PRINT February 1979

Art in Relation to Architecture / Architecture in Relation to Art

WHILE AMERICAN POP ART of the early 1960s referred to the surrounding media world for a framework, Minimal art of the mid- through late 1960s would seem to refer to the gallery’s interior cube as the ultimate contextual frame of reference for the work. This reference was only compositional; in place of an internal compositional reading, the art’s formal structure would appear in relation to the gallery’s interior architectural structure. That the work was equated to the architectural container tended to literalize it. Both the architectural container and the work it contained were meant to be seen as nonillusionistic, neutral and objectively factual—that is, simply as material. The gallery functioned literally as part of the art. One artist’s work of this period (although not always his later work) examined how specific, functional architectural elements of the gallery interior prescribed meaning and determined specific readings for the art defined within its architectural frame: Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light installations.

The lighting—even light fixtures—within the architectural setting of the gallery are normally disregarded, or considered merely functional or minor interior decoration. As gallery space is meant to appear neutral, the lighting, which creates this neutrality as much as the white walls, and at the same time is used to highlight and center attention on the art work on the wall or floor, is kept inconspicuous. While the background in general makes the artworks visible, the lighting literally makes the works visible. The lighting system, within which the specific light fixtures of a gallery arrangement function, is both part of the gallery apparatus and part of the larger. existing (non-art) system of electric lighting in general use: “I believe that the changing standard lighting system should support my idea within it.”1 Flavin’s installations make use of this double functioning (inside and outside the gallery/art context) as well as the double connotation of lighting as minor decoration and the anonymously functional creator of the gallery’s neutrality: “I believe that art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration. Symbolizing is dwindling—becoming slight. We are pressing downward toward no art—a mutual sense of psychologically indifferent decoration—a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone.”2

Flavin’s arrangements of light fixtures in a gallery depend contextually for significance upon the function of the gallery, and the socially determined architectural use of electric lighting. Electric light is related to a specific time in history. Flavin has observed that when the existing system of electric lighting ceases to exist, his art will no longer function. Made of standardized, replaceable units that, in Flavin’s words, “can be bought in any hardware store,” his arrangements of fluorescent tubes within the interior (or adjacent exterior) architectural frame of the exhibition space function only in situ and upon completion of the exhibition cease to function artistically. Unlike the self-defined or conceptual artwork, for example Duchamp’s “found objects,”3 they take on meaning by being placed in relation to other works of art or specific architectural features in an exhibition space; being part of the architecture/lighting of the gallery, they tend to underscore both the function of the space and other art’s dependence upon the standard illumination of the gallery setting. Placed within a group of other paintings and sculpture, Flavin’s lights radically disturb the other art’s functioning, for it is then unable to rely on the neutral white ground of the gallery walls. The fluorescent illumination plays on the surfaces of paintings, highlighting or creating shadows that disturb their illusionary planes, undercutting (and so revealing) the latent illusionism employed in their construction. Similarly, the space in which the spectator stands is highlighted and dramatized. The effect is both constructivist and expressionist. In one installation, the use of all green lights plunged the interior space into lurid green, while turning the view from outside, defined pictorially by the windows of the gallery, into its after-image, a lavender-purple. The effect can be read ironically, as reversed illusionism, or, literally, as (physical) light and the obverse of the illusionary illumination radiating from the conventional painting.

Systematically, Flavin has investigated this gallery architecture by placing his arrangements of fluorescent tubes:

a) on the wall in either vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands;

b) in the corners of the room;

c) on the floor;

d) relative to exterior light-sources (near windows, open doors);

e) as partially visible/partially invisible, behind columns, architectural supports, or in niches;

f) in the hallway before the spectator enters the gallery, thus altering the spectator’s perception when he enters to view the work;

g) in outside space, which serves as an entranceway or antechamber to the gallery/museum itself.

Just as art is internalized within society, the architecture which displays it is defined by the needs of society at large, and by art as an institutional internal need. Art as an institution produces ideological meanings and positions that regulate and contain the subjective experiences of the people placed inside its boundaries. Daniel Buren’s work and writing focus on the specific architectural/cultural function of the gallery in producing art’s institutional meaning. In general, all institutional space provides a background having the function of inversely defining what it places in the foreground. Since the Enlightenment, public interiors have been largely unornamented, geometrical, utilitarