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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 architeture 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 contradications [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 enviroment 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. The 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 intruiging 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 contradicatory 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 for everyone. The new and sinister twist is that the people who now 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’s 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 neoliberalist 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.

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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. Lautrec_moulin_rouge,_la_goulue_(poster)_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.

Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)

Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)

The Futurists, or at least Fortunate Depero, followed Lautrec’s lead and his work for Campari appeared as advertising posters in public places.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Richard Hamilton “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (1956)

Roy Lichtenstein‘s take on this was to represent popular culture using meticulously handprinted dots to reproduce frames from comic books.

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Andy Warhol was the most adept at exploiting popular culture for artistic ends.

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While all this was going on, many people who knew nothing about Hamilton, Lichtenstein or Warhol were finding joy in LP covers

 

Artist: Pedro Bell

Artist: Pedro Bell

and (though probably not the same people) black-light posters such as this on their walls.

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Jeff Koons mined popular culture to new depths by taking kitcsh as his subject matter, discovering an entire new universe of 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.

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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. 

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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.

In 2003, fifty-six years later, Easter Hill, was in bad need of repair, and is probably gone by now.

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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.

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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.

You can make your booking here. “There’s something to suit every budget.”

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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. 

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2014

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.

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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.

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