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Architecture of the 20th Century

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2344 words Published: 2nd May 2018

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While discussing the subject of architecture of the 20th century, the discussion is incomplete without a special mention of Robert Venturi. The man started his life in Philadelphia on 25th June, 1925 he went on to become one of the most prevalent names in American architecture. The information on Venturi includes a special mention of his wife Denise Scott Brown. 1960 was the year they first meet , got married in 1967 they have always been together ever since . This husband and wife team did remarkable work in the region of architecture, launching themselves with their joint venture better recognized as Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates (VSBA). “Architecture steeped in popular symbolism. Kitsch had become art in designs which exaggerate or stylize cultural icons.” [1]

Some of the most important design strategies adopted by Brown were ‘theory is not the rule of thumb’, ‘learn to copy’, ‘drawing-a must have’, ‘ideation is constant’ etc.

According to Robert and Denise, theory is not the rule of thumb. While most architects glued to theory when it comes to planning designs, Robert Venturi and Denise Scotte Brown thought the opposite way. According to them design process should not be dominated by the theory. This was despite the fact that both of them were well known theoreticians. Venturi even went on to say that “the artist is not someone who designs in order to prove his or her theory and certainly not to suit an ideology”[2]

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While most of the architects followed the philosophy of not copying, Venturi and Brown had a different point of view here too. They believed that they could learn more by copying the works of the masters. As Venturi correctly puts forth, “It is better to be good than to be original.” [3] But, this in no way meant a complete imitation. To this, Denise Scott Brown makes it clear that they copy ideology that they copy ideologies. The duo only took copying to the extent of drawing inspiration. Their inspiration was a base to develop further designs. Venturi says, “You have to have something basic that you either build on or evolve from or revolt against. You have to have something there in the first place and the only way to get it is to copy, in a good sense of the word.”[3]

One, of course, needs to possess certain skills to leave a mark the field of architecture. According to Robert and Denise, drawing was the most essential one. Referring to the skill as a facility between hand and mind, Denise Scott Brown also said that it was essential for designers to master drawing in order to succeed. She believed that it often happened that the hand draws something, which the mind interprets in a different way and you draw a whole new idea from it.

In an era where everyone thought that handwriting has a little significance as everything can be done using specially designed software, the duo has its arguments ready. “People who can draw very well and who control line weight well in hand technique are the ones who use the computer imaginatively,”[4] they asserted.

Who says that you need to sit down in a board room to ideate? Well, not Venturi at least. In his opinion ideation cannot be bound by place or time; he believed that one could ideate anytime and anywhere, even while talking. Venturi alleged “that even while talking one suddenly sees something else out of the corner of their eye and they think of something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. He also opined that you ideate more while working on other projects and averred the idea only comes after great struggle and agony.”[5]

Some of the important buildings built by the duo are – The Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1962, Brant House in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1973, Gordon Wu Hall in Princeton, New Jersey in 1983, Bank building in Celebration in Florida in 1994 and many more.

Since mid 1960s Robert and Denise greatly altered the landscape of the American Architectural thought their processes and practices with their design strategies. Robert Venturi’s book ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture became a uniting point for budding architects around the globe who had become cynical with the stylistic restrictions of the International Style as a result of which the book provided a manifesto for the Post-Modern movement in architecture. Followed by this out of his teachings at Yale came his 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas which was co-authored by Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown. The architectural world was once again astonished by this work. The the gaudy and the sign-filled Vegas strip was transformed from being an architectural aberration to a vernacular art form which deserve serious study. Venturi felt that the Decorated Shed and various other types of roadside buildings offered design lessons that could not be left attended, an” he argued that architects require to face the reality and symbolize the popularly built environment with buildings corresponding to that environment.”[6]

“Kitsch is reflected as a form of art that is substandard and is a tasteless copy of an a complementary style of art or is a nugatory replica of art of recognized value.”[7] The deliberate use of elements that may be considered as cultural icons is what this concept is related to

“Kitsch can also be defined as the genres of art that aesthetically lack whether or not being theatrical, sentimental, glamorous, or creative and that make creative gestures which simply reflect the superficial appearances of art by means of repeated conventions and formulae. This term is often associated with excessive sentimentality.” [8]

The emergence of postmodernism in the 1980s, blurred the borders between kitsch and high art yet again. The approval of what is called camp taste – which may be related to, but is not the same as camp when used as a gay sensibility was one development.

An unreal or an assumed illustration from the world of painting would be a kitsch image of a deer by a lake. In making camp, panting a sign beside it, saying No Swimming. The majestic or romantic perception of a stately animal would be punctured by humor; the conception of an animal receiving a a penalty for the breach of the rule is out rightly ludicrous. The primordial, reflective sentimentality of the motif is neutralized, and thus, it becomes camp.

A few things that posed as interesting challenges were the conceptual art and deconstruction, because, talking of kitsch, in favour of elements that enter it by relating to other spheres of life they downplayed the formal structure of the artwork.

