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Bobbing for Mies - Robert Venturi at IIT
 -by Lynn Becker

Robert Venturi comes to modernist shrine Crown Hall
to out Mies van der Rohe as a closet symbolist and attempt to define the architecture of our time. (Originally published in abbreviated and far better edited form under the title, Live by the I Beam, Die by the I Beam in the December 16th Chicago Reader.)

 


 

 

 


“There will be nothing new in what I say, but maybe it will have a new twist”

Robert Venturi, speaking on Mies van der Rohe at Crown Hall on the IIT campus

 

Robert Venturi, the architect who launched the post-modernisn assault on Miesian glass-box modernism by countering Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum, “Less is More” with his own “Less is a Bore,” was at IIT's restored Mies masterpiece Crown Hall last month to talk about “Mies is More: Learning from Mies,” part of the 2005 Chicago Humanities Festival.

Lest anyone think the 80-year-old enfant terrible was growing soft, however, Venturi's major thesis was to unmask Mies, known for minimalist structures free of the type of applied ornament that Louis Sullivan loved, as a bit of a hypocrite, not above choosing symbolism over substance when it came to creating an architecture that expressed the industrial age of his time. “Ultimate irony,” observed Venturi, “Mies, like other modernists, enjoyed abstraction as an aesthetic, yet also employed symbolism as an aesthetic.”


For Mies, that meant keeping structure visible and exposed, but Chicago's strict building code requires that the steel frame of multi-storied buildings be fireproofed within a concrete casing. When you look at a classic Mies skyscraper like the IBM Building at Wabash and the River, the exterior may appear to be structure, but the structural steel is actually buried in concrete fireproofing, and what you're actually seeing are the anodized aluminum plates covering that concrete. To call Mies's bluff on another affection - the vertical steel I-beams that he loved to use as mullions between the continuous strips of windows on his buildings - Venturi quoted Tom Wolfe's diatribe against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. “Sticking things on the outside of walls,” Wolfe wrote, “wasn't that exactly what was known in another era as applied decoration?”

Ironically, the building in which Venturi made these observations is the one place where Mies was able to express his aesthetic without subterfuge. Crown Hall, because it's a one story building, didn't have to be fireproofed. The steel you see is not what Venturi calls an “appliqué”, but the actual structure. It was sandblasted down to the bare steel during this summer's restoration, and painted a revelatory deep and glossy black that observers who were there for the 1956 opening say replicates the building's original appearance.

Venturi put up a slide with his comparison of “Mies” and “Bob”.

Mies Midcentury
Bob Post Mid-Century
 
Classic
Eclectic
 
Symbolic (industrial) Symbolic (iconographic)
 
Not acknowledged Acknowledged
 
Minimalism Complexity and Contradiction
 
Not aesthetically expressed Aesthetically expressed
 
Aesthetic cover-up Aesthetic celebration
 
not mannerist mannerist
 
Less is more less is a bore



To Venturi, simplicity is an iron maiden, mannerism a sign of life. The fact he finds Mies a closet symbolist is, to Venturi, a good thing, but the fact that Mies wouldn't acknowledge it himself disqualifies him form the mannerist pantheon.

“I think that the job of the architect is to create shelter,” said Venturi, “and to give a space a kind of symbol.” He spoke of some of themes of Venturi and Scott Brown's latest book, Architecture as Signs and Systems : For a Mannerist Time. “All architecture of the past,” he observed, “had symbolism and signage except for this 20th century past. The hieroglyphics all over the architecture of ancient Egypt . . . the buildings were signs as well. You read the hieroglyphics. The architecture in the pediments of Greek and Roman temples had statue figures in them . . . essentially explaining to you about the Gods that who were being honored and worshipped. The early Christian architecture . . . the basilicas, and the same with the Byzantine architecture had all the mosaics - all of that was signage explaining what it was.”

