and ironic is what every individual passes through in becoming mature. But certain epochs encourage this development; in them the paradoxical or dramatic outlook colors the whole intellectual scene. . . . Amid simplicity and order rationalism is born, but rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval. Then equilibrium must be created out of opposites. Such inner peace as men gain must represent a tension among contradictions and uncertainties. . . . A feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth."
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), p. 24.

Gropius in his early work, however, employed forms and elements based on a consistent industrial vocabulary. He thus recognized standardization and promoted his machine aesthetic. The inspiration for windows and stairways, for instance, came from current factory architecture, and these buildings look like factories. Latter-day Mies employs the structural elements of vernacular American industrial architecture and also those of Albert Kahn with unconscious irony: the elegant frame members are derived from standard steel manufacturers' catalogues; they are expressed as exposed structure but they are ornament on a fire-resistant frame; and they make up complex, closed spaces rather than the simple industrial spaces they were originally designed for.
It was Le Corbusier who juxtaposed objets trouvés and commonplace elements, such as the Thonet chair, the officer's chair, cast iron radiators, and other industrial objects, and the sophisticated forms of his architecture with any sense of irony. The nineteenth century statue of the Virgin within the window of the east wall of the Chapel at Ronchamp is a vestige from the former church which stood on the spot. Besides its symbolic value, it represents a banal object of sculpture vividly enhanced by its new setting. Bernard Maybeck is the unique architect in recent times to employ contradictory combinations of vernacular industrial elements and eclectic stylistic elements (for example, industrial sash and Gothic tracery) in the same building. Using convention unconventionally is otherwise almost unknown in our recent architecture.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 50-1.

Ironic convention is relevant both for the individual building and the towns cape. It recognizes the real condition of our architecture and its status in our culture. Industry promotes expensive industrial and electronic research but not architectural experiments, and the Federal government diverts subsidies toward air transportation, communication, and the vast enterprises of war or, as they call it, national security, rather than toward the forces for the direct enhancement of life. The practicing architect must admit this. In simple terms, the budgets, techniques, and programs for his buildings must relate more to 1866 than 1966. Architects should accept their modest role rather than disguise it and risk what might be called an electronic expressionism, which might parallel the industrial expressionism of early Modern architecture. The architect who would accept his role as combiner of significant old clichés--valid banalities--in new contexts as his condition within a society that directs its best efforts, its big money, and its elegant technologies elsewhere, can ironically express in this indirect way a true concern for society's inverted scale of values.
I have alluded to the reasons why honky-tonk elements in our architecture and townscape are here to stay, especially in the important short-term view, and why such a fate should be acceptable. Pop Art has demonstrated that these commonplace elements are often the main source of the occasional variety and vitality of our cities, and that it is not their banality or vulgarity as elements which make for the banality or vulgarity of the whole scene, but rather their contextual relationships of space and scale.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 51-2.

These ideas are applicable to the design and perception of cities, which have more extensive and complex programs, of course, than individual buildings. The consistent spatial order of the Piazza S. Marco, for example, is not without its violent contradictions in scale, rhythm, and textures, not to mention the varying heights and styles of the surrounding buildings. Is there not a similar validity to the vitality of Times Square in which the jarring inconsistencies of buildings and billboards are contained within the consistent order of the space itself? It is when honky-ronk spills out beyond spatial boundaries to the no-man's land of roadrown, that it becomes chaos and blight. (If in God's Own Junkyard Peter Blake had chosen examples of roadside landscape for his book which were less extremely "bad," his point, at least involving the banality of roadside architecture, would ironically have been stronger.) It seems our fate now to be faced with either the endless inconsistencies of roadtown, which is chaos, or the infinite consistency of Levittown (or the ubiquitous Levittown-like scene illustrated in figure 89), which is boredom. In road town we have a false complexity; in Levittown a false simplicity. One thing is clear--from such false consistency real cities will never grow. Cities, like architecture, are complex and contradictory.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), p. 59.

Containment and intricacy have been characteristic of the city as well. Fortified walls for military protection and the greembelt for civic protection are examples of this phenomenon. Contained intricacy might be one of the viable methods for dealing with urban chaos and the endlessness of roadtown; through the creative use of zoning and positive architectural features it is possible to concentrate the intricacies of road towns and junkyards, actual and figurative. And like the sculpture which consists of compressed automobiles by John Chamberlain and the photographs through telescopic lens in Blake's God's Own Junkyard, they achieve an ironically compelling kind of unity.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 75-6.

Some of Wright's early interiors parallel in the motif of the wood strip the rocaille-filled interiors of the Rococo. In Unity Temple and the Evans House these strips are used on the furniture, walls, ceilings, light fixtures, and window mullions, and the pattern is repeated on the rugs. As in the Rococo, a continuous motif is used to achieve a strong whole expressive of what Wright called plasticity. He employed a method of implied continuity for valid expressive reasons, and in ironic contradiction to his dogma of the nature of materials and his expressed hatred of the Rococo.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 96-7.

In God's Own Junkyard Peter Blake has compared the chaos of commercial Main Street with the orderliness of the University of Virginia. Besides the irrelevancy of the comparison, is not Main Street almost all right? Indeed, is not the commercial strip of a Route 66 almost all right? As I have said, our question is: what slight twist of context wiIl make them all right? Perhaps more signs more contained.Illustrations in God's Own Junkyard of Times Square and roadtown are compared with illustrations of New England villages and arcadian countrysides. But the pictures in this book that are supposed to be bad are often good. The seemingly chaotic juxtaposltlons of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity, and they produce an unexpected approach to unity as well.
It is true that an ironic interpretation such as this results partly from the change in scale of the subject matter in photographic form and the change in context within the frames of the photographs. But in some of these compositrons there is an inherent sense of unity not far from the surface. It is not the obvious or easy unity derived from the dominant binder or the motival order of simpler, less contradictory compositions, but that derived from a complex and illusive order of the difficult whole. It is the taut composition which contains contrapuntal relationships, equal combinations, inflected fragments, and acknowledged dualities. It is the unity which "maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives . . . force." In the validly complex building or cityscape, the eye does not want to be too easily or too quickly satisfied in its search for unity within a whole.
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), pp. 102-3.




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