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Architecture Review

Duo Could Be More Dynamically Represented

June 24, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One would expect "Out of the Ordinary," the current retrospective of the work of architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, to be a brazen show, full of sizzle and pop.

In the late 1960s, the Philadelphia-based duo became the standard-bearers for a more pluralistic, everyday architecture. Their target was the high art pretensions of the architectural establishment--the dogmatic formulas of late Modernism. And, mimicking artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, they found their inspiration in the popular landscapes of Main Street America.

But the exhibition, which includes about 250 drawings, models and photos of the couple's work from the 1950s to the present, is surprisingly subdued. In dividing the firm's work into neat, predictable categories--residential projects, university buildings and the like--the show never gives a sense of the depth of the work's impact on the profession. Instead it downplays the team's importance as thinkers and overrates them as designers--an injustice to the architects and the audience.

The show opens with a large billboard, its surface scrawled with catch phrases like "Less is a bore" and "Viva vulgar vitality," which are intended to rattle the cage of the old avant-garde. From there, a short video traces the arc of the team's career, with particular emphasis on their early years as the enfants terribles of the architectural establishment.

The slogans, in particular, seem endearingly quaint by today's ruthless marketing standards, and they do not begin to convey the tremendous force with which the firm's ideas first hit the profession. This was largely due to two books, Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction," published in 1966, and "Learning From Las Vegas," written by Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in 1972.

The first, written mostly in 1962, two years after the couple met, focused on the interplay of historical styles that enlivened the traditional city, in particular the disorder of Rome, a city that Venturi worshiped. The book included a muted but radical challenge: "Main Street is almost all right."

But it was "Learning From Las Vegas" that shook the profession to its foundations. By pointing to the "vulgar billboards" of the Vegas Strip as emblems for a new architecture, it opened the eyes of the East Coast establishment to West Coast car culture as the more relevant vision of the future.

That affection for American vernacular architecture could be gleaned in much of Venturi's early work, which had an eclectic sense of freedom that was radical and refreshing for its time. The most famous of these, a centerpiece of the show, is the Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, completed for the architect's mother in 1964. The project's big, square entry, topped by an overscaled pitched roof and flanked by asymmetrical windows, recalled a child's drawing of a house. But its split facade, united under a gigantic faux chimney, and its diagonal interior layout also gave the project a spatial complexity that alludes to a range of architectural influences, from Palladio to Pop.

The Guild House, completed in Philadelphia two years later, reflected a similar sensibility but adapted it to a tougher urban environment. Designed as a low-cost federally subsidized apartment building for the elderly, its brooding brick facade was marked by a classically inspired arched window and a bold red-and-white sign that announced the building's name. The building was topped by a gold, anodized aluminum sculpture of a giant TV antenna, an emblem of American culture transformed into an artwork that had no real function.

To a large degree, the beauty of such projects, which were designed after the couple met but before Scott Brown formally joined the office, stemmed from their total lack of pretension.

But as time passed, the firm's design work seemed to lose its aesthetic punch.

There were exceptions, many of them depicted here. Among the best is the 1978 Basco showroom and warehouse in Philadelphia, a seemingly mundane shed-like structure with a series of 34-foot-tall letters set along its facade that spell out the firm's name. A photo of a related project, the 1979 Best Products Co. showroom in Langhorne, Pa., depicts a windowless warehouse, its surface painted over with red and white flowers, like a Marimekko fabric.

Even a work as recent as the American Sign Museum, designed in 2000 and never built, has a certain dated charm. In the single drawing of the project included in the show, an overblown median strip of a road runs directly into the museum's facade. Gigantic billboards line the road on either side. A Bob's Big Boy sign leans menacingly into view. Sunoco, Shell and Mobil signs evoke an era of guilt-free gas guzzling. The composition has a surprisingly sinister edge, which gives it the force of social criticism.

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