19
Jun
08

Venturi, Scott Brown, and the Future of Architecture

Sendai Mediatheque

At Archinect, Steven Song examines the ideas of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, as set forth in their book Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time. Here it is in a nutshell, Song’s summation of what these two enormously influential writers are saying.

The book revisits the architectural duality of ‘signage’ and ‘shelter’, introduces the concept of superimposed activity patterns as a design tool for deriving physical form from social conditions, advocates a reassessment of our ideas of context in architecture, and discusses the relationship between form and functional flexibility, ultimately advocating rule-bending mannerist architecture for today’s post-industrial Information Age.

That’s a tall order. But first, what is mannerist architecture, and what rules does it want to bend? The answer is, any rules that don’t address the needs of the particular instance at hand, which are likely to be many and varied. “Function”, for a building, needs to mean a lot of different things, and some of them are mutually exclusive. Increasingly, the needs for inclusive and sustainable design are part of the whole. Sometimes it’s impossible to follow all the rules of every system involved, because of the overlapping, superimposed way they are. And the mannerist approach is to figure out which are the best rules to break, for the good of the whole.

Song discusses the two major roles of architecture, as defined by Scott Brown and Venturi: architecture as shelter, and architecture as signage. Signage doesn’t only mean advertising, but has to do with communication, decoration, information, and symbolism. Put them all together, and you have a “decorated shed,” a phrase which they coined.

Contemporary society has a lot of blurred boundaries, many of them obliterated by modern communication devices that erase the distinction between public and private space. People can act like they’re in public (for instance, go shopping) when actually occupying a very private space (a bedroom with a computer in it). Our cities are replete with people walking around talking to themselves because they are schizophrenics, and with people walking around talking to themselves, but not really, because they’re attached to some kind of electronic gadget with a human, or at least a machine, at the other end. The first group would be locked up if there were anyplace to put them – because it’s considered insane to talk, for instance, to a deity that, being all-powerful, presumably doesn’t even need gadgets. The second group is considered normal.

What does this mean? What does it mean for cities, and for architects? Since we can now do so much from so far away, why do urban centers survive? Because people like one-on-one transactions with those they must trust, and enjoy seeing interesting strangers, and welcome the possibility of chance meetings with friends. Urban centers will continue to not only survive, but grow. Real estate prices will keep going up as land becomes more scare and sought-after. As a result, architecture needs to be more flexible. Adaptive reuse needs to mean something more than changing a building from one type of structure into another. It needs to mean that a space can serve several purposes within one week, being adaptable at short notice and able to change back again. “Wiggle room” is the answer, and the authors give the industrial loft and the Italian palazzo as examples of flexible space. Others that come to mind are the church parish hall and the hotel ballroom. There follows some discussion of flexibility, derived from the ideas of Kevin Lynch.

Another example they offer is the hotel whose lobby seating area serves the welcome desk during the day, and the bar at night — it’s multi-use, but nothing needs to be physically moved. The tradeoff between flexibility, and the drudgery of moving partitions around, is one of the arguments against flexible space. Also there’s a philosophical argument: If it can be anything, then it’s nothing.

Pictured above is the Sendai Mediatheque, designed by Toyo Ito, whose reductive analysis of architecture finds only three elements: plate, tube, and skin. Another school of thought sees four elements : floor, column, wall, and window. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi are looking for more.

SOURCE: “Shifting Paradigms Part 1 | Renovating the Decorated Shed” 05/15/08
photo courtesy of yusunkwon , used under this Creative Commons license

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