Sunday, October 2, 2011

cutting room floor

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates
Franklin Court, Philadelphia
The most important part of writing is editing. It is also the most painful. As part of a chapter on postmodern architecture I wrote for a forthcoming survey of world architecture since 1960, I wrote a couple of paragraphs on Venturi and Scott Brown's Franklin Court project in Philadelphia, a place I first encountered as a kid, and loved. And then my co-editor chopped these paragraphs out. Fudge.

One of the first projects to profit from Venturi and Scott Brown’s study of Las Vegas was Franklin Court, a project commissioned by the federal government in 1972 to recreate Benjamin Franklin’s house as part of a museum complex dedicated to the American statesman. At Franklin Court, Venturi and Scott Brown represented Franklin’s long-demolished house and adjacent print shop by building ghostly outlines of the two buildings in steel tubes and tracing the plan of the house in slate and marble paving. The project recreates Franklin’s formal garden as well with a grid of raised planters, and gives the structures space by accommodating the required museum facilities underground. The archival source for the house’s construction – Franklin’s letters to his wife – are quoted in the paving as well. The exterior spaces’ traditional vocabulary of brick and stone, along with four concrete viewing ports for the in-situ archeological remains, gives way to a riot of color, neon, mirrors and talking statues of the Founding Fathers in the subterranean museum.

Completed as part of the 1976 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia, Franklin Court is at once solemn and playful. The project evokes an irrecoverable past with a vocabulary on the cusp between the avant garde (the gridded sculptures of Sol Lewitt) and kitsch (the houses and hotels of the Parker Brothers’ board game Monopoly). The glitziness of the underground museum displays, which were designed at the same time as the Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, use pop culture motifs to rescue their historical subject matter from the stasis of conventional recreations and, in a fairly radical gesture, make the viewer conspicuously aware of their historical distance from the events surrounding the American Revolution.

something I wrote about James Stirling won't make it into the final version, either:

James Stirling and Michael Wilford, History Faculty,
Cambridge University, 1964-67 (Courtauld Institute of Art)
As a member of the Independent Group who had participated in the “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition and designed two Constructivist-inspired educational buildings (the Engineering Faculty at Leicester University (1959-63) and the History Faculty at Cambridge University (1964-67)), Stirling displayed interest in both the heroic legacy of modern architecture and its anti-utopian self-critique. Yet he was also a student of Rowe’s and was one of the twelve architects who participated in the Roma Interrotta project, whose insights about the interaction of architecture and urban space found expression in the Neue Staatsgalerie. Stirling developed a formal syntax built on unexpected juxtapositions of modernist gestures, like the Corbusian piano curve, and symmetrical planned masses of masonry. In Stuttgart, Stirling began employing richly textured stone cladding, against which he contrasted brightly colored industrial materials like ships’ railings, metal sash windows, exposed structural steel and resilient flooring.

a whole lot on Charles Jencks and popular culture got cut, too:

Charles Jencks has played a central role in promoting, chronicling and dissecting postmodern architecture. He was an important proponent of semiotics, and, along with George Baird, adapted the semiological thought of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes to both the analysis and production of architecture.  Jenck’s 1977 book, The Language of Postmodern Architecture, outlined the diverse formal and conceptual practices that comprised the nascent movement.  He saw postmodern architecture as self-consciously “double-coded,” and described how the new architecture used poetic tropes – such as irony, metaphor and simile – to convey meaning on multiple levels. While Jencks is not a phenomenologist, he argued that architecture conveyed meaning through direct experience.

The Language of Postmodern Architecture built on earlier insights about the growing multivalence of architectural practices, which Jencks first identified in the work of Le Corbusier. He argued that postmodernism more accurately reflected Western culture’s pluralism, and thus embraced heterogeneity, discontinuity, and conflict. Jencks explained that the multiple critiques of modernism that comprised the constellation of postmodernisms included populist reactions to modern architecture’s purported illegibility to the general public. In a nod to populist rhetoric, Jencks opens The Language of Postmodern Architecture with a spectacular, if misleading, account of the partial demolition of Minoro Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe Housing in St. Louis (built 1952-22) in 1972 – an event he declared “the death of modern architecture.” Throughout the book, Jencks juxtaposes pop art, fast-food, advertising and roadside commercial buildings with “high” architecture.

Popular culture had long offered numerous models for criticizing the heroic claims of modernism. The broad, yet loosely configured countercultural response to modernism represented by Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog (1968) included a built environment of self-built housing, communes, energy independence and agricultural self-sufficiency that posed bottom-up alternatives to modernism’s overarching narratives of social transformation through comprehensive, rational and technocratic master-planning. Literature and film re-imagined the built environment of modernism’s liberating utopias as carceral dystopias ranging from the comic labyrinths of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, to the crime-inducing ghettoes of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick) to the malevolent technological societies of Goddard’s Alphaville, Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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