Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Review: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
by Robert Venturi

Of course complexity and contradiction but also: ambiguity, paradox, incongruity, exclusion, vestigial, both-and, discord, brokenness, irony, distortion, unresoluition, chaos, inconsistency, superadjacency, superimposition, perversion, hyperproximity, contrast, juxtaposition, tension and violence, violence, Venturi revels in violence.

In 1966 Postmodernism escapes the bounds of continental philosophy and literary criticism making its grand splash in architecture with the publication of this book, the broadly acknowledged gospel of architectural Postmodernism*. Since its publication three generations of architects have been indoctrinated in it. Therefore, if you wish to understand why the architectural and planning professions dysfunction as they do today, then this is a seminal text you are obliged to consider.

A Critique of Orthodox Modernism

That is to say a critique of the International Style as exemplified by Bauhaus icons Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Perhaps the writing was already on the wall for the International Style. Regardless, Venturi's polemical critique was effective; he was great at smashing things.

The first two chapters are actually quite coherent. Venturi quotes and acknowledges inspiration from the author T.S. Eliot who spoke of drawing tradition from more than just the immediate preceding generation, rather the whole of Western civilisation. Setting the stage honestly, Venturi confesses his personal attraction for complexity and contradiction and highlights the eras of Western civilisation that exemplify this best in architecture: Mannerism, the Baroque and Rococo.

Next he delivers Orthodox Modernism an initial blow: “Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture...Orthodox Modern architects have tended to recognize complexity insufficiently or inconsistently. In their attempt to break with tradition and start all over again, they idealized the primitive and elementary at the expense of the diverse and the sophisticated. As participants in a revolutionary movement, they acclaimed the newness of modern functions, ignoring their complications. In their role as reformers, they puritanically advocated the separation and exclusion of elements, rather than the inclusion of various requirements."

Then Venturi follows up with another condemnation that lays the International Style to the mat: "The doctrine 'less is more'  bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplified program for living-an abstract theory of  either-or. Where simplicity  cannot work, simpleness results.  Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore." Orthodox Modernism was condemned as simple, bland and boring with a clear implication: Modernism wasn't "modern" anymore. Readers, including a generation of young, frustrated architecture students were hooked. What was Venturi going to lay out next? Where was he taking them? Where was the future of architecture headed?

Complexity and Contradiction in Writing about Architecture

Rauschenberg, Pilgrim 1960
Chapter three, entitled "Ambiguity", is aptly named and self descriptive. Venturi seeks the "discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect" typified by the Abstract Expressionism of the avant-garde of the art world who had already effectively mastered the principle of unresolved tension, paradox and contradiction, directing their dramatic genius towards chaos. Here and elsewhere there are echoes of the dialectic process as described by Hegel or Kierkegaard where opposites are brought into dualistic conflict, synthesising a new, if relative, truth that in turn finds itself in renewed opposition and so ad infinitum. The anticipated long term effects to the actual psyche of the human beings who find themselves living inside the architectural expression of ambiguity itself is never mentioned.

Next he purports to say something of incredible profundity: "Architecture is form and substance - abstract and concrete." No kidding. When have you ever experienced 'formless stuff' or 'immaterial form'? That matter and form are of a piece, that they always go together, that we're really describing one thing is hardly revolutionary and is certainly not a paradox. The only complex thing about it being the way it's presented in this chapter. In any case, it is the last mention Venturi has of  the material. We're off to the world of contradictory ideas, all form and programme from here on out.

