Commercial architecture shines

A new exhibition at Paul Rudolph Hall celebrates American iconography in postmodern architecture.
A new exhibition at Paul Rudolph Hall celebrates American iconography in postmodern architecture. Photo by Lucas Zwirner.

“Naked children have never played in our fountains,” Robert Venturi wrote in his 1972 book “Learning from Las Vegas,” explaining the difference between American and European artistic and architectural expression. But if classic modes of beauty aren’t American, then how should architects make beautiful and inherently American buildings? The beginning of Venturi’s answer: embrace the ordinary.

“What We Learned,” a new exhibition curated by School of Architecture Director of Exhibitions Dean Sakamoto, opens today in Paul Rudolph Hall. The show is a celebration of the work and research of Venturi and his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown — a celebration of ordinary American iconography in the context of post-modern architecture.

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“There is much to be learned from the vernacular,” says the show’s introduction, displayed on a wall at the gallery entrance. What follows is a series of photographs documenting Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1969 trip to Las Vegas with a group of Yale architecture students to explore the American urban landscape. The photographs, which hang around the perimeter of the show, are of casinos, drive-ins, motels and gas stations, illuminated by attention-demanding, neon lights.

At first, the photos seem strange; they document things that do not classically warrant documentation. Then, suddenly, it becomes clear that these ordinary places and images that Venturi and Scott Brown have captured define an honest American decorative and commercial aesthetic. They are beautiful precisely because they do not try to accede to any formal artistic qualifications.

At the center of the show are four large boards covered with excerpts from interviews with the two architects. The excerpts are collected under six headings: “Las Vegas,” “Communication,” “Mannerism,” “Context,” “Automobile City” and “Urban Mapping and Planning.”

“Communication” is a study of commercial discourse in architecture, such as billboards or large signs over gas stations that command public attention.

Communication-based architecture, though, had a place in the past just as Mannerism — a 16th century artistic and architectural style — has a place today. Byzantine mosaics, Gothic stained glass and sculpture, and Renaissance frescoes, Venturi said in an interview published in the show’s program, are all examples of communicative elements in historical architecture. Venturi and Scott Brown do not merely observe and harness the ordinary in America; they repeatedly validate it by showing its place in history.

But, taken together, the six headings do not emphasize only one style, but rather discuss a pastiche, a combination. Venturi and Scott Brown disregarded the formal rules that governed past architecture and concerned themselves with combining styles that were once popular — Mannerism — with ideas that were important to contemporaries — communication and context.

It is in this disregard for established rules that the viewer finds the architects’ greatest strength and their work’s most dangerous pitfall. In America, because aesthetic language has not had much time to develop, there is something strong and fitting about choosing to embrace commercial decorativeness in architecture, especially when it has not been done before. But there is also the danger that disregarding all formal criteria and allowing for the celebration of any style of expression will lead to something ugly.

In the exhibit’s program, Scott Brown called this “beautiful in an ugly sort of way.”

Her claim is paradoxical, but after looking at the photographs, at the neon signs hanging from the ceiling, and finally at the constructional paraphernalia — an antenna, a placard — scattered around the gallery, it is difficult not to admit that together these objects are very compelling.

Though there is nothing classically beautiful about commercial or vulgar imagery, the neon lights and cheap motels are all aglow with an inherently American energy that, when judged apart from existing standards, is strikingly beautiful, even if in an “ugly sort of way.”

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