Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Plastic Flowers Are Almost All Right (A. L. Huxtable) III

Part II
From Learning from Las Vegaswww.decoratingtheduck.com

"They [the Venturis] have a gift for that kind of outrage. Not content to score the "personalized essay in civic monumentality," they add the ultimate insult, "It's a bore." With more-than-candour, they point out that the renunciation of decoration has led the modern architect to so manipulate his "structural" forms that the entire building becomes a decoration. Then, with less-than-innocence, they draw an analogy between the building as decoration and symbol and the building in the shape of a duck or the highway. Furious, architects reply that the Parthenon is a duck, too.

The Venturis design "ducks" and "decorated sheds". To them, Main Street "is almost all right." So is history, and it is not surprising that mannerism suits them best. They accord the dumb and ordinary, the full seventeenth.century treatment. Piling paradox on paradox, they combine the obvious and the arcane. You can peel off the layers of meaning. Call it pop mannerism.

Guild House, a perfectly dumb and ordinary, and incidentally, very satisfactory, apartment house for the elderly in Philadelphia, is a mannerist exercises that uses blatant façadism and a perverse assortment of details that sets other architects' teeth on edge. Like all Venturi and Rauch buildings, it is intensely personal, idiosyncratic, and arbitrary, done in an intelligent but totally unsettling way. It is meant to make the educated viewer look twice, to see why the ordinary is extraordinary. Because never doubt it for a moment, the Venturis are determined to make it so.

The results are undeniably extraordinary, and many qualified judges think they are perfectly awful. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Venturi designs, more for their ideological input, their profound comments on our culture, their intense and often angry wit, their consummate one-upmanship, than for their architectural quality. Yes, I am avoiding the issue of quality.

I suspect that the conscious application of theory always produces noble experiments and abysmal failures. If theory is valid, it usually leads to something else. The ultimate irony is that the cost of building today is making the dumb and ordinary inevitable. The prophecy is self-fulfilling. But this work is eye-opening and catalytic, and if response is complex and contradictory, so are the Venturis, and life and art.

New York Times, October 10, 1971."

Huxtable, Ada Louise (1971) "Plastic Flowers Are Almost All Right". En: Huxtable, Ada Louise (2008) On Architecture. Collected Reflections on a Century of Change. New York: Walker & Company.

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