By chapter four the nonsense machine is in top gear: "Contradictory levels of meaning and use in architecture involve the paradoxical contrast implied by the conjunction "yet." They may be more or less ambiguous...this series of conjunctive "yets" describes an architecture of contradiction at varying levels of program and structure. None of these ordered contradictions represents a search for beauty, but neither as paradoxes, are they caprice." WTF is that supposed to mean? Who knows but prepare yourself for six more chapters of dense Postmodern theory-laden jargon whilst fetishising over every anomaly and freak work of Classical architecture as approbation of his ideas. In rare lucid moments, Venturi pulls back slightly, acknowledging that a certain balance (rather than tension) might be warranted between order and chaos but always goes on to reassert and justify his bias for tension, chaos and violence. The book concludes with a chapter of embarrassingly crude and just awful projects by the author, mostly in foamboard.

image 330. Town Hall, Ohio

Classicism's False Friend

A fair number of my professional colleagues would classify themselves as either Classicists or practitioners of Traditional Architecture. Academically, almost all of them received an university education rooted in architectural Postmodernism, with Venturi as required reading. Many have expressed appreciation for the freedom that Venturi's polemic brought about from the hegemony of Orthodox Modernism and the permission it granted to reconsider traditional forms. I would concede there is a measure of truth to that. However, they often assert that architectural Postmodernism is quite a different thing than philosophical Postmodernism, nomenclature is about as much as they share in common; "PoMo" being nothing more than a style getting off to a slow start in the 60's with Venturi, seeing its nadir in the mid to late 80's. Perfectly harmless. That would be a mistake.

To illustrate a few fundamental contrasts between the Enlightment or Classicist philosophical world view with those generally held in Postmodernism:

The Metaphysics of Classicism is one of form imposed upon matter producing something real, tangible that points to the transcendental. Postmodernism denies a knowable reality, eschews the importance if not the very existence of material, privileging abstracted form and concept.

The Epistemology of Classicism considers experience of and reasoning upon an objective reality, one in which complexity is resolved through hierarchy, order, harmony and balance. By contrast, Postmodernism views reality only through relative, subjective frames. Complexity is purposefully left unresolved, tension exacerbated by violent contrast and juxtaposition reflects the world as it really is, a dynamic battleground.

The Ethics of Classicism are humanistic. The individual is not fully determined, has at least limited autonomy and can be held responsible for his actions. The civic realm ought to physically express a forum for rational discourse amongst individual members who constitute the society. Postmodernism denies individual autonomy as illusory. The individual being a socially constructed product determined, subsumed and constituted by his culture. As such there can be no basis for a shared understanding between conflicting and contradicting ideologies outside one's own identity group, no shared values. "Meaning" is absurd in any literal sense, only to be understood as something arbitrary imposed by the will of those wielding power.

Unlike many of my colleagues I do not see Postmodernism as a passé style, as having been a mere surface phenomena. This is a philosophical movement deeply entrenched in the humanities, schools of fine arts and architecture in academia. It is shaping a generation and needs to be understood. The current, 21st century movements in architecture such as Deconstructivism, Blobism, Parametricism etc. all decry material as nothing more than a means to a conceptual statement, all promote visual and experiential tension and unresolved contradiction, all revel in absurdity and refuse to participate in a shared civic order yet are shaping our built environment. Postmodernism is alive and well in architecture and in fact dominates contemporary architectural education and practise. Furthermore, I would assert that Postmodernism is fundamentally incompatible, in fact being the result of two centuries of departure and in most cases opposition to the Enlightenment. It is a grievous error to think of Postmodernism as an appropriate foundation for the recovery of Classicism.

*A note of clarification regarding the terms 'Modern' and 'Postmodern'. In philosophy 'Modern' refers to the body of thought and intellectual culture leading up to and including the Enlightenment. This was resisted by a Counter-Enlightenment that took hold principally in the Germanic countries during the 19th century. Marxism was one of the last intellectual movements of the Counter-Enlightenment. The 'Postmodern' represents the intellectual ideas that came to prominence during the 20th century that incorporated many of the fundamental tenets of the Counter-Enlightenment and Marxism.

