A Consistency of Contradictions
In 1937, Douglas Haskell drove across the US and identified elements of a popular architecture. He thought Route 66 was okay. His 1958 essay “Architecture and Popular Taste” probed what people who were unschooled in architecture said they liked. Haskell has been actively forgotten because he believed in a popular architecture as a true vernacular architecture and not one invented by architects. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].
In 1966, Robert Venturi strolled around Rome identifying and enjoying the visual complexities and contradictions of its Baroque architecture. He documented his thoughts and will always be remembered for making us believe our built environment was reducible to a set of visual complexities and contradictions [c.f. Clarity and Consistency in Architecture]. Venturi did later say he wished he’d made the title of his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form but that was only to set it apart from his 1972 book on architectural meaning that had us believe architecture was reducible to ducks and decorated sheds. Venturi said Main Street was almost all right.
Venturi was to also later claim he was never a post-modernist but, prior to his book, architecture at least had the remnants of a social conscience. Whether inadvertently or by design, Venturi’s C&C reduced the built environment to a set of visual stimuli and his second reduced it to a set of meanings evoked by them. There’s nothing wrong with that but there’s a lot wrong when architecture comes to be seen as only that. And that’s what happened for Venturi begat Jencks whose populist message was that buildings should be judged by how popular they appeared to want to be and not by whether they were ever intended to serve society in any tangible way. The first of the Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks came down in 1972 a year after Learning from Las Vegas and the last came down in 1976 a year before Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post Modern Architecture.
In 1928, Le Corbusier had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it with a transfer beam. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.
In 1960, Robert Venturi had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it by making people go around the column. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.
It was never about style. All buildings may be modernist or post-modernist and all buildings may be of use to society or they may not be but these oppositions aren’t incompatible. It didn’t matter. It’s wasn’t possible to unlearn rational and economical construction and it also wasn’t possible to invalidate a moral responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but it was possible to divert people’s attention away from it. And that’s what happened.
On page 147 of the fourth edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture, CJ does say of Taller Bofill’s 1983 Les Espaces d’Abraxas that “It is a popular architecture”. Finally having a home at last can’t have counted for nothing in a social housing project but all Jencks ever championed was a sense of palace.
Having got that off my chest, I’d just like to show that our built environment was never only about visual complexities and contradictions, and we don’t have to walk around Rome to encounter them or to read a half-century old book to appreciate them. They’re everywhere and there’s a lot we can learn from them. For example, this “sunken island” is a visual contradiction but a clever way of routing non-construction traffic around it and construction traffic across it.
Some complexities and contradictions are unintentional complications of cause and effect. Here, some fresh grass “stepping stones” exacerbate the very problem they’re put in place to solve.
Contradictions such as this next twixt building and lamp-post are to be found in cities around the world and our built environment is so much richer for having them. We must appreciate them for what they are.
This next image you saw a few posts back. A photograph of a building is digitally distressed to not look like the photograph it is, and then applied as a building wrap to make a building not look like the building it is. There’s something lighthearted about this deception. There’s no need to take it too seriously in what is, after all, an outdoor bar.
This next example of a secret door to a not-so-secret corridor is pure urban Magritte* and slightly more complex. Once again, a portion of a building is disguised to not look like the building it is, but this time the temporary suspension of reality is a depiction of the building that it will be. The real and present doorway exists within the virtual portal of the future, adding temporal complexity and contradiction to the visual complexity and contradiction.
But here’s where it begins to get sinister. There’s nothing intriguing or funny about the contradiction of an air-conditioned, open air street.
This next and apparently benign example clarifies what’s happening. It’s not the notice “For Display Only” that’s contradictory here as that would stay true (although redundant) even if the flowers were real flowers and for sale. What we have here is real flowers being replaced with a representation of real flowers and being used to market something that has nothing to do with flowers or people who might want them.
In this next image we have an open air shopping mall as a representation of a city experience, as if all cities had incessant lighting effects, miniature trains, pop-up clothing stores, Turkish ice cream vendors, and balloon sellers galore (with Doraemon balloons for the discerning child and groundscraper balloons for keen-eyed toddlers). It’s no more a living functioning city than Seaside Florida was a real community. But it’s popular.
In this next image, the sign at the travelator says “Equipment switched off for energy conservation.” This is a noble thought until you realize all the equipment in this expensive construction was put in place to conserve the energy of public transport users as they traverse this air-conditioned walkway spanning nineteen lanes of traffic.
The representation of energy conservation has priority over encouraging the use of public transport and the real energy savings it brings. The twist here is that the people who don’t get to use the travelator are encouraged to feel it’s somehow their energy that’s being saved. This sign is a confident and assertive illustration of the powerlessness of reason.
We outgrew the contrived visual complexities and contradictions of post-modernism but Jencks’ message of removing things of real value and replacing them with representations of intangible worth took root and to this day, is still regarded as truth, and probably even taught as truth. A product of its time, it meshed perfectly with the emerging neoliberal agenda of promising virtual benefits while taking away real ones.
As we know, Pruitt-Igoe was never replaced, let alone with anything more “popular”. St. Louis housing projects weren’t the only urban areas blighted by street crime. 1970s Manhattan was also an antisocial battlefield but it nevertheless managed to avoid being dynamited. The movie, Escape From New York, in which Manhattan had been turned into a giant prison dates from 1981.
No architectural speculation is complete without an example from Venice. Here, a hoarding conceals a building only to depict a virtual one that’s then negated by an advertisement. It’s like the secret corridor in that a building wrap is applied to a building to make it make it look like the building it will be but, in this case, it’s the same as the building it once was. Between those past and future realities, the virtuous virtual building is obscured by a message very much in the here and now.
This is the neoliberal agenda encapsulated. Replace something of real value with a representation of it and then use it to market something of zero benefit to those whose thing was replaced. Post Modernism taught us to value the representation more than the thing itself. Neoliberalism taught us to prefer the advertisements. This is where we are now. The only buildings that get presented to us as architecture are those that advertise their sponsors and their architects. Clearly, we are not living in a Renaissance.
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Thanks Jae, for alerting me to urban surrealism and starting me on this train of thought.
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2 Nov. 2017: I just saw this article by Sean Griffiths on Dezeen. We seem to be on the same page except by his using the term “post-modern revivalism” he implies that something knowable is being resurrected when, in reality, the processes it set in motion are still being played out and we have no idea where it’s going to end.