Interview with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi
[Published in Museo 14, Spring 2010]
“Is not Main Street almost all right?” asked Robert Venturi at the end of his 1966 manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, thereby sending modern architecture into a state of turmoil from which it has never really recovered. Venturi, his partner Denise Scott Brown, and their long-time collaborator Steven Izenour answered this provocative question with their 1972 opus, Learning from Las Vegas, which used lessons from the everyday American automobile city to critique the status quo of postwar modernist architecture. The book is often credited—or blamed, depending on who you ask—for opening the floodgates of postmodernist architecture that defined the 1970s and 80s.
This past January, I visited Bob and Denise at their home of almost forty years, a 1910 Art Nouveau house in the leafy Philadelphia neighborhood of Mount Airy. Surrounded by the eclectic artifacts of their long odyssey through the landscape of the American vernacular (Warhol and Ruscha casually mixed in with old casino marquees and the like), we talked about their roots, their writing, their architecture, their politics, and their legacy. Although they have produced an exceptional body of work by any measure, Venturi and Scott Brown occupy a peculiar position in a profession that largely misunderstands and often dismisses them: they are at once legends and pariahs. The past decade, however, has seen a steadily resurgent interest in their work, culminating most recently in an exhibition and symposium at Yale School of Architecture in January, which celebrated and reassessed the legacy of Learning from Las Vegas.
Venturi and Scott Brown’s work—both written and built—resonates especially with a younger generation of architects who are unscathed by and uninterested in the debates about postmodernism that consumed much of the past forty years. This new attention has shed light on aspects of Venturi and Scott Brown’s practice that have, despite the architects’ insistence since the start, been largely overlooked. One such aspect is their work’s rich social dimension, a topic foregrounded by Scott Brown in a recently published, long overdue collection of her writings, Having Words. The common thread remains the still-revolutionary notion of “learning from” that drove the early research and continues to offer a powerful model for architects to engage the everyday “ugly and ordinary.” In this sense, the most critical lesson to learn from Venturi and Scott Brown may ironically not be one of content, of the “forgotten symbolism of architectural form,” so famously resuscitated in Learning from Las Vegas, but rather one of method. And at a time when the architectural mainstream runs the risk of complete detachment from the realities of everyday life, the example set by Bob and Denise, one that balances pragmatism with a healthy dose of iconoclasm, once again becomes a compelling model for challenging the status quo.
Adam Marcus: You have been designing, writing, and practicing together for nearly fifty years. Yet before you met, you came from such different backgrounds: Denise from southern Africa via London, and Bob from Philadelphia and Princeton via Rome. How have these backgrounds come to inform your work?
Denise Scott Brown: In some ways, our backgrounds are the same. My family is Jewish, his Italian, but you’d be surprised how interchangeable our relatives are. They feel the same in many respects. We are both what I call “marginal”—half in and half out of our own groups and only partway into the dominant culture. And we share a wobbly foothold in several other groups but don’t quite belong in any. This may have skewed our vision.
AM: Denise, you’ve written much about your time as a student in London, after you left Africa but before you came to America. While in London, what was your connection to Team X and their nascent critique of modern architecture?
DSB: Peter and Alison Smithson were not teaching at the Architectural Association when I was a student there, but the atmosphere of rebellion that they embodied was around the school. Last night on TV, I saw a rerun of “Look Back in Anger,” a play that opened in London in the early 1950s. When the curtain rose on a messy student apartment with a young man reading The Observer and his girlfriend in her underwear, ironing, the theater erupted in laughter as students in the audience recognized themselves. The Smithsons were engaged in a parallel probing of architectural reality. And coming from the north of England, they were no more part of the “system” than I was.
AM: So they were marginal too?
