The Will of the Epoch (2/2)

  • The Golden Age of Danish modernism had run out of steam by 1965. In other countries, the Scandinavian architecture that had basically solved the problem of how to construct houses was labelled “flimsy” and “effeminate” by those championing Brutalism.
  • Not that it mattered for, at the same time, Brutalism touting the same “honesty” and “integrity” but with different materials and construction as a way of achieving economies in the provision of social housing was on the way out all around the world. [c.f. 1950–1965 Australia]
  • Even architecturally pretentious versions such as the “soft brutalism” of the Smithson’s did not find favour.
  • America’s first all-concrete house, The McNulty House was completed in 1965, featured in LIFE magazine, and promptly forgotten. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]
  • After 1965 the concept of “space” became the only way to understand Japanese architecture.
  • Kenji Hirose ends his S-series houses around 1965 and with it, his investigations into architecture as integrated assemblages of components. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #31: Kenji Hirose]
  • The Case Study House Program ends in 1966 but it had been going off the rails for a while. Housing people with industrialized, quasi-industrialised or pseudo-industrialised assemblages of components was clearly not the way forward. 1964 Vanna Venturi House and architecture as a system of signs and surfaces was. Or at least it offered what looked like it might be.
  • Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was published in 1966. [c.f. Clarity and Consistency in Architecture]

All these events happened in or within a year of 1965 but the question is why would an architecture in which the architecture resides in surfaces be more attractive than one in which the architecture resides in components and how they were organised? Is it just a case of construction economy winning over construction simplicity? If so, then concepts of architectural space and architectural meanings are red herrings. Or is it that surfaces can mean anything we want them to whereas whereas building materials are what they are and aren’t so receptive to meaning what people want them to mean? I don’t know, but encouraging false dreams over objective realities would work to facilitate a shift from a society that produces things of value to one that consumes things that aren’t. Such a shift would also mark the beginning of the end for strong labor unions, consumer protections, universal healthcare and cheap housing for the working classes – in short, the neoliberal economy and the rise of new powers-that-be

Learning From Las Vegas wasn’t published until 1972 but branding efficiency was already A Thing. The store in the image below opened in 1953. It was the third McDonald’s store to open in the US and is the oldest one still in operation. It’s pure Googie, with an attention-getting structure designed to be seen and anticipated by approaching drivers and their passengers. Douglas Haskell identified this new type of public architecture designed to be seen by drivers as early as 1937 and gave it the name Googie in 1958. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell]

By Photo by Bryan Hong (Brybry26) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

McDonald’s was to quickly ditch the golden arches as an architectural template because a roadside sign did the same thing for less. By 1966 they had perfected the template.

In 1972, all this was observation, not insight.

A giant Venturi and diminutive Scott-Brown learning from Las Vegas. What were these signs telling us?

The Duck building had been around since 1931, originally in Flanders, Long Island, New York but nobody much cared until Peter Blake’s 1964 God’s Own Junkyard critique was countered by Venturi & Scott Brown in their 1972 Learning from Las Vegas. Here’s the full page. Notice the big OR?

The trouble is IT’S NOT AN EITHER–OR SITUATION! The Duck vs. Decorated Shed binary opposition is repeated on pages 88-89 despite p87 just telling us that there are two types of buildings and that Chartres cathedral is a duck “although it is a decorated shed as well.” We quickly became used to or meaning and/or and, worse, “or”.

It’s not just Chartres cathedral that can be both duck and decorated shed at the same time. If fact, buildings that are both are not exceptions. In the late 1960s all Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and Pizza Hut stores in Australia looked exactly like these shown below. The rollout system was already well established by 1968 (when Venturi and Scott Brown began researching Las Vegas). The core functionality of these stores was to be a sign. Their sites were chosen by how far away along the road the store could be seen, and a standard store design simply placed on the site. The only site-specific design was for the car park and its access.

For the customer, this system had the advantage that they could immediately recognise a store and look forward to the product they remember being served in the way they remember and in surroundings they were familiar with. For the company there was the advantage that staff could move between stores with little additional training as everything they needed in order to do their job would be in the same place and organised the same way.

These stores are both Duck and Decorated Shed. More accurately, they are Decorated Sheds as Ducks or, even more accurately, Decorated Sheds as Ducks as Branding Vehicles. This is all the original duck was, all that ducks have ever been, and all that ducks continue to be.

Apart from the essential difference in the products they sold (such as organic vs. processed, ingredients vs. meals, etc.) there’s no essential difference in the functioning of ducks, Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets or Pizza Huts and the like. The world never grew to crave duck produce but, somewhere around the late sixties, the world of architecture came to see the core function of buildings as branding vehicles for commerce. This is the BEST store in Mesquite, Texas before things began to turn ironic.

From 1971 to 1980 the BEST company commissioned architects, most notably SITE [Sculpture In The Environment] to decorate their sheds so they functioned as ducks. These buildings were famous in the 1970s but you don’t hear much about them now. [You can find the complete set over on SITE’s site.]

Venturi Rauch Scott Brown decorated BEST’s Langhorne Pennsylvania store in 1979. It all went full-circle very quickly but it’s worth remembering that these warehouses were there to sell stuff and grow an economy based on personal consumption.

The built legacy of Cesar Pelli (1925~2019) is probably as good a description of architecture at the tail end of the Era of Commerce as any.

You can read more about SITE on the blog architectureandbranding. We could all do with becoming a bit more aware of how architecture became branding, to the exclusion of any other goal or function it might once have had. Any good study of the phenomenon will sooner or later have to deal with client branding and the synergetic notion of architect branding.

