Sunday, September 23, 2018


Robert Venturi
The Dean of Postmodern Architecture, Robert Venturi, has died, gone from the earth who's ideas and practice of architecture he sought to change. Slate, in a fairly comprehensive article discussing his ideas and the controversies surrounding the work, calling him "...the most influential architect of his era." A hard fact to swallow among his severest critics and those who just downright despised his buildings and his theories . There were many of them, more, it seemed, than there were admirers, and yet he continued to work, build, write, and thrive as an artist and as a theorist who's notions of what urban architecture should be, what it should symbolize, what it should be against. Venturi's basic foe was Modernism, all of it, in all manifestations, but in architecture in particular. Though his theories are more nuanced than I'm prepared to summarize here, what the late builder loathed was the whole Bauhaus concern with creating styles and emphasizing materials that would reform the way the working class viewed the world and would then, through some sort of revolutionary revelation, make better choices about their own fate both as an economic class and as individuals. Venturi felt the late stages of Modernism gave us buildings that were monuments to power, to their own form and grandness, to the gigantism of the theory that provided the rationale for their construction. These were not buildings for those who lived in the city; his task was to come up with something more relatable, an aesthetic more in sync with the rhythms and twitches of how citizens lived in the cityscape. true, the late Venturi probably had more influence on architecture than any other practitioner in recent memory, and he was a prickly subject to bring up among fans of Modernist buildings and the theories that attended them. I was hot and cold over Venturi--fellow PoMo-ers Phillip Johnson and Michael Graves were more my taste, in that PJ had elegance as a virtue and MG took his Circus Maximus influences and made the buildings seem like actual constructions, not stage props. Venturi seemed to worship the strip mall, the billboard, the ugly building upon which one later festoons with all sorts of incongruent ornamentation in an effort to make it less a conspicuous eyesore. He saw his post-modern style of architecture (and that of his wife, his collaborator, to whom he gave credit) as means to make architecture less elitist, to make less a process that constructs monuments to entrenched power and make it more relatable to the average Jake and Joanne. His tract "Learning from Las Vegas" is a compelling argument in favor of basic building structures laden with add-ons, but for this boy, much of his work I've witnessed live and in photo essays seem like nothing more than dollhouses on varying scales of obscene density. Oddly, Venturi had a desire for the cityscapes of what seems like an idealized past, where design and function where merged quite well with the lives of citizens living in neighborhoods and business centers that composed the urban landscape; it should be a place of timelessness. His own work is anything but timeless, and is, in fact, inscribed to a specific era, a time and place, with an aesthetic that hasn't produced a body of work that continues to intrigue or enthrall years after the initial rush of excitement. Things that age well, whether paintings or old buildings are those manufactured things that remain astounding to look at decades later without any explanation. One is simply intrigued, beguiled, smitten without needing to be brought up to speed as to what the painter/architect et al happened to be thinking when they took on their project. Hardly so with  Venturi, much of whose work has already started to look dog-eared. The problem, it seems, is that PoMo architecture was more fad than anything else, the structural equivalent of the lava lamp. Future generations will be baffled why so much public and private capital was spent erecting his faddish and flimsy constructions. Once a historical background is explained and the then prevailing aesthetic is outlined, they'll be baffled even more as to why bad taste dominated the last thirty years of the 20th century

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