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Bright Lights, Dim View
"Iconography and Electronics Upon A Generic Architecture, A View From The Drafting Room," by Robert Venturi, MIT Press, 1996, pp. 374, $40.

By Carter B. Horsley

Robert Venturi is the co-author of arguably the most important book on architecture in the 20th Century, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," which was published in 1966, and the most influential, "Learning from Las Vegas," in 1972. Steve Izenour was a co-author on both books and Denise Scott Brown, Venturi's architectural partner, was a co-author on the first book.

His new book is not likely to be as monumental, although its passion and perspective make it critical reading for anymore interested in architecture and American culture.

A brilliant architectural historian, witty polemicist, deep theoretician and one of architecture's representatives in the pantheon of Pop, Venturi is not a great architect.

This book is a collection of essays, speeches, articles and aphorisms that address a variety of subjects, but with a consistent and insistent theme that borders between the revolutionary and the reactionary.

Venturi provocatively argues that the concept of "a universal architecture defined as expressive space and industrial structure" is dead.

"Let us acknowledge the elemental quality of architecture as shelter and symbol - buildable and usable shelter that is also meaningful as a setting for living. Shelter and symbolism that are inevitable, admitted, and explicit elements of an architecture that embraces signs, reference, representation, iconography, scenography, and trompe-l'oeil as its valid dimensions; that makes manifest evocation," Venturi writes.

With considerable venom, Venturi attacks visionaries as misguided and in the process decimates most recent trends:

"As in the last decades we've had to suffer decennially the dry arrogance of late Modernism, the urbanistic heroics of megastructures, the idiotic application of semiotics, the parvenu historicism of Postmodernism, and now sado-masochistic expressionist applications of Deconstructionism as complexity and contradiction gone rampant - of modish juxtapositions of expressionistic Cubism and industrial rocaille and recently what can be called curvaceous-organic industrial."

Venturi is certainly not a lightweight, but his tone here often is peevish. One is tempted to think that anyone who could write, as he does, that "it was so much easier in the old days when the establishment was conservative rather than cutting-edge," is a bit frustrated, especially when not a current member of the establishment.

Venturi longs for an architecture "whose aesthetic and social bases are pragmatically real - rather than ideologically correct,…whose spatial and formal bases are generic and conventional - rather than heroic and original or obsoletely innovative, whose architect is an anti-hero - rather than a signature,…whose originality derives from iconographic content - rather than space and form - as architects become poetic buildings rather than pompous theoreticians,…whose aesthetic explores electronics - rather than exalts engineering,…whose content projects human meaning - rather than abstract expression."

His litany has objectives:

"Viva an art that accommodates dissonance and lyricism and ends up tense - and sometimes enigmatic,

Viva an electronic aesthetic - over the machine aesthetic,…

Viva virtual architecture - over engineered ornament."

Annoyed with design review boards "who promote deadening urbanity (while expounding my partner's and my ideas of some decades ago), to goody-goody community boards with too much time on their hands," Venturi pulls few punches. He is for "pragmatic accommodation vs idealistic imposition, discovering the familiar vs stalking the exotic,…architecture for everyday sensibility vs architecture as one-upmanship,…deep satisfaction from focusing on realities vs cheap thrills from wowing journalists,…richness and ambiguity vs unity and clarity…."

One senses that Venturi wants to be a crowd-pleaser and is not hesitant to take rather cheap shots: "Creeps who talk about a new vision make me sick - and suspicious. I say screw you to vision; up yours to visionaries; vision sucks."

And, "Today's decorative Decon[structivist] trusses in rainbow colors suspended askew and juxtaposed over patterned pastel panels conjure up images of Puritan ladies, wearing lipstick, dancing the cancan."

This cantankerous curmudgeon is level-headed:

"Remember, pious preservationists, architecture isn't sculpture - you design from the inside out as well as the outside in. And it's old doesn't mean it's good, and it's new doesn't mean it's bad. Good can happen."

"Journalists like spectacular architecture: it makes their job easier."

"It is better to be good than original."

"Set up the order and break it - but not too much."

"Making history is as important as preserving history."

"For cities, the less control, the more vitality."

"Worse than vulgar is dead."

"Work to be of your time and you will be ahead of your time….To be of your time, focus on being good rather than new."

"Iconography is all over tee shirts - why not buildings?"

Venturi tends to practice in part what he preaches. His winning design in a competition for a new Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Lower Manhattan  (see The City Review story on the terminal with a picture of Venturi's story) called for an enormous, but simple clock facing the harbor. The design was not built, however, as city officials collapsed to critical condemnation of the project as unattractive and uneconomical.

Perhaps Venturi's most important completed commission was the Sainsbury addition to the National Gallery of Art in London. In his book, Venturi expresses dismay at some design decisions taken on the project by the client, but he defends its lack of "excitement" correctly by saying that the building was designed to defer to the great art contained therein and the adjacent architecture around Trafalgar Square. The design was one of Venturi's most sophisticated: it was subtle and restrained, but like most of his work not spectacular, not riveting, not beautiful, and also not quite a background building that seamlessly blends into its context.

Almost all of his projects, and there have not been that many, are cerebrally interesting and founded on valid premises. But they do not have the audacious complexity of early Peter Eisenman, the ranking architectural intellectual, nor the humor of the late Charles Moore, nor the sculptural brilliance and elan of Frank Gehry.

Perhaps the problem is that Venturi does not have enough ego, or simply is not a great architect. He is definitely a great theoretician, and the current book makes clear that he is not thrilled with theory nor theoreticians.

He is admittedly sensitive to charges that he and his collaborators have been advocates of the vulgar, and he goes to considerable lengths to emphasize that he has not always been approving of specific vulgarity. More to the point, Venturi has been alert to the pluralistic necessities of architecture as a powerful social art and as such his work is certainly as important in its anti-elitism and populist foundations as Jane Jacobs'.

Venturi has never sought to put the vernacular at the pinnacle of architectural achievement, but he has steadfastly sought to learn from it and, indeed, there is much to be learnt.

There is more to architecture than shelter and symbol. There is function and majesty, efficiency and, yes, sculptural form. There also can be magic. Venturi at times contradicts himself and his tirades against derivative, or elitist, or hyped design clash with his clear understanding that sometimes the derivative can be better than the original. What if no Renaissance master painted a second, or thousandth Madonna and Child?

Venturi is galvanic. He boils over with ideas. He spews out possibilities. His excitement and enthusiasms are quite contagious and his insights should be incised in stone. An irascible iconoclast, Venturi is a terrific critic.

I wish I liked his architecture more. The book does not deliver specific new razzle-dazzle electronic iconography. One senses, however, that Venturi is working up a lot of steam and hopefully his future designs will move further away from banal, antiseptic, quirky boxes to a new level, not necessarily style, God forbid.

Readers of this book may run out of ink writing their own exclamation points and notes in the margins. Hopefully, Venturi's thoughts will lead to a proliferation of squiggles and maybe a revival of Cunieform.

What Venturi wants and what we need is an enriched, lively environment that is diverse and wondrous and surprising. Hurray!

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