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Architecture And Politics : Sharply Differing Exhibits In La Jolla

June 07, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

LA JOLLA — The featured exhibitions at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art could hardly appear more dissimilar in spirit.

"Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown: a Generation of Architecture," consists of elegant drawings in the first comprehensive overview of a firm that has strongly influenced American building. It is a conceptual exhibition, substituting ideas for the works of art which it is impossible to display.

The installation "Francesc Torres: The Dictatorship of Swiftness" is a political exhibition using feelings for a statement that is impossible to articulate.

Despite their ostensible differences, both exhibitions are broadly social, ranging from the most personal to the most public arenas. They are also profoundly humanistic--from the lightest, engaging touch of fancy to gut-level fear.

Architects have historically claimed their discipline to be the mother of the arts. It is certainly the most social of the visual and plastic arts. The creation of a building requires the participation of many specialized workers. The finished structure is generally used by numbers of people and seen by many more. Its consequences are also more enduring than those of other art forms. A bad painting can be put away. A bad building can blight an area for generations.

Architecture is an art form that seems to attract big egos. The scale of even the smallest structure is vaster by far than that of conventional paintings. When the spirit is great as well, society is blessed with great buildings. When the spirit is mean, we have spiritless buildings, buildings that belittle those who must use them. Look about you. Does the architecture you see make you feel uplifted, energized, healthy?

For the most part, we see examples of the degenerate progeny of fifth-rate copiers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He was a brilliant architect, but also a Nazi toady for a while, and it can be argued that his architecture, in part at least, represents a reification of totalitarianism.

Consider the architecture made in the 1950s based on the Miesian model of a tall steel rectangle with a glass skin. Mies could produce a masterpiece like the Seagram Building (New York, 1956-1959, with Philip Johnson). His imitators could not. In ironic response to his reductive dictum, "Less is more," they have given us less and less, especially in the way of visual amenities, so that today our cities are hideous congeries of characterless towers.

Then along came Robert Venturi. The Philadelphia-born, Princeton-educated architect shocked the world of American architecture with the heretical statement, "Less is a bore," which he now wishes he had not said, because he truly admires Mies's achievements. Nevertheless, his book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" (1966) was a manifesto against the puritanical moral orthodoxy of modern architecture.

In brief, Venturi aimed to create an architecture for life as it is, not as it ought to be, an attitude which identifies him, according to architectural historian Vincent Scully, as "an Italian architect of the great tradition" who "values before all else the actions of human beings and the effect of physical forms upon their spirit."

In his preference for "messy vitality over obvious unity" Venturi opined that contemporary architects could learn from such vulgar sources as the Las Vegas strip. In his architecture he used common materials in uncommon contexts, he adapted commercial signage for supergraphics in a Pop idiom, he revived interest in the symbolic and ceremonial use of facades. He also employed references to Italian and English 17th-Century Mannerist and Baroque design.

Ironically, Venturi was one of the most famous architects of the 1960s and early 1970s but one of the most unbuilt. Clients rejected his proposals, canceled them, even destroyed them. Since the mid-1970s, however, the firm that he formed with John Rauch (1964), later joined by Venturi's wife, city planner Denise Scott Brown, has enjoyed more success. The exhibition evinces the ebullience of the architecture which they define as "shelter with decoration on it."

Included are drawings for the "Vanna Venturi House" (1962) with its distinctive asymmetries and vertical division above the entry; the shedlike Lieb House (1968), which epitomizes small size with big scale; the archetypal Penn State Faculty Club (1976); a glorious proposal for salvaging Atlantic City's Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel and Casino (1977); the "Gordon Wu Hall" (1981), a combined dining, social and administrative building for Princeton University's residential Butler College; the intriguing and engaging Treehouse for Children's Zoo (1981-1984) in Philadelphia, and a proposed State Mosque (1983) for Baghdad, among many others. The exhibition is a course in architectural reeducation.

Torres' installation, "The Dictatorship of Swiftness," is one of the most enigmatic and unnerving works of art I have experienced. The artist, a native of Barcelona, mysteriously crystallizes terror in modern life through the use of images and objects, including a semi-circle of television monitors projecting scenes of battle and an upended automobile spinning wildly on its front bumper, small model automobiles hurtling at the tops of army helmets, an immense and threatening machine gun and on the floor two dozen buckets of rusting water.

The message is that speed--presumably of transportation, communications and fire power--attains its fullest expression in warfare. All visitors will have to reflect on that.

Also on view are three somber mixed-media paintings by Torres.

These exhibitions continue through Aug. 3.

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