venturi
Robert Venturi

Time has killed off a lot of modernist art. College courses that teach Gertrude Stein must be awfully undersubscribed today, assuming they are offered. Modernist sculpture and painting still receive respectful attention, but this is largely because people have so much money invested in them. It will be surprising if Mark Rothko, Henry Moore, Josef Albers, and Andy Warhol are still preoccupying any serious person (let alone commanding top dollar) 50 years from now. People who don’t like them (most people) can avoid them.

But the architectural remnants of the age cannot be avoided. They endure–with their windowless façades, their human-repelling scale, their masses of dirty concrete and their self-conscious wish to shock. Worse things happened in the 20th century, but few were more puzzling than the way Americans let their landscape be ravaged by architects and planners, particularly in the years between World War II and the 1980s. Here a neighborhood of elegant storefronts would be demolished “for parking.” There a row of century-old trees would be uprooted so that cars could whiz by at 60 rather than 45 miles an hour. Josep Lluís Sert’s ghastly Holyoke Center still occupies the spot in Harvard Square where Massachusetts Avenue’s beautiful line of Victorian brick was ripped apart to make way for it in the 1960s. Gerhard Kallmann’s Boston City Hall still sits like a Stalinist mausoleum on an empty, windswept plaza, for which dozens of ancient city blocks were razed. You can work westward from there.

Yet, while ugly buildings still get built, spectacularly arrogant ones have had their day. Around 1980, at the very moment these horrid buildings seemed to be proliferating uncontrollably, legitimacy was somehow stripped from orthodox Modernist architecture, through a process as mysterious as the one by which it was conferred. Some of the credit goes to one of the most bizarre books in the history of architecture: Learning from Las Vegas (1972), by the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, his architect wife Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.

The book is a diptych. The first half catalogs, soberly, the architectural features and design logic of the casinos and motels along the Strip (today Las Vegas Boulevard). This part of the project was undertaken with the help of graduate students working inside the Yale School of Art and Architecture –a building, designed by the school’s own dean Paul Rudolph, which can lay a plausible claim to be the ugliest structure ever built in the United States.

The second half of Learning from Las Vegas is a polemic (generally a polite one) against Rudolph and other myrmidons of the Swiss master theorizer and charlatan Le Corbusier. Modernist architects sneered at commercial strips as tacky, simplistic, and bourgeois. Venturi et al. pitted the unruly architecture of Las Vegas (most of it designed by private businessmen) against the logical, doctrinaire architecture of the academic modernists (most of it designed for the public sector) as a way of showing up the latter. What makes Learning from Las Vegas so fascinating is this trick of deploying one kind of crap to discredit another.

Las Vegas is disorienting, and disorienting in a way that can be expected to generate bad architecture. Very fast automobile traffic is to blame. On highway off-ramps, you turn right to go left, Venturi notes. A person can no longer trust his sense of where he is and where he is going; he needs to be told. In Las Vegas, signs perform this function. What they tell you is to enter this or that casino. They need to do this as simply as possible, since the readers of those signs are operating a dangerous piece of machinery at 70 mph. So complex manipulations of space, the modernists’ bread and butter, were out of the question. Symbolism had to be blunt, unchallenging, and appeal to some prejudice or preconception: Roman columns on Caesars Palace, an Arabian lamp on Aladdin’s. Nothing could be tackier.

It is in the course of defending this tackiness–or as he would put it, “messy vitality”–that Venturi wheels around to make his frontal attack on modernism. Las Vegas’s symbols look cheap and inauthentic, but this does not mean they are newfangled. Oddly enough, something reconnects them to the historical allusions of 19th-century eclecticism, when Tudor and Queen Anne thrived in England and Renaissance was the style of choice in France. “Banks were Classical basilicas to suggest civic responsibility and tradition; commercial buildings looked like burghers’ houses; universities copied Gothic rather than Classical colleges at Oxford and Cambridge,” wrote Venturi. “The hamburger-shaped hamburger stand is a current, more literal attempt to express function via association.” Sometimes he calls the language of Las Vegas architecture “heraldic.”

The modernists despised heraldry, whether it took the form of banks pretending to be temples or of hamburger stands pretending to be hamburgers. Architecture was about architecture, they insisted. Borrowing forms and motifs was uncreative, decadent, and bourgeois. Venturi insisted this was not so, or at least that it was not avoidable. Modern architects borrowed forms, too; they were just too dim to recognize it. They were fascinated with 19th-century factories, he noticed, and continued parodying the forms of manufacturing technology well into a 20th century in which most of the technology was electronic. The result was the same warmed-over Corbusierism, building after building after building.

As Venturi put it: all those residential, civic, and institutional buildings whose thin complexities (stepped terraces; accordion sections, or plans, or elevations; cantilevered clerestories; diagonal zoots; textured striations and flying bridges or buttresses) almost parallel the strident distortions of a McDonald’s hamburger stand but lack the commercial program and distracting setting that justify the stridency of Strip architecture.

