Architecture Myths #19: Popular Culture
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) lived through Impressionism but, rather than taking the delicate play of light upon whatever as the subject for his art, is best known for his graphic paintings and illustrations of people in their working environments. Much of his work was for advertising. This particular poster is from 1891.
This next image is possibly the first instance of a household brand being used in art. Still life no longer had to be about artfully arranged flowers, vases, wine bottles, wineglasses, guitars… Thank you, Futurists.
The Futurists, or at least Fortunate Depero, followed Lautrec’s lead and his work for Campari appeared as advertising posters in public places.
Constructivist artists also did this as part of their quest for a socially useful art. We don’t know how popular these posters were but, if advertising’s involved, it’s not good for them not to be.
Textile design was another field of Constructivist artist endeavour. People could at least have nice curtains. Well done, Varvara Stepanova!
Curtains and the idea of art for the people is the link between 1920s Russia and 1950s America. The idea of soft furnishings as art for the people driving the economy before the war, crossed the ocean and transmuted into idea of soft furnishings as consumer goods for the people driving the economy after the war, later being reimported to the UK and Scandinavia.
The 1950s were the decade when the culture of the people became the dominant culture in America. Befitting the magpie instincts of artists, collage was an appropriate medium to represent it as a subject. The following collage is not meant to be a popular form of art, it merely appropriates aspects of popular culture as subject matter and represents them to those who can afford it and/or appreciate it.
Roy Lichtenstein’s take on this was to represent popular culture using meticulously handprinted dots to reproduce frames from comic books.
Andy Warhol was the most adept at exploiting popular culture for artistic ends.
While all this was going on, many people who knew nothing about Hamilton, Lichtenstein or Warhol were finding joy in LP covers
and (though probably not the same people) black-light posters such as this on their walls.
Jeff Koons mined popular culture to new depths by taking kitcsh as his subject matter, discovering an entire new universe of href=”https://www.google.ae/search?q=found+object&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAWoVChMIt9C21NvexgIVQlUUCh2A3AkW&biw=1359&bih=942″ target=”_blank”>found objects in the process. This next sculpture is popular in the sense that it engages people who have travelled to see an art gallery for entertainment. It is not however, popular art in the sense that it satisfies any art-for-the-people need. Koons has done well. In passing, it’s been noticed he’s assembling a possible development site on W52nd St.
All this art is the result of the observation, appropriation and representation of popular culture. It is not and never was generated for it, or an expression of it. This finally brings us to architecture. The observation-appropriation-representation cycle in architecture is even longer so it’s no wonder architecture is always behind the curve. “Hey – we just passed by the Bilbao Guggenheim! Let’s go back and take a look.” The Bilbao Guggenheim is nothing more than googie architecture to attract people in planes, not cars.
In Easter Hill, Haskell identified characteristics new urbanists were to claim for their own.
- Winning government approval proved difficult because what they wanted to build broke the mold for public housing. “We started out from the beginning to plan a village,” Hardison [one of the original architects] says. They wanted units to feel like individual homes. “What we were trying to design violated some standards of the time,” he says. It was low-rise, not high, curved roads, not straight, and with varied textures and colors to avoid a barracks look. Hardison fought for amenities ignored in other projects — front yards, fenced backyards.
- Easter Hill was a dream of a better future for people who live in public housing.
- It was a dream shared by socially conscious post-World War II architects — that good design could produce livable neighbourhoods, even for poor people.
Instead of this useful thinking from 1954 being put to better use to provide more people with more real housing with more dignity, that thinking made its way into the Post-Modern retro-smalltown-themed holiday village known as Seaside, Florida.
Seaside Florida is a pretend town often invoked in discussions of New Urbanism – the new mantra more attuned to speculative property development than social housing. Like Philip Johnson and Henry-Russel Hitchcock before him, Charles Jenck’s agenda was to discredit the social aspirations of Modern(ism) architecture.
“There’s something to suit every budget.”
What Haskell saw as something of genuine value to people was quickly turned into a representation of something of genuine value to people. Instead of actually being the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by, people get to go on holiday and pretend they’re the the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by. Segueing backwards, Pruitt-Igoe was a theoretical smokescreen. If it were really the alleged death of Modernism, then the onus would have been on Post-Modernism to replace it with something more suitable? Or at least a better maintenance plan. It didn’t. The site remains empty.
The actual housing was never replaced. The destruction was real but but its replacement metaphorical. The conceit was that a representation of an idea of housing should be, could replace some something as useful as real housing, however flawed. Guild House at least provided some socially useful shelter behind its popularesque facade.
But those were early days. Before too long, all facades would be brought into play, concealing all evidence of a building as even a carrier for representation and making it that much easier for representation to come to be mistaken for architecture.