Is Philip Nobel, the "resident curmudgeon" of Metropolis magazine, going soft already? Probably too soon to tell, but historians of such things — do such people even exist
yet? — may well look back on this moment and say that this was when Philip Nobel started to lose it. Asked why, they will say that it was one part Nobel, one part never-ending crisis of Modernism, one part New York Times Building and, oh, 10 parts New York.
I'll get back to this momentarily, but we needn't wait
for the verdict on Philip Nobel to know that, despite "getting one in" occasionally, large-scale Modernist architecture has spent most of the last 40 years on the ropes. Among the first to put it there were architect-scholars Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, with their pithy and generously illustrated 1972 study Learning from Las Vegas. Whether or not you've already read Las Vegas, you should read it now to see how right — and how much more wrong — the authors turned out to be.
What Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour mostly saw when they surveyed the Modernist built landscape of the late 1960s was "heroic and original" architecture that was irrelevant, they said, because it did not speak with explicit symbols that most people could understand.
As Experts with Ideals...[Modern architects] build for Man rather than for people — this means, to suit themselves, that is, to suit their own particular middle-class values, which they assign to everyone...Developers build for markets rather than for Man and probably do less harm than authoritarian architects would do if they had the developers' power.
One does not have to agree with hard-hat politics to support the rights of the middle-
middle class to their own architectural aesthetics, and we have found that Levittown-type aesthetics are shared by most members of the middle-middle class, black as well as white, liberal as well as conservative.
The authors nicknamed "heroic and original" buildings
ducks — after a duck-shaped poultry stand on Long Island that appears in Peter Blake's 1964 book God's Own Junkyard. These were buildings "[w]here the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form": a "kind of building-becoming-
The "Long Island Duckling" (1931), in Flanders, N.Y.
The B-side of the authors' class critique was that ducks
were not only aesthetically elitist but unnecessarily — and inappropriately — expensive:
We architects who hope for a reallocation
of national resources toward social
purposes must take care to lay emphasis
on the purposes and their promotion rather than on the architecture that shelters them. This reorientation will call for ordinary architecture, not ducks. But when there is little money to spend on architecture, then surely greatest architectural imagination
is required. Sources for modest buildings and images with social purpose will come, not from the industrial past, but from
the everyday city around us, of modest buildings and modest spaces with
So it was that, opposed to "heroic and original" ducks, the authors — inspired by the schlock commercial architecture of the Las Vegas strip — prescribed an "ordinary and ugly" alternative: decorated sheds. Exactly as mundane as they sound, decorated sheds were buildings "[w]here systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them."
Summarizing the distinction between duck and shed, the authors wrote: "The duck is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional building
that applies symbols."
For them, ducks were symptoms of a sickness within
the basic culture of architectural design:
To replace ornament and explicit symbolism, Modern architects indulge in distortion and overarticulation. Strident distortion at large scale and "sensitive" articulation at small scale result in an expressionism that is, to us, meaningless and irrelevant, an architectural soap opera in which to be progressive is to be outlandish.
Writing later that "[i]f articulation has taken over from ornament in the architecture of abstract expressionism,
space is what displaced symbolism," the authors conclude:
...this is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication via
When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck...It is now time to re-evaluate the once-horrifying statement of Ruskin that architecture is the decoration of construction, but we should append the warning of Pugin: It is all right to decorate construction but never construct decoration.
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THERE are still ducks, and there are still decorated sheds. But the line between the two is no longer so bright and clear as when Learning from Las Vegas was published in 1972. Modernist explorations of program- and site-driven form — from Eli Attia's 1972 design of Pennzoil Place for Philip Johnson to Foster & Partners' 30 St. Mary Axe — along with continued experiments in the deep texturing of building surfaces, have often made it difficult to tell which is a shed and which a duck.
On Foster & Partners' Hearst Tower, for example, the stainless cladding on the external structural members is obviously ornamental. But so are those big notched corners. Both the chamfering and the structural detailing are executed on such an "heroic" scale, to use the authors' word, as to mask the fact that the tower is, for all intents and purposes, a box. This is a high-end decorated shed, to be sure, but a decorated shed nonetheless. "Duck" and "decorated shed" becomes a distinction without a difference.
I digress, but not much. For while it's not that difficult to see why many people read the Hearst Tower as something other than a decorated shed (that's the idea, dear), some are just as seduced by — and confused about — buildings that are more open about their essential decorated shed-ness.
Look at the word that Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour chose to reinforce what they really meant by decoration: applique. That's a word that those of us who came of age in the 1970s would have associated with the felt cut-outs, brocade and sequins on our grandmother's purse. Applique. Tacked on.
There could not be a clearer illustration of that in our own time than the ceramic-tube screens bolted on to every 52-story facade of the soon-to-be-completed New York Times Building, near Times Square.
Ceramic tubes aside,
the building, designed
by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FXFowle, bears a striking resemblance to the new Bloomberg Tower (right), which no one would describe as anything other than a very nice box.
Indeed, isn't that what the new Times tower is too, a very nice box — a shed — with more elaborate decorations?
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