Thursday, 19 March 2009

Shticks and Stones: The Pseudo-Populism of Robert Venturi

Robert Venturi first appeared on my architectural radar in 1972 when Time/Life Films commissioned me to shoot his Guild House and the Vet (which was then the newest thing in baseball stadia) for school filmstrip versions of Kenneth Clark's BBC series "Civilisation." (We had to invent a twentieth century episode because Sir Kenneth not only didn't like his times, he often seemed to pretend they didn't exist.) My behavior at the Vet caused a family dinner table scandal since I had been in the Phillies dugout for the entire game but didn't know who won--my mind was somewhat distracted by my sharing the experience with the photographer, Roy DeCarava.

The Guild House was a puzzle. I literally drove by it several times because, in spite of its hugely out of scale lettering (a pre-Las Vegas intuition?), because I didn't believe that this structure, slightly above the depressingly low esthetic median of public housing, was worth shooting. Fast forward to his Louis Kahn lecture, in which he explained his approach to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of Art in London as one of decompressing the intimidation ordinary Joes feel in the face of High Culture. Gulp. It's a fine structure, one of the few of his I genuinely relish, but it's as High Culture as you can get in Trafalgar Square, which is to say as high as a kite. The last Venturi I've traversed was his Seattle Art Museum, where the oh so grand staircase not only intimidates casual visitors in search of a particular gallery but frustrates the staff I talked to trying to find my way around. Grand is as grand goes, to the pseudo-populist.

In the video that introduces visitors to the show, a Penn professor alleges that the reason many architects loathe his esthetic is because they resented his dethroning the Bauhausian heroes of the first phase of modernism. That is, RV deflates their heroic version of their stripping turn of the century architecture of its excessive ornament. But in the next minute of the film RV slyly and ever so humbly identifies his own facile facadism with Michelangelo the Mannerist. Unhuh. Bad Mannerism I would call it.

And then there's the souvenir phase, when marketers commissioned the Names to do interior degradation--plates, cup, and other saucy appurtenances of the newly upwardly mobile with more cash than taste. Oh what puzzles these will be at the garage sales of the late twenty-first century. Oddly, when the First Couple of American architecture submit to the discipline of another highly traditional culture, viz., the rug that grew out of their Asian trip, or the decor for a Japanese resort hotel, they please my eyes big time. And I love their fire houses, especially the one in Columbus, IN that sacred American place that shows how great a small city in America can be--when it has a great patron, such as Cummins Diesel.

But "learning" from Las Vegas? Such a shtick. My father was a real estate dealer there when it was first attracting international attention (1930-70) so I've had plenty of opportunities to check out the complex contradictions of RV's gloss on that ugliest of cities. (The 2000 Census "taught" me what I long suspected: it is not only the fastest growing city in America; it is also the most socially dysfunctional in indexes like teenage pregnancy, suicide, addiction.) Of course, you don’t learn that by dazzling Penn students jetted out for "Research". They've never learned as I have by its mean back streets.

Let's put it this way: we survived the facile geometries of Mies and his many mice. And we'll survive RV's architectural flash in the pandemonium. I take heart from a recent visit to Finland to celebrate the centennial of the birth of a really great architect, Alvar Aalto. Through a pious odyssey of his buildings. As I always do when I stay overnight in Helsinki, I take a pre-breakfast ramble about Finlandia.

To my astonishment this time, it was entirely bereft of its travertine cladding. I sought out a building engineer relaxing over a coffee and he explained: the travertine which dazzled Aalto in Italy couldn't stand the rigors of Finnish winters. I asked if they were going to replace with a tougher granite. "Oh, no," he smiled, "after a long centennial debate, we Finns decided to give him the material he loved, even though it will cost us $25,000.000 in twenty years. He's our icon after all. Our icon."

After breakfast I went to the Finnish Museum of Architecture to see the centennial show. Alvar began the story of his career by reminding viewers that architects can make mistakes!!! Amen. Strangely, when I was making a similarly pious odyssey in Arizona on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Taliesin in Spring Green, WI, I was shocked to find some concrete painted to resemble redwood.

I asked Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer who was leading me around what gave. He explained that Wright was so dazzled by the sheen of the redwood in irrigation sluices that he decided to use it in Taliesin West. Trouble was that without the lubrication of the water, the redwood deliquesces in the hot Arizona sun. As in all life, win some, lose some. It remains to be seen how long young architects will remain dazzled by the pseudo-populist esthetic of the RVSBA outfit. Not as long as the Bauhaus plagued us. I hope.

(Current Newsweek reports the $4million crisis over the Farnsworth house outside Chicago, the only Mies house in the U.S. The original client sued him for the outrageous heating bills his glass facades cost her before she abandoned it. DOCOMOCO, the group trying to save modern classics from the very modern wrecking ball are trying to raise the dough. They should settle for a good video on how purist intentions come acropper.) We need a good, non-self-serving, film on the Venturi/Brown operation, and not a little demolition.

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