Iconoclastic Architects Catalyze Shift to More Populist Style

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art is highly eclectic

It was fitting that Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" was played during groundbreaking here for the expanded Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) San Diego, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The Philadelphia firm of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates has virtually defined populist architecture that glories in everyday life.

The enlarged, $9.25-million museum, which opened March 10, illustrates the architects' gospel of diversity. Bold neon signs on the exterior blare homage to our media age. Fat Doric columns show an offbeat historicism. As a nod to context, the architects exposed the Mission Style facade of the original building designed by Irving Gill in 1916.

Although most museum designs are neutral to highlight the art, MCA director Hugh Davies says, "If you have an architect who is the best architect working in the world today, how ridiculous to inhibit his creativity by putting strictures on what he can do."

Accolades like this have showered Venturi and Scott Brown in recent years. They've received major commissions like the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, and both received the National Medal of Arts in 1992.

For most of the firm's existence, however, commissions tended to be a few quirky, small-ticket projects. Their notoriety came from the iconoclastic books of architecture theory they wrote, which outraged the design community. After the initial responses waned, their influence changed architecture from mainstream modernism to Main Street post-modernism.

"After 50 years of what had become a fairly restricted dogma of modernism, Venturi's book ['Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture' (1966)] opened people's eyes.... It was a plea to understand the elegance of other forms of architecture, like Baroque," says Bruce Thomas, an architectural historian at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Modernism spawned the industrial aesthetic of glass-and-steel boxes, pared of all ornament and historical trappings. Mies van der Rohe summed it up: "Less is more." To which Venturi replied, "Less is a bore." Just as Pop Art replaced abstraction in the 1960s, "Venturi and Scott Brown reintroduced ornament and figuration into architecture," says Mark Taylor, professor of humanities at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He adds, "Their architecture grew out of the pop culture of Main Street. They catalyzed a shift from architectural obsession with purity of form to the use of images and decoration from commercial culture.

In separate interviews, Venturi and Scott Brown spoke about their ideas. Excerpts of the discussion with Venturi follow.

What are the current trends in American architecture?

There has been a tendency in the modern architecture of our era ... of glorying in being revolutionary. There was justification for revolution in the 1920s when the International Style began and the industrial vocabulary and abstraction were adapted.

Now we're in a cycle where evolution is more dominant than revolution. We have to acknowledge the past. The modern architect ... would design from the inside out, and to heck with what's around a building. On the other hand, some architects have taken the idea of context to an extreme.... You can be very contrasting to the old and still be harmonious. Different periods coexist in the Piazza San Marco. It has an outrageous Gothic Doge's Palace, correct and vital Renaissance buildings, and a Byzantine Cathedral. And they all work.

Your criticism of minimalism as a "bore" is perceived as a turning point. Did you mean to scuttle modernism?

I didn't want to destroy modernism. I adore Alvar Aalto. I worship Le Corbusier. I look at a photograph of the Villa Savoye and tears come to my eyes. But the followers of the modernists became more academic traditionalists than the cole des Beaux-Arts guys they were reacting against.

Do you miss the idealism of modernism, with its conviction that reason and design could save society?

The modernist agenda didn't work very well. In Germany in the 1920s, socialist housing was beautiful and effective, but when it was imported here in the '50s, it was disastrous. The proletariat here didn't think of themselves as proletariat. They wanted ranch houses.

Today we don't think about the social dimension as much as we should. There's not the impetus. That's a disappointment.

How does the revival of modernism today differ from the first go-round?

The neomodernists are using modernism as a historical style, which they're reviving today. They're doing things that were functional originally and making them decorative. It's heresy in terms of modernism. It's a little like putting lipstick and rouge on a bunch of Puritan ladies and having them do the can-can.

How does this new museum building represent your ideas about design?

It's a great big piece of iconography, with the art itself plastered on the architecture. Baroque artists did that with their cenotaphic murals. Early Christian architecture in Ravenna had pictures in the form of mosaic murals on the inside.

With the Egyptians, pylons were billboards with lots of information. We're going back to that. Where you get your architectural thrills is not from the structural shapes, where architecture becomes pure, "original" sculpture, but from simple architecture - a generic shed with applied ornament or iconography.

Have we gone too far into chaos and multiplicity?

Multiculturalism and pluralism are good if you don't get ideologically fanatical. A kind of non-unified chaos is right for now. We are in a time where we're acknowledging many ways to live. It's an American tradition to be pragmatic. We don't have laws that say all buildings should be the same height. That was one of the problems in La Jolla, where height limitations preserve views of the Pacific. I got irritated and said, "The Pacific is boring."

Part of our way of doing things is to take our chances. Good cities have to have some bad architecture, just as people growing up, when they're adolescents, have some bad moments of awkwardness. All of this perfection and unity stuff is boring.

Aren't community regulations needed to keep all new buildings from being like Burger King?

Burger Kings are terrific. We need both Chartres Cathedral and we need Burger King. What would life be without variety?

In the American tradition of urbanism, we adapted the gridiron system where there's absolute consistency of the streets. There's no ducal palace or opera house at the end of an avenue. Every avenue is the same as it veers toward the horizon. But along these streets, [everything] can break loose. Opposite the Burger King, theoretically, can be the mayor's house. This is the American way. The mayor's house gets its dignity from its own characteristics and scale and not from its position.

What does the architecture of today tell us about society?

A lot of the elitist architecture is journalistically oriented, something to be original and look snazzy to critics. It's not a good trend. It's a kind of hype. We say, let's do generic, everyday architecture. Let's not try to be original. Let's apply the originality, apply the art. Detail is a way of bringing a sense of small human scale to a big building.

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