In architecture, 'Modernism' stands in opposition to 'Modern', that is to say Enlightenment inspired design as principally expressed in the Classical. Architecturally, both 'Modernism' and 'Postmoderism' materially express Marxist and Postmodern intellectual culture.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book Review: Ornament and Crime

Contributed by Patrick Webb 
 first published on Real Finishes January 6th, 2016 

Ornament and Crime
by Adolf Loos

Ornament and Crime
I should start by saying that Ornament and Crime was first presented as the title of a lecture in 1910 by the Viennese interior designer, architect and most notably critic, Adolph Loos. The lecture subsequently was published as a stand alone essay. Nevertheless, easily recognisable as a consistent theme in Loos' writing, Ornament and Crime by extension refers to a collection of his essays spanning a period of over 30 years.

Loos' writings are clearly polemical, positively hyperbolic in their criticisms, particularly of architecture, the decorative and applied arts. As an early member of the "Vienna Secession", a group of artists and architects who broke away from the established and conservative Vienna Künstlerhaus, his affiliation was not to endure long. Adolf seceded from the secession, pursuing an initially very individual course in search of the "Modern" aesthetic. The impact of his writings can not be understated. At a time of utter confusion in the arts in the face of industrial ascendance, entropy of culture and loss of traditions, Loos was articulating a crystal clear message, what at the time must have seemed to some as a potential way out if not a way forward.

Despite the fact that I disagree entirely with many of his conclusions, I find myself obligated to concur with many of his observations. Adolf Loos was not a ninny. If one cares to understand how and why the state of art and architecture are as they are today, being so distinctly different from what came before, why traditional craft lies in such a impoverished condition, then I might suggest reading his essays as a point of departure.

Advocacy for the Handwerker,
Criticism for the Architect

It comes as a surprise to many that Adolf Loos apprenticed in the family business as a stone mason and carver. Although he began studies both in engineering and architecture he never completed them, opting instead to travel abroad to America where he supported himself, among other things as a brick mason for which he received a certificate. His support for the independence of the handicraftsman, particularly from the academies of art and architecture, is a central theme in his writings, a position that never wavered.

Medieval Griechengasse Straße, Vienna
Adolph notes that a century earlier to his time Vienna and Austria had a style, both organic and traditional. One bought shoes from the cobbler, trousers from the tailor, rooms from the cabinet maker. No one was telling the varied craftsmen what to do, yet everything was well made and matched just fine. Nevertheless, over the course of the 19th century "profound minds immersed themselves in another age and found happiness as an ancient Greek, a medieval symbolist, or a renaissance man." The craftsman was pressed into service, forced to abandon his long cultivated traditions to adopt all at once the pinnacles of artistic achievements of Classical Greece and Rome, Romanesque and Gothic, Moorish and the Baroque, in fact "everything that had been made throughout history in all nations and produce new inventions as well." The traditional craftsman lacked the scholarly proficiency of an aesthetic polyglot, the academic archeologist who exposed him as naive, provincial and stupid.

So everything of value save his back was wrested from the materialistic craftsman now placed under the alien authority of the man of ideas, forms, books and drawing, the architect who"has learned draftsmanship, and since that is all he has learnt, he is good at it. The craftsman is not...The architect has reduced the noble art of building to a graphic art. The one who receives the most commissions is not the one who can build best but the one whose work looks best on paper. There is a world of difference between the two."

Majolica House, Vienna
Interestingly, he took specific aim at Otto Wagner, the most accomplished architect of Vienna, who fit this description to a tee. He accused Wagner of designing every minute detail of his projects, leaving no contribution for the craftsman., even whilst confessing that due to Wagner's virtuoso ability he manages to pull it off. Genius acknowledged, Loos made his stand against architecture that draws attention to itself as a testament of singular, artistic ability. Loos was less impressed by the aesthetic accomplishment of Wagner's work as much as he was disconcerted by the trend he represented: the approach to architecture as a fine art, especially considering Otto Wagner's position as Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Loos called for an end to the academic abomination, for revolution:

“It is high time our craftworkers tried to throw off this uncalled for tutelage and started to rely on their own good sense.  Anyone who wants to  collaborate is welcome. All credit to anyone who is willing to don an apron and take his place at the humming potter's wheel, or strip to the waist and  help at the furnace. But those dilettantes who want to dictate their designs to the creative artist from the comfort of their studios should stick to their own  field, namely graphic art...if you want craftsmen in touch with the style of the times, poison the architects.”

