The Inexplicable Intertwinglement of Architectural Theory

Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.

“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, 1972. Image courtesy of The Graham Foundation.

Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.

Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.

During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.

As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.

Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.
Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.

The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959.  Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.

The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.

The most delicious decorated shed ever.  Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.
The most delicious decorated shed ever. Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.

After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.

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