Inspite of this fact, many in the art world continue to latch onto some sense of the dichotomy between art and kitsch, excluding all sentimental and realistic art from being considered seriously. This has come under the scanner of the critics, who now argue for a renewed art and figurative painting, without the concern for it appearing innovative or new.

Whatever may be the scenario, there is difficulty in defining boundaries between kitsch and fine art since the beginning of postmodernism, the word kitsch is commonly used to label anything seen as being in poor taste still.

This postmodern architecture influenced by Venturi was further prejudiced by many architects like Philip Johnson and Robert A.M Stern.

When talking about American architecture, there is no way one can miss out on Philip Johnson. One of the most notable and renowned American architects, he was the winner of the first ‘Pritzker Architecture Prize’. For establishing the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York is credited to him.

Philip was born in 1906 in Cleveland. He played a vital role in creating and understanding the urban skyscrapers through America. Johnson was an advocate of simple style and thus he played a significant role in strengthening the minimalist trend. The work of various modern architects, including Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier was comprehensively supported by Johnson. He was a co-author of the popular book, ‘The International Style’. The techniques of the Bauhaus were introduced to America by this book.

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By the time Johnson reached the age of mid-thirties he was discontented with his role of an author and curator. So he studied under the architect Marcel Breuer at The Graduate School of Design. Johnson designed his own home in New Canaan, Connecticut soon after his graduation. His first architectural work, his house is considered one of his most remarkable works. The house was a glass house and featured an exposed steel frame. Johnson continued with his architectural quest and went on to design numerous public buildings and houses after his own house. Johnson designed some of his well-known works, notably the Seagram Building in New York City during this time.

Johnson had a more inspired than individualistic stint with architecture initially. His initial work carried a strong bear mark of Mies van der Rohe. However, an individualistic touch could be seen in his work by 1960’s. Infused with historical elements, his style of architecture showcased how one could aesthetically incorporate domes and colonnades in a building. He created some of his most monumental works of his life only after he discovered his individualistic architectural sense. Some of these include the Sheldon Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska, the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair and the New York State Theater in New York City. By the 1970s and 1980s, he began experimenting with the texture and color of the exterior of his creations at large though he was still stuck with his original style of architecture.

Today in his nineties, Johnson is considered as one of the last modern architects that we have. With a run of nearly 70 years in the field of architecture, he has surely carved his niche and will continue to inspire many architects in the times to come.

Another popular name in American architecture is of Robert Arthur Morton Stern, also known as Robert A.M. Stern. He is an American architect and presently the Dean of Yale University School of Architecture. His work is usually described as postmodern. However, a dominating emphasis on continuity of tradition in his work is witnessed which cannot be ruled out. No wonder, he recently used the phrase ‘modern traditionalist’ to describe his work.

As a designer in the office of Richard Meier he started his career in 1966. But he soon quit from his job and established his own firm, ‘Stern and Hagmann’ in 1969. He formed the firm

with a fellow student at the Yale University named John S. Hagmann. This was followed by the establishment of the successor firm, ‘Robert A.M. Stern Architects’, a name still very popular in American architecture.

He has a broad portfolio to his credit when talking about his work. Some of his more notable projects in the public domain include Lakewood Public Library in Lakewood, Ohio, the main library in Columbus, Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta and many more. Stern was also a notable author apart from being a successful architect. He has authored New York 1880, New York 1960, and New York 2000- a series that documents the evolution and history of the architecture of New York City.

This postmodern architecture has his roots deep in the past, as is evident from his work. His buildings showcase a deep affection for the past. His most notable project with The Walt Disney Company reiterates the same. He served the company in the position of Board of Director for the tenure 1992-2003.

His boardwalk at Disney World is suggestive of an American seaside village from the early 20th century. You will be reminded of how architecture has evolved from Victorian to the Vienna Secessionist movement while you have a look at his buildings. The mini village beautified with artifacts from various eras, though not exactly historical, comes across as a dream like walk. And not to forget the Beach club, that reflects the 19th century American Resort architecture in its true form.

With a huge pool of work and a design philosophy that combined the best of modernism and tradition, Stern is certainly not a name to be forgotten in the architectural realm.

Though his broad horizon of work is a feat in itself, he has several other achievements to his credit as well. A Driehaus Prize laureate, he went on to win several awards. In the year 1984, he was awarded with the AIA New York Chapter’s Medal of Honor. He was also conferred the Chapter’s President’s Award in 2001. He also has to his credit the Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, Athena Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Board of Directors’ Honor from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.

“Since long and even now Philip’s designs in PoMo mode reveal a decent to the level of kitsch that appears lest camp in its motivation than simply and unmitigately cheap in its effect” [9]. In the aesthetic program of Robert Venturi kitsch and the area of everyday culture was used. But at the same time in his artistic designs, he generally elevated them. In the circle of architects “Robert Venturi an Robert A M Stern, the so called Greys Designers whose work used the hybrid culture idioms of American day to day life as starting points of their new artistic direction including kitsch and pop.” [10] Thus Robert Venturi, Philip and Robert A M Stern are three flamboyant modern architects whose contribution to architecture have a made a difference to the architectural world.


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