Layered Meaning In Architectural Design

Venturi's initial critique of modernist design implicitly encouraged a revival of mannerist tendencies, in which the rules for form as well as content are broken. His pretext had been the analysis of numerous historical buildings in order to validate his criticisms of twentieth-century structures. His rhetorical purpose was to undermine the boring regularity and unrelenting orderliness of modernist architecture, which, he held, belied the manifold complexities involved in a given planning problem and ignored the opportunities for cultural expression of the patron's motives. But his concern for breaking the rules transcended the unorthodox manipulation of form and extended even into his design method, which was flexible enough to accommodate inconsistent demands.

Venturi's various analytical categories addressed complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, accommodation, and other similar qualities. Though convincingly employed in the assessment of buildings in which he perceived these qualities, his categories are too arbitrary and overlap too much to be adopted by others as a rigorous system of for mal classification, applicable to all their own observations. Nevertheless, these categories served to indict as naively bland the universalist outlook of modernist architecture and to encourage an alternative approach to the conception of a design. Although Venturi did not offer an explicit program of recommendations as to how this could be achieved, several inferences were drawn that substantially altered the character of modern architecture.

The very fact that Venturi mainly used historical examples to make his points helped to reinstate in the minds of his readers the value of the past as a legitimate source of inspiration. But possibly because he had made his points by citing specific features, there was a tendency in the work of his followers to employ historicizing quotations, with or without the pragmatic justifications that were inherent in his arguments. An unexpected result was an almost immediate resumption of the premodernist understanding that the architecture of the present best grows out of the architecture of the past. Such a rejection of the modernist premise that the past is both obsolete and irrelevant was a compelling justification for interpreting Venturi's theoretical speculations as initiating a historicizing, postmodern movement.

When his own work confronted him with a difficult situation, Venturi did tend to seek inspiration in the historical examples that had nourished his outlook. His quotations, however, were only occasionally literal and seldom historicizing in purpose. Rather, they were normally used as culturally meaningful devices that also solved a practical problem. Taken out of context, they had the effect of breaking the rules, and their use in incongruous circumstances gave them the kind of layered meaning that is associated with mannerism.

The impact of these references was considerable, expressly because they did convey meaning. They helped to restore the sense of cultural belonging that had been lacking in modernist architecture. Venturi never stated how cultural meaning was to be conveyed or with what means. Under his own hand it was subtly allusive and not programmatically imposed, often breaking the bonds of solemnity, with which almost all previous architecture had been constrained. Indeed, for him meaning seems to have been a matter located behind, or beyond, explicit iconography, addressing instead a preconscious apprehension of the familiar.

An incidental result of Venturi's tendency to draw comparisons to sixteenth-century Italian buildings was that the mannered version of the orders made its way into his architecture, in the form of both direct and indirect references. Both types are effectively illustrated in the most famous example of his work that appears in the treatise, namely the facade of the Vanna Venturi house, of 1962 (fig. 15-1). Direct references include the split pediment treatment of the roof and the segmental arc straddling the lintel of the entrance recess. These features are employed against the foil of classical normalcy, implicit in the pedi-mented frame of the house, the axial placement of the entry recess, the axial placement of the "chimney," and the molded stringcourse that runs the width of the facade. Indirect references to mannerism occur in the violations of this regularity, manifested in the asymmetrical placement of the windows and their discrepant scale, the location of the front door to one side of the entry recess, and the placement of the flue off-axis on the chimney. The materials are noncommittal, but nontraditional for classicism, and the structure is thin and light, in the tradition of modernism. The combination of these various ways of breaking the rules is at once cultivated, witty, and ironic, denoting a self-assured sophistication. Moreover, the overall composition possesses a dynamic tension that would be lacking in a more regular—and more normally modern—

Figure 15-1

Postmodern design: Vanna Venturi House, by Venturi (Rollin R. LaFrance, courtesy VSBA).

Figure 15-1

Postmodern design: Vanna Venturi House, by Venturi (Rollin R. LaFrance, courtesy VSBA).

design. Shocking at first, perhaps smacking of an irreverent vulgarity, it appeals to the viewer with a headier aesthetic than that of modernist designs.

Typically, postmodern mannerism has manifested itself through the incongruous appropriation of classical elements or the flouting of decorum in their application. Incongruity might occur with the use of incomplete or schematized— i.e., conceptually deformed—classical elements or their application out of context (fig. 15-2). Violation of decorum might occur through the distortion of traditional proportions of classical elements, as in John Outram's storm water pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, London, mid-1980s, where the elements of the Corinthian capital are reworked in a boldly abstract manner (fig. 15-2). Or it might occur as the juxtaposition of classical elements with popular (low art) elements, such as the Corinthian order with neon lights (as in Charles Moore's famous Piazza d'Italia, New Orleans,

Figure 15-2

Postmodern reconfiguration of classical motifs: storm water pumping station, Isle of Dogs, London, by Outram (courtesy John Outram Associates).

late 1970s) or a comic-strip-like caricature version of classical elements, such as a Doric column cut with exaggerated profile from a flat sheet of building material (as in a well-known house by the Venturi firm). Postmodernism employed incongruity in order to be witty and indecorousness to be charmingly cheeky. Neither quality had previously been deemed admissible to the high art of architecture, but both were undeniably characteristic of the contemporary culture, especially of the pop art movement in painting. Such a tolerance had become the standard of sophistication, a response to the shattering of the traditional cultural codes of Western civilization by the social cataclysms of the twentieth century. This aesthetic layering lies at the heart of postmodernism. Indeed, the use of these references in a piecemeal or mixed manner constituted an analogue to the late twentieth-century perspective on Western culture as damaged and fragmented.

An important contribution came out of the intermingled effect of the implicit historicism unleashed by Complexity and Contradiction and the implicit justification of vernacular architecture in Learning from Las Vegas. The latter text asserted that "Main Street is almost all right"— namely, that ugly and ordinary architecture has the estimable value of communicating satisfying meaning. This dictum prompted recognition of the reality that in the total fabric of a town each type of building contains signifiers that denote its identity and function, guiding and reassuring the citizens as they go about their daily lives. The linkage of historicism and practical iconography raised the consciousness of architects everywhere to the importance of respecting the context in which any new building takes its place. Quickly acknowledged to be a serious issue, regard for context awakened an awareness that modernist architects had erroneously assumed that their work would eventually take its place as a congenial neighbor to the historical styles, just as each predecessor had done. Such an assumption was inconsistent with the ahistorical aims of modernism, but it was an unconscious holdover from the Gothic revival's romantic attitude toward historical architecture in which modern theory had its origin.

It took several decades of cohabitation to discover that most modernist architecture was never going to form a congenial mix with other styles. For that reason it became an obligation of socially aware architects to study with care all the buildings, indeed the whole district, surrounding a designated building site. In contextual planning, such factors as height, scale, format of building type, and proximity to property lines need to be taken into account, along with color and texture of materials, so that they will all enhance rather than conflict with the setting. The principle of con-textualism does not pretend to shape a design but does surround the development with cautionary guidelines.

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