DSB: Yes, but in other directions. Growing up in South Africa, I was aware from childhood of the difference between the way things were and the way they were supposed to be. Concerning attitudes to daily life and landscapes (not the country’s stark political issues), the way things were was African, and the way many pundits felt they should be was English. The Smithsons were attuned to such differences of is and ought, but in the UK, it was upper class vs. lower class rather than colonial vs. metropolitan. In England, at that time, a rigid class system affected almost everything. Peter and Alison, thanks to postwar social legislation, were university-educated in a society that looked unkindly on upward mobility. Perhaps their marginality engendered their rebelliousness, but its substance was social and professional. They cried out as architects against the relocation of people from the slums of London to new towns at the outskirts, and they studied life as led on the streets of London’s East End. With my African experience, I bought wholly into such ideas, but it wasn’t until I got to Penn that I found the tools for engaging with them. Sadly, the Smithsons had meanwhile decided that there was no way to engage.
AM: They famously said sociologists have to do it.
DSB: Peter said sociologists were going to have to extend their field if they were to help him with problems of urban rebuilding, and to some extent he was right. But he should have realized that he too would have to extend in order to use sociological information.
AM: What about the art scene in London at the time? Were you exposed to any of the proto-Pop Art of the Independent Group?
DSB: I got to know the Smithsons and Reyner Banham, heard Eduardo Paolozzi talk, and visited the “Parallels of Life and Art” exhibition. I managed to see the best of art, plays, and films in London—things I still feast my inner eye on—and I spent time at the ICA. But I was also a student, busy in the studio, and although I brought a Pop Art sensibility with me from South Africa and, at the AA, joined a group open to Brutalist ideas, I did not hear of the Independent Group during my time in London. And when “This Is Tomorrow” opened, I was already in Italy.
AM: When did you come to the States?
DSB: In 1958. My first husband, Robert Scott Brown, and I did what Peter Smithson told us to do: we went straight to Penn because Louis Kahn was there.
AM: And when did you meet Bob?
DSB: At a faculty meeting at Penn in 1960. But he’d seen me before that, and I had heard about him.
AM: When was the first time you collaborated?
DSB: We taught a course together at Penn, 1962-64, and collaborated on the Fairmount Park Fountain competition in 1964. From 1960, I would go into his office, when asked, to give crits, and he would visit my studio class in the evening to do the same. We started working together full-time in 1967 when we married.
Robert Venturi: A major collaboration was for the Las Vegas studio in 1968. By that time, I was teaching at Yale.
DSB: I had left Penn for Berkeley in 1965 and moved to UCLA to help start a new school there. I had a good visitors’ budget and invited various people, including the cultural geographer J.B. Jackson and the sociologist Scott Greer to come and talk. I had already decided to do my next studio on Las Vegas, but I thought it would be at UCLA. Then I invited Bob to visit UCLA and come with me to Las Vegas. He, I felt, of all the Penn architecture faculty, would like to see the city. Others had scorned my interests in everyday architecture and the automobile city. For them, I had been corrupted by the sociologists.
RV: At that time, the mid 1960s, architects were interested in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, not in Los Angeles—the city of the automobile—and not in the everyday landscape. When we went to Las Vegas, I was really interested in Los Angeles, but I realized that Las Vegas was similar in some respects and simpler to study. Then I fell in love with Las Vegas. Then I fell in love with Denise.
AM: What about Las Vegas attracted you at that time?
DSB: Many things. Coming from South Africa, I saw the differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles as similar to those between Cape Town and Johannesburg or Edinburgh and Glasgow. And I was on the side of the “uglier” cities—Johannesburg, Glasgow, and Los Angeles. Later I was taught in planning school that architects who turn their backs on life as it is led, especially in the emerging auto city, are not very realistic. If you don’t study it, how can you tell what kind of stance to take toward it?
AM: Legend has it that on the way to Vegas in 1968, you visited Ed Ruscha at his studio in Los Angeles.
RV: We did take our students to see him, but I was sick and couldn’t join the group until a few days later. I never met him—Denise took them.
DSB: I’m very happy that Nicholas Ouroussoff wrote about this visit in his article on the Las Vegas exhibition at Yale, but he was mistaken when he said that Bob took his students to visit Ed Ruscha! Bob had the flu. He didn’t join us till about a week later.