Boston City Hall–for which, as we mentioned, hundreds of office buildings were demolished–is a bore, in Venturi’s view. “A conventional loft would accommodate a bureaucracy better,” he writes, “perhaps with a blinking sign on top saying I AM A MONUMENT.” It resembles not just a Corbusier monastery in France and Ulrich Franzen’s Cornell agronomy building but also (and he has the photos to prove it) a Neiman Marcus outlet in Houston. It also resembles (although Venturi does not cite it) Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, by John Carl Warnecke, a building that may undercut our earlier assertion about Paul Rudolph’s having designed the ugliest building in U.S. history.

Modernism in architecture was, above all, about the grandeur and genius of the artiste. But if this sort of thing was what resulted from a quest for the “heroic and original,” then Venturi thought that architects would be better off designing buildings that were “ugly and ordinary.” He urged “a humbler role for architects than the Modern movement has wanted to accept.” This would result in buildings that are “socially less coercive and aesthetically more vital than the striving and bombastic buildings of our recent past.”

What did he mean by socially coercive? Consider Earl Carlin’s Central Fire Station of New Haven, a photo of which is reproduced in Learning from Las Vegas alongside an unpretentious firehouse Venturi himself built in Indiana. Carlin’s building is a forbidding wall of cement. It was meant to house a government service on which depend the lives of the people who paid for it. And yet the message it sends to anyone whose house is on fire is: “This had better be important.” Orthodox Modernist architecture was hard to distinguish from a political project. It put the state on a higher plane than the citizen, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Actually, it was on purpose. Las Vegas’s casino developers may have been slavishly dependent on outdated architectural motifs, but their modernist detractors were slavishly dependent on utopian doctrines. At one point, Venturi calls these doctrines “progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian, and puristic”; at another he mentions Modernism’s “reformist-progressive social and industrial aims.” It is clear throughout that he is looking for a polite way to say “authoritarian”:

Revolutionary eras are given to didactic symbolism and to the propagandistic use of architecture to promote revolutionary aims. This is as true for the symbolism of today’s ghetto rebuilders (African militant or middle-class conservative) as it was for the Romantic Roman republican symbolism of revolutionary France.

Modernist architecture does not give us new ways of seeing. It is an impoverishment, in fact. It ignores a varied cultural vocabulary accumulated over the centuries, because that vocabulary might endanger Modernism’s political purpose. As a project, it resembles Kemal Atatürk’s purging of the Turkish language to eliminate words with Persian, Arabic, or European roots.

The case can be made that Venturi is merely advancing a phony dissent of the sort that John Kenneth Galbraith mocked in academic social-science departments, where “considerable store is set by the device of putting an old truth in a new form, and minor heresies are much cherished.” Tom Wolfe took this view of Venturi’s own building designs in his 1981 lament over modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. “If he was departing from modernism,” Wolfe wrote, “he was backing off gingerly.”

Venturi’s departures from modernist orthodoxy were indeed more timid than his theoretical pronouncements. He was a respecter of progressive taboos. He and his partner Denise Scott Brown were given to denouncing as sexists those critics who did not give her full credit as a coauthor of Learning from Las Vegas. (So please understand “Venturi” in the foregoing to mean “Venturi et al.”!) They also occasionally backpedaled, unsaying some of their strongest criticism. “Because we have criticized Modern architecture,” they wrote near the book’s beginning, “it is proper here to state our intense admiration of its early period when its founders, sensitive to their own times, proclaimed the right revolution.” (Not just admiration but “intense” admiration for the “right revolution.”)

This, of course, is the way many Hungarian, Czech, and East German dissidents talked in the 1980s. To ask for more, as Wolfe and others did, was to ask an awful lot of Venturi. If Venturi could not come out and declare himself an enemy of the revolution all at once, that may be a testament to the revolution’s power, rather than his own pusillanimity. The boy who says the emperor has no clothes does a service even if he has no “blueprint for governance.”

Venturi et al. professed themselves shocked at being compared (as they frequently were) to Nixonites: “One does not have to agree with hard-hat politics,” they wrote, “to support the rights of the middle-middle-class to their own architectural aesthetics.” No, one doesn’t, but Venturi’s critics were not stupid. They saw that his dissent, small though it appeared to outsiders, was the maximum dissent feasible. Venturi was suggesting that the ideas of the modernists had become involuted, illogical, and monumentally arrogant, and that the general public, choosing in a slapdash way and for the crassest possible reasons, could be trusted to do no worse. There was, indeed, something Nixonian about Learning from Las Vegas, or at least reminiscent of those 1970s conservatives who swore they would rather be ruled by the first 200 names in the Boston telephone book than the Harvard faculty. They would not have disagreed that 200 random property developers in Las Vegas could build a more humane and habitable environment than the faculty of the Yale School of Art and Architecture.

Christopher Caldwell
Weekly Standard

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