Hmm...I've yet to try that last suggestion.

The Pogrom against Ornament

The multi-pronged attacks on ornament lack the coherence of some of his other arguments but were the ones to be most revered by the coming Modernist movement. He repeatedly makes a point that is largely verifiable: there was far more ornament applied to everyday items and architecture in the 19th century than at any previous point in Viennese and European culture more generally. 1800's Europe was dripping ears to arse in ornament, much of it shoddily conceived, near all of it culturally foreign.

Some of the appetite for ornament he attributes to the presentation of archeological discoveries as well as artefacts of the aristocracy to the public, particularly under interpretive curation at museums. Out of the tremendous cache collected, what was selected for display was typically the most enriched, bejeweled of items. Loos attributes their survival to being preserved as art objects, ceremonial showcases of ostentation and power. Utilising them as models for practical use therefore would be to miss the original intention completely. Unless of course the intention was to emulate the aristocracy or nobility of former times, an envious pathology that seemed to have infected the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. He thus describes a life lived amongst hallowed relics:

"The lives we lead are at variance with the objects with which we surround ourselves. We forget we need a living room as well as a throne room, and we are quite happy to let ourselves be physically abused by these pieces of furniture in antique styles. We bash our knees, and etch complete ornaments into our backs...our bowls, jugs, and vases has given us in turn renaissance, baroque, and rococo calluses on our hands."

Le Sacre de Napoléon, Jacques-Louis David 1808

Basically, the argument was that the bourgeoisie was not attracted to ornamentation because of their  cultivated taste nor because it gave them any pleasure whatsoever, rather it was that they thought by having it others would think they had taste. Being a purely instrumental, shallow desire there was no qualms about selecting a cheap fake which only served to degrade craft further. By contrast Loos advocates for domestic architecture that the rooms of a house should have the mark of the owner and be comfortable for the family, also cultivating and reflecting their true tastes for good or ill. The one concession he makes to the aforementioned approach is perhaps for the parlour or a similar room for receiving guests where a specific outward presentation might be desired upon which he cautions, "rest assured that everyone will find the designer he deserves."

Courtesy of The Original Morris and Co.
Having fully imbibed the Hegelian nectar of the inexorable progress of civilisation, Loos strikes out into far more questionable territory claiming that "the less advanced a nation, the more extravagant its ornament." He offers no justification for his argument instead providing the highly ornamented Paupans and the highly ornamenting Red Indians as examples of the primitive and culturally poor contrasted with the pragmatic, restrained, eminently civilised English, the culturally rich who are lavishly praised as guardians of the true Germanic spirit. Although quite natural for the primitive Paupan or Indian to tattoo themselves or adorn their canoes he argues that, "a person of our times who gives way to the urge to daub the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or degenerate." He urges the Viennese to thus overcome the "Red Indian" within themselves and emulate the English. Racism aside, I have to question whether or not Adolf was simply completely unaware of what William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement was really up to in England?

This line of argument equating appreciation of ornament with ignorance and dirtiness, unfit for the clean modern man has stuck. It has been very damaging to architecture, culture and inadvertently yet undeniably damaging to traditional  handcraft. Although there is some recovery, the aesthetic cleansing sprung from his polemic has yet a long way from being fully extricated. Not to end on a sour note I have to say there is much more to recommend of Adolf Loos' essays than that last bit of nonsense above such as his genuine concern for the physical and psychological working conditions of craftsmen and advocacy for the respect as well as equal treatment and rights for women. Finally, his additional essay simply entitled "Architektur" is one of the best expositions I've read on how architecture ought to relate to the landscape (natural and urban) and how architecture is not an art. In the spirit of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, I recommend Adolf Loos' collected essays Ornament and Crime as an important reading for the contemporary craftsman.

Contributed by Patrick Webb