AM: What was the biggest lesson you learned from Las Vegas?
DSB: We often say we learned first about symbolism. It was a valuable lesson. Recognizing symbolism once again as a necessary function of architecture; connecting communication with community; showing that you can be just as functional about symbolism as about any other aspect of architecture—these were important contributions. And only the Las Vegas of then could teach the lesson of signs in vast space. That’s all gone today.
But we also went to Las Vegas to study the urbanism of the automobile, and this taught us life-changing lessons about cities and architecture in other important spheres. The Yale exhibition displayed these other studies too. One team colored the plans of hotel casinos in standard urban land-use colors—gambling areas red, the color of commerce; hotel rooms yellow, like housing; and patios, of course, green. The colors revealed that, despite huge variety in their designs, most Las Vegas hotels of that era maintained the same basic relationships amongst their activities. From this and other investigations we learned, as designers, to do land use and transportation planning inside buildings. We start with the fact that where main streets cross in a town you find a market place that is also a meeting place; and we posit that this should hold for the “streets” that run through buildings and for meetings of minds. In a lab building, where the main corridor and the vertical circulation cross on every floor, we plan the coffee lounge. Here people come to rest, eat, and drink away from expensive computers. As they relax, informal communication can take place among researchers, maybe from different fields, who happen to sit beside each other. This opens an opportunity for the interdisciplinary connections needed in the sciences today.
So we learned how patterns of activities are influenced by the systems of movement that give access to them; how the two patterns, activities, and movement, are inextricably intertwined; and how patterns too have a symbolic aspect—consider the terms “corner store” or “across the tracks.” We reflected as well on how physical structures relate to the activities they house and how these relationships change over time. Our ideas on generic architecture derive from this type of analysis.
AM: One could argue that the most remarkable thing about the research that produced Learning from Las Vegas is not so much the content—the discourse about symbolism and functionalism, which no doubt is significant—but more the method, the idea of “learning from.” I sense that this plays a significant part in the contemporary reappraisal of your work.
DSB: Yes, and also important is our admonition, “Be open. Don’t rush to judgment.”
AM: What do you think we should be learning from today? What contemporary urban models do you think architects should be studying?
DSB: Tokyo, Lagos, Shanghai, new Pacific Rim urbanism in general, but really anything. We learn from our trip to work in the morning. And as Bob says, pay special attention to what turns you on.
AM: Let’s talk about the Vanna Venturi House. It seems that many of your later projects are present in some way in that very early project.
DSB: Almost everything we’ve done is in embryo there. For example, the relationship between public and private is essentially the same as in all buildings we’ve designed since, even the largest. In the Vanna Venturi House, the public sector spans the driveway, the front entrance, the dining room, and the “nowhere stair.” It consists mainly of circulation elements, the exception being the dining room, which doubles as an entry space and announces its public nature through its marble floor.
AM: In publications, the house has always been dated 1964. But obviously, it took many years of development leading up to that.
RV: It took a long time. My mother moved in in 1964, but I had been working on it for almost ten years.
DSB: In the student skits at Penn, Bob was lampooned for designing his mother’s house over and over again, but he was teaching himself his trade.
AM: When people talk about the house, they focus primarily on the outside—how it represents a renewed interest in decoration, ornament, how it was part of a stylistic or aesthetic revolution at the time. But you can also argue that there is much spatial complexity going on inside the house.
DSB: It’s Le Corbusier inside.
AM: The stair, the chimney—it’s very sculptural.
RV: Right. I was very influenced by Le Corbusier, especially the Villa Savoye, which I worship. That building has a strict-seeming exterior of abstract screens. But you can see through the long openings at the perimeter to all sorts of “stuff” going on inside and popping up over the top. Le Corbusier—and Frank Lloyd Wright too—said you should design from the inside out. Even though they were enemies, they essentially said the same thing. And in designing my mother’s house, I began, like them, from the inside out. But then I realized that I should also design from the outside in.