“There's been a book out recently by a great art historian - Marilyn Lavin . The thesis is that we look at Italian Renaissance and the Baroque era murals , we look upon them as art. They are only incidentally art, according to her thesis. They were essentially there for the message given. The content was important. They taught you about Christianity and they did it in such an artful way that they are art. But they were incidentally art. They were essentially done as signs.”


“The idea of using symbolism and signage is a constant one in the history of architecture. The Gothic church, the façade at Amiens or Rouen, it is a three-dimensional billboard. The Sphinx in ancient Egypt had a great meaning independent of art. At the time, most of people couldn't read.”

Venturi essentially sees mid 20th-century modernism as an aberration in architecture's long history. “We're no longer in the industrial age,” he says. “We're in the information age. We're also in the electronic age, . . . and to make architecture look like industrial buildings and to make architecture be abstract is no longer appropriate. The architecture that's being built today is this awful historical revival, the neo-modern modern revival. They're being just as historical in their revival as they would be if they were reviving Renaissance architecture or Gothic architecture.”

Venturi looks to the restoration of symbolism for today's electronic age. ““How about,” he suggests, “electronic pixels as applied ornament rather than the industrial rivets as applied ornament that are fashionable today?” At least some of the architects he would seem to fall place his modernist revival category, however, appear to be way ahead of him. For his elegant new Deutsche Post tower in Bonn, Helmut Jahn collaborated with lighting artist Yann Kersale to create a changing color sequence of red blue and yellow that plays across over 55,000 square meters from dusk to sunrise and accentuates its dual-skin design. It doesn't really seem all that far from a project for a pair of skyscrapers in Shanghai, designed by Venturi in collaboration with his life and work partner Denise Scott Brown, which look rather Miesian except for the strips of red LED's forming a grid overlaying much of the façade.

What Venturi describes as the information age strikes me as a new, neo-Baroque era, where content is king. In the 1920's, the great German critic Walter Benjamin wrote of German literature that, “'Baroque' is the only fitting way to describe the heaped-up crassness of its subject matter . . . the predominance of content.” Content over form.

The age of content raises as many challenges for architects as it does for a Newscorp or Viacom struggling to fill an almost countless array of cable, internet and new media
channels. Venturi's Shanghai towers, which appeared in the renderings he presented at the lecture to transmit nothing more than light, may already be retro. Perhaps the best expression of the content aesthetic can be found in an updated perennial, New York's Time Square, where high-tech signage is an integral part of the architecture, in the form of ever-larger “reader boards” that include everything from a massive electronic stock ticker on the Morgan Stanley Building, and nine bands of electronic color above ABC's street-level studios carrying both text and video.

For an architect, the issue of obsolescent content has the potential to age a building far faster than any physical decay. How long until visitors to Millennium Park's Crown Fountain began to get bored with the same 1,000 faces projected digitally on the fountain's two towers? In the future, will a building be viable only so long as it has access to fresh content for its digital displays? Taken to its logical extreme, facades of traditional glass, steel or stone may become obsolete - all materials will come to incorporate light-emitting elements. “Modernizing” a building will no longer mean changing its physical structure. By simply changing the feed to the digital boards, a building's appearance will be completely transformed. The fact that this will be no easy feat is reflected by Venturi/Scott Brown's own website. It's an engaging- and award-winning -construct of distinctive typography, whimsical symbols and day-glo colors, but its projects timeline doesn't appear to have been updated since the year 2000.


Venturi and Scott Brown have created some the past century's most essential texts in understanding the architecture of their time. His IIT lecture indicates that he's a point where he's gotten out the revelation business, and more into an autumnal refinement of his basic concepts. Venturi, of course, is the guy who championed the idea of buildings as “decorated sheds,” and in response to a question he fielded after his lecture, he said he saw Frank Gehry's Pritzker bandshell in Millennium Park as carrying on “the idea of the great American loft tradition. His buildings . . . are essentially a loft with applied ornament, which are these potato chips,” Venturi said, referring to the billowing metallic forms that mane the stage. “So I feel at home when you acknowledge that his architecture is not only the potato chips, but the potato chips applied to a loft, and Frank was more than happy when I said that. “

 

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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.