Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.


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”.



Posted by anothersam at May 24, 2006 12:20 AM.

4 Comments

Tom Simister said:

"Pruning of unnecessary architectural artistry"...

versus

"It unapologetically retasks the machinery of building into architecture."

I think the Lutyens and Borromini were more concerned with the former. Sure their buildings are good - but I wouldn't say they're great.

"There are sparks that leap across the synapses of generations and categories."

What does that mean? Does meaning in architecture come from some intellectualized statement? I think it comes more from simple experiences - a reality that is very tangible. I don't think VSB's work is fresh at all because I think one has to go futher than complexity and contradiction to make buildings relate to their immediate surroundings and exude feeling and I just don't feel anything when I'm in one of their buildings.

Sincerely,
Tom

Keep up the bad work, indeed. It's refreshing that the Venturis are "back"...

sam said:

Tom:

I think what I’m trying to say is that their work is *really* hardcore. It is really difficult - if not impossible - to actually like some of their projects, but they are undeniably doing something. I’m not a fan of The Ramones or of Kraftwerk – precisely because of the same kinds of thing you say about VSBA buildings – I don’t feel them. But their refusal to pander to the niceties of songwriting is exactly what makes them unique voices.
I do think that the attributes of ‘feeling’ and ‘sensation’ whether poetic, dynamic or expressive are what we have come to expect of contemporary architecture. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this approach of course, and it has undeniably produced spectacular projects. But that it is not the full spectrum of what buildings can be, or be about. In fact, they are often fantasies indulged by architects, clients and the media – a representation of a fabulous world. Could you live in a world exclusively soundtracked by Paul McCartney? (Actually, I could – especially Wings era McCartney!)

I’m certainly not arguing that anyone else should do what VSBA do. I guess I’m just writing an appreciation of their approach for what I think it is – not what it could have been or should have been. And I think I agree with the majority that the ideas suggested in their writing aren’t entirely fulfilled in their built work. But then that’s true for many others. Perhaps it’s like movie versions of novels – usually a little disappointing. Maybe that’s partly the process of being hacked about by studio executives, but it’s also because the images you picture while reading can be more vivid than those projected onto the screen.

To give some context to the piece, it was written for a ‘Festschrift’, published on the occasion of Robert Venturis 80th birthday. So you’ll have to excuse me for being upbeat and positive!

Sam

carlo said:

Hardcore? The Ramones yes, not VSBA.
“Over time, many descend from youthful adventure into paranoid self-parody. Venturi and Scott Browns work has distilled in a way that sheds pretension.”
What the F…! are you talking about?

Their work has matured into what? I’m waiting to see. -except for a few residences, their work lacks imagination, vision, and creativity. If you are going to cut and bleed this earth, make something that inspires people. How depressing.

You are giving them respect because of their refusal to pander?
Their work is uniquely boring. – and I’m not saying stararchitecture is the answer.
Generic-ness is their game.

Leave a comment





Contents:

More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

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

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon

Trace

What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

Swingball

Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension

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