AM: The outside of the Venturi House is sometimes described as flat pastiche, but there is more going on: both the front and the back have an ambiguity with regard to the thinness (or thickness) of the façade.
RV: You’re right.
AM: The depth of the entry is ambiguous—you see this in the Sainsbury Wing and in a lot of your projects.
RV: Yes, but in another sense it’s not like the Villa Savoye. Only its back and front are flat screens. Go around the sides and you see “stuff” going on.
DSB: We used to walk around palazzos from the fronts to the sides, looking to see where the façade ended and the rest of the building began. The façade ends at the Palazzo Pitti the way ours ends at the Sainsbury Wing.
RV: Many of those palazzos are very busy in the front because they face great piazzas. But the sides are on narrow streets, and they are very functional there: just what they need to be.
DSB: The façades are one or two meters deep, which is appropriate for load-bearing masonry in a high building. Away from the piazza it’s a different building. And that’s the same in the Sainsbury Wing.
There’s an interesting historic relationship between decoration and depth. Renaissance decoration needed about a foot to do its thing, Baroque a yard, Rococo half an inch, and Art Deco can indicate seven different surfaces in a bas relief one inch deep. Poster art, taking off from Cubism and Art Deco, can suggest depth or complexity on a flat surface without use of perspective. That’s where we came in.
RV: Then you get the façade that’s made of light—of LED. Its decoration has no depth. It emits light. The façade of our second (unbuilt) design for the Whitehall Ferry Terminal was covered with LED. Approaching it from the ferry, you would have seen changing signs full of news and information. Communication helps make community—that’s an important idea for us. Communication is so much a part of civic and religious architecture. People look at stained glass windows as art, and they were incidentally very artful. But essentially they told stories about Christianity to a public that couldn’t read. Renaissance frescoes, too, were communicators of messages and only incidentally art.
AM: Which of your unbuilt projects do you most wish had been built?
RV: One building was built and then significantly modified. It wasn’t demolished, but in a way it was demolished. That was the North Penn Visiting Nurses Association in Ambler, outside Philadelphia, the first building we ever built. I loved that building.
DSB: I would have liked to see our design for the Philadelphia Orchestra Hall built.
RV: Yes, our version of it.
DSB: Our design’s relationship to the street, its lit windows and lights, the views into its lobbies from Broad Street—these would have been a real joy.
AM: What about your more recent work? You’ve commented on how people associate you with your mother’s house built over forty years ago, but your firm has produced a tremendous amount of work since then, particularly in the academic realm.
RV: Yes, most of our work is for universities. So it doesn’t make sense to apply the communication systems of Las Vegas to the façades of our buildings. But our academic projects are an opportunity to design loft buildings. These interest us because their interior uses change over time. The Italian palazzo is a wonderful example of a loft. It starts out as the home and warehouse of a noble family, but it might become a library or museum, even an apartment building. Flatted factories, college halls, and lab buildings could and did change constantly on the interior, and they still do. For this reason, they can’t be designed for their first use alone and from the inside out only, in the modern tradition.
DSB: They need another philosophy. Our Life Sciences complex at the University of Michigan incorporates ideas from nineteenth-century industrial lofts and warehouses, including our own offices on Main Street, and academic loft structures like Princeton’s Nassau Hall and Albert Kahn’s lab buildings at Michigan. Built of brick or stone, they are ample and made to last. Their simple rectangular plans, wide structural bays, and large windows regularly spaced can support various wall and lab bench subdivisions and a rational distribution of utility systems, and allow all systems to change over time. These buildings helped us form our ideas on the design of generic architecture. And their ornament, placed frugally around entranceways or at beam and column junctions, lay behind our hypothesis of the “decorated shed.”
We use decoration to help relieve the boringly squat proportions of today’s large labs. In Michigan we sought continuity with Albert Kahn’s larger scale of building via a decorative pattern that suggested a giant order spanning several bays and stories. Variety can be found at an urban scale too. While designing the complex, we broadened our “land use and transportation” analyses of building interiors with studies of contextual patterns at campus and site scale. We mapped patterns formed by systems of movement, utilities, topography, water flow, and especially the linked activities of town and gown. When overlaid in different combinations, these pointed toward design, just as do the required relationships among activities within buildings. Then we followed the patterns, activity flows, and “desire lines,” to locate buildings and design routes and spaces, indoors and out, to take people to and through the campus and its buildings.