Sydney Opera House was conceived in 1958 but, when it finally opened in 1978, the world immediately understood it as a branding vehicle. People anywhere could recognise it immediately and associate it with Sydney. Other reputations were made on the back of it but the main idea was that a building could not just brand shops but entire cities. [Why is it nobody ever speaks of The Sydney Effect?]

For a while now I’ve been thinking of comparing Richard Plunz’s A History of Housing in New York City that tells the history of New York in terms of how it housed the people who worked and lived there, with Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York that tells the history of New York as everything but, and that sees the people of New York only in terms of punters that must pay for entertainment. We never get to find out where or how those people live. The lasting legacy of Delirious New York will be to have made us not care and, for that, its author has been amply rewarded. By 1978 it was pretty clear which way the world was going. We learned to expect nothing of architecture except that it entertain us.

Industry, commerce and finance took backstage as the new drivers of the economy were personal consumption of goods and popular consumption of entertainment (of which gambling is a very pure form of both) and Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York gave us ostensibly theoretical justifications for architectures celebrating these base economic drivers.

At the beginning of Learning From, Venturi reminds us that just as we can study the structure of a Gothic cathedral as something detached from the morality of mediaeval religion, it is therefore possible to study the architecture of Las Vegas as a city of signs without worrying ourselves about the uses to which they are put.

BUT MAYBE WE SHOULD! If we did, then we might see Gothic cathedrals as exercises in branding and Las Vegas as architecture enticing people to worship the powers-that-be. As with Las Vegas, entertainment and consumption went together at Disneyworld and architects eagerly responded.

Looking back, mass housing has never really been a topic of architecture other than the two short periods of 1920–1930 in Europe and 1940–1960 that now included the Eastern Bloc countries and America. In all cases, a country’s need for housing was the result of the economic system that demanded it. When manufacturing is outsourced for reasons of cheaper labour and energy, and when machines can take over more jobs, it’s not surprising that an economy shifts from producing things to consuming things, and that it no longer cares to maintain its workforce with social obligations such as housing, a healthcare system and labour regulations. I’m not saying this is a good thing.

The third driver of the economy was technology and we quickly learned to consume that. This time, it was architecture that took a step back as our homes now became filled with all manner of electronics. The idea was that we no longer lived in individual houses but in global villages.

High-Tech came along as an architectural style symbolising this new future for us. Norman Foster and Richard Rogers are still doing it, in fact. The longevity of High-tech as a style rests in the fact that our image of the future is still of something shiny and machined and these expensively machined objects built to unnecessarily high tolerances still give shape to that. This itself is a representation of a future we still like to imagine. It is unlikely to match our probable reality of some updated and downgraded vernacular.

Finally, this brings us to the relationship architecture has cultivated with our new data overlords. Trees feature in Foster+Partner’s design for the Apple Headquarters and also in the design of the Google headquarters (Heatherwick & Ingels) and the Facebook headquarters (Gehry). These walled gardens of Eden make me worry for the future of unprivatized trees as well as for those of us on the wrong side of the wall who don’t work for any of these companies. Meanwhile, the actual business of data storage, analysis and distribution takes place in buildings under the architectural radar. [c.f. Green Computing and The Smart Shed]

For almost twenty years now we’ve been hearing about digital architecture but have very little to show for it. The general and constant trend of the past seventy years of architecture has been to downplay the existence of buildings as objects that require materials and that are constructed by construction workers. Efforts to eliminate evidence of both materiality and construction have never ceased, and it’s quite conceivable that The Next Big Thing in Architecture will bring this a step closer to reality. And even if it doesn’t, it will still make it easier to forget that buildings were once designed by architects using a combination of intelligence, experience and skill, and constructed by workers using a different combination of the same to manipulate materials that had names (and colours, and textures …)

The very concept of buildings is under attack. I’m hearing more and more about datascapes and data-driven architecture. There’s some confusion with data architecture which refers to the structure of data within an information system and even this semantic overlap is presented as some sort of justification. I’ve nothing against a post-human architecture in principle but it depends upon what drives it. Right now, we have a post-human architecture that panders to the base drivers of the economy even, or perhaps especially, when it claims to be “for the people”. A smart house is a data-mining machine for living in. Buildings aren’t even necessary beyond their role as data attractor. Concerns have been raised about Hudson Yards, as well as Google’s plans for Toronto.

Buildings are now being designed to offer experiences and opportunities for selfies and, in some sick way, this is a social service. One can’t get too upset. It’s just another illustration of how little we come to expect of architecture as it continues to move to please the powers that be at any given time.

It’s worth nothing that there’s been little resistance. True, the 1970s had “alternative” architecture that was branded as alternative without explicitly saying what it was an alternative to. Geodesic domes made out of old car bodies, Arcosanti, the architecture of Paolo Soleri in general, The Watts Towers and such all survive as failed challenges to the status quo. The only other alternative paradigms of note is that of green architecture / sustainable architecture / energy-efficient architecture / passive design. These all went nowhere. If they hadn’t been in opposition to forces far more powerful, we probably would’ve made much more progress in this direction than we have.

Building rating systems that don’t ask if a building is really necessary aren’t helping. So many sustainability awareness centres, so little net difference …

This next graph shows the limited power of the 1.5°C limit that has been generally agreed is necessary to limit CO₂ emissions. Even achieving this requires CO₂ emissions to go down much faster than they went up. This means CO₂ emissions need to reduce 50% in a decade, be zero by 2050, and negative thereafter if we’re going to “make it” by the end of the century. [Ref.] Architectural culture can’t be completely blamed for this particular pickle but our belief that the duty of our architecture cheerleaders is to “give expression” to “the will of the epoch” isn’t doing us any favours.