These ways, passing via our complex, connect campus academic and medical sciences and cross a large declivity where a lake had been. This produced a many-layered project and medieval-like urban routes that widen and narrow as needed to give access to buildings and form outdoor sitting and meeting places. Pedestrians and cyclists gained a much-needed short cut that bridged a state highway. The result was functional efficiency and an aesthetic vitality derived from the interplay of ground floor uses and spaces rather than from buildings. The new environment grows from its context and flows where it needs to flow. It serves and relates building entryways but is not restricted by the grid of the buildings. It is so convenient that students broke down the construction fences to get to it before the projects were complete. And the decoration is the urbanism.
AM: Tell me about the two religious buildings that your office recently completed.
RV: The Episcopal Academy Chapel evolved out of a long-term interest. I was educated there (class of ’44), and 60 years ago I chose its chapel as the subject of my Master’s Thesis at Princeton. The new chapel has no nave. I love naves. Many wonderful buildings have naves. But the particular needs of the client led to an interesting half-circle plan.
DSB: They didn’t want people to see the backs of those in front of them. Instead, worshippers sit across from each other and see the altar and each other’s faces.
Another important issue was lighting. If light shines in at a low level behind you, I see your silhouette but not you. In traditional Christian churches the windows are high to avoid this problem. You have to look up to see God’s light. This holds for our chapel too, and as in Gothic churches, our high windows are clerestories. But they follow the circular perimeter of the chapel walls. So they’re traditional in some ways and not others.
RV: There’s ornament on the outside. There’s a steeple. It isn’t literally a steeple but has two intersecting, steeple-shaped planes that rise up together. There’s not too much decoration. This is an irony, given that I have written so much about bringing ornament, symbolism, and communication back into architecture. But it didn’t make sense here, because even though this is an Episcopal academy, it welcomes all religions, and the chapel embraces the spirituality of all students.
AM: You were also designing a synagogue roughly at the same time. Did these projects inform each other at all during the design process?
DSB: The synagogue is smaller. It’s in a small town called Sunbury, Pennsylvania. It’s called Congregation Beth El, and it’s a red brick building like all the other civic and public buildings in the town. It’s very square, a bit like a supermarket. Comparing the synagogue and the chapel is interesting. In a way, the Episcopal Chapel wanted the same thing as the synagogue: a meeting house. So the plans, in that sense, aren’t too different.
But the synagogue has a much larger public sector. It includes a courtyard, in which they can put a Sukkah and a community space separate from the worship space. Each building has a detached screen façade, a type invented by Bob. It gives depth to the entrance and, instead of bringing you in via a front door, it lets you percolate through an arcade. The screens allude to the architectural history of each religion, pointed Gothic for Episcopal, a Byzantine dome for Beth El. Both say that crowds can come into these public buildings from many sources and through many doors, whereas in a house or a college building, small groups would enter through a front door.
And there is quite a different attitude to light. In the synagogue, as in the chapel, it streams into the worship space, but the roof light, arc, and processional of Beth El don’t combine to reinforce each other axially as they do in the chapel. The effect is to turn attention more to the worshipping group than to an individual’s aspiration toward Heaven.
AM: You could argue that the synagogue is a classic decorated shed. The chapel, in contrast to the synagogue, stands out as being really plan-driven. It’s not a decorated shed. It deals with symmetry and complexity in plan.
RV: No, it’s not a shed. Not everything need be a shed.
DSB: It’s still a shed-like duck, which may be the closest we can come to a duck. But, except for the front, it doesn’t have decoration. It has an interesting and beautiful support structure that faintly echoes the rafters and arches of a medieval chapel. It’s quite atypical for us to use structure in this way.
AM: Maybe that’s the only time you’ve ever done it?
DSB: Yes, partly because we realized that this particular client had a very good functional reason for not wanting decoration.
AM: One of the most remarkable aspects of your careers has been your steadfast commitment to writing about architecture in polemical and provocative ways. Rem Koolhaas famously called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture the last architectural manifesto, and in a sense, he was right (although one could argue that Learning From Las Vegas is just as much a manifesto). With a few exceptions, architects today don’t really stake out polemical positions. What are your thoughts about the importance of writing as it relates to design and practice?
RV: I don’t have a theory about this. Quite simply, I wrote at that time because I could not design buildings; I could not practice. I was relatively young. I accommodated my frustrations by writing down ideas that I did not have the opportunity to project through buildings and design. If you can’t do it, you write about it. People in other media can make their art more easily. Even if you’re starving, you can compose music, or you can paint paintings or make sculpture. But an architect can’t make buildings without a client, and you have to have a reputation to get a client. So, it was as simple as that. It derived from this characteristic of the medium.
AM: One of the themes in your writing has been an aversion to ideology. In other words, you reject the notion that there is only one way of doing things. This relates to Denise’s distinction between the “is” and the “ought.”
DSB: Yes. We believe in growing the “ought” carefully from the “is.” It’s an evolutionary process.
RV: I think the closest we come to ideology is saying that we are Mannerists. We’re into Mannerism—it’s complexity and contradiction. The democratic way of doing things could be defined as not ideological.
DSB: It’s a messy way.
AM: Could you imagine a situation where the “ought” took precedence over the “is”?
RV: I think so. There could be.
DSB: We don’t say don’t develop “oughts.” We often tell our clients, “This is the way it ought to be.” But we take time to learn as much as we can before formulating the oughts. We don’t judge too soon, and therefore, our clients tend to believe us. Yet there have been projects, the Sainsbury Wing in London, for example, for which we have needed to strongly defend what we believed we should do, saying “It really needs to be this way.” But it’s always well into the process and it results from functional and sometimes aesthetic requirements, not from ideology.
AM: For me, architecture is always about changing the status quo. If you’re building something, it is going to change what exists, in some way, no matter how small. But you are proposing a more evolutionary view of this change. A bottom-up, not top-down, approach.
RV: I think pragmatism is the one word that describes our approach. It’s a very American idea.
AM: What about the more rebellious and revolutionary aspects of your career? Denise, you have written about how the social and cultural backdrop of the 1960s played an important role when you came to the United States and while you were studying urban planning at Penn. Do you see your early iconoclasm and rebellion as explicitly part of the counterculture of that time?
DSB: Yes, but it’s not that simple. The iconoclasm the social planners and we represented was to favor “is” over “ought.” Paradoxically, our “oughts” were about “is.” And we were too old for the counterculture. I could envy all those hippies with their bare feet at Berkeley, because I had grown up barefoot in South Africa. But by that time, I was a professor. I was very aware of my role as challenging that bright generation. Allard Lowenstein of the Dump Johnson movement, who was a friend of mine, asked the students, “What did you do after you marched on Washington?” That was my role—to say to them, “It’s lovely having all these grand sentiments, but what are you actually going to do about it, right now?” That’s what the social planners asked, too. At the same time, the backdrop of 1960s social revolution—not necessarily the hippie counterculture, but the social revolution—was very much part of where the thought came from.
This ferment found its way into architecture when, after World War II, money was pumped into urban renewal to help achieve a peacetime economy. I heard about “shovel ready” projects from my professors at Penn in the late 1950s as they had been the ones who helped to select such projects during the Great Depression. Money from Washington brought social scientists into universities, and specifically to the urban planning departments of architecture schools, as urban researchers and lecturers. That’s how Herb Gans and Paul Davidoff came to Penn. They left again when Nixonism and Reagonomics took the money away. But while they were with us, they were very beneficial for people like Bob and me.
AM: You could argue that there are many parallels between that time and today.
DSB: I think the ongoing reappraisal of us and our work is part of those parallels.
AM: I am struck by how relevant your writings still are, and how, in recent years, it seems like there has been a surge in interest in your work, particularly among the younger generation of architects.
DSB: We’re strongly aware of it. It’s been going on a while. I think we first heard in 2003 that students at the Architectural Association in London were reappraising the Smithsons and us; everyone else they considered their grandparents.
AM: And it’s not only those who are reading and re-reading your written work. There is a whole crop of younger firms who are indebted to you, both methodologically and stylistically.
DSB: Rem, of course, and our long-time friends and colleagues, Carolina Vaccaro in Rome, Fred Schwartz in New York, Richard Pain in London, and Francoise Blanc in Toulouse. There’s the FAT group in London; Basurama in Madrid; AOC in London who adapted our studio work topics and philosophy statements to “Learning from” projects in England; artist Mathieu Borysevic who produced Learning from Hangzhou; and Steven Song, whose “Paradigm Shift: Renovating the Decorated Shed” takes our ideas into global urbanism and new communication technologies. The world of architectural historians, too large to span here, can be represented by Stanislaus von Moos, Karin Theunissen, and Martin Filler, and our correspondence continues with architectural students worldwide, some seeking a quick fix for a term paper due in two hours.
We’re very happy that creative people are adding their intelligence to the concept of “learning from” and hope it will continue. We’ve tried to bring together colleagues we see as thoughtful extenders of our ideas and to encourage them to support each other. I hope to find time to write down further forms and topics of research that have occurred to me since 1989 when I taught my last studio.
AM: Another interesting aspect of your influence in contemporary architecture is precisely the extent to which architects will not acknowledge it. Much of the experimentation with new digital technologies, for example, leads to an architecture rich in ornament, pattern, and new and exciting decorative strategies. But few people will talk about it in those terms.
DSB: There were times when people were happy to say that they learned from us, but they dropped us when fashions changed. I think architects come at decoration now from a structuralist viewpoint. The pattern evolves from concerns for sustainability, for example. They say, “Look at what we can do with glass to augment heat and sound isolation.” We too have generated patterns structurally, but from the social sciences, from “city physics.”
RV: That’s how we got them, not where we got them.
DSB: Well, I don’t know quite the difference. But we’ve also quoted from tablecloths, stationery boxes and Zipatone—everyday things that we’ve scrambled to form mixed metaphors. They generate theirs by saying “we need windows of a certain type.”
RV: They’re not being explicitly communicational.
AM: Right. You’re describing a kind of technologically deterministic way of generating pattern.
DSB: Yes, at least that’s what they say. It’s what the early Modernists said but didn’t do.
RV: Exactly. That’s not us.
DSB: But a structuralist approach need be no more deterministic than a functionalist approach; and neither leads inexorably to expressionism. That’s a really old argument in Modernism. And there’s another important difference—the one between Postmodernism and PoMo. PoMo is what Philip Johnson and his followers did in their commercial architecture. I’m not against commercial architecture (look at early Chicago), but their way of doing it distorted things. The postmodernism we were involved with was not an architectural style. It had its origins in popular culture, the humanities, and theology and was concerned with diversity, values, and loss of innocence since the Holocaust.
AM: The social content disappeared very quickly with the rise of Postmodernism in architecture.
DSB: Not of Postmodernism, of PoMo—and not only the social content. For example, I think NeoMo is a form of Pomo. Early Modern is the style the Neomodernists imitate, but they don’t understand the essence of early Modernism, and they aren’t thoughtful about functionalism, which they see as a boring old hang-up of the 1930s. For us, functionalism is one of modern architecture’s glories and central to what we do. And both NeoMo and PoMo lack skill in handling strictly architectural elements such as scale and proportion.
AM: One could argue that you both, ironically, are more modern than anyone.
DSB: We think so. When I tell people of our generation that Learning from Las Vegas is in part a social tract, they reply “You’ve got to be kidding.” But people of your generation say, “We know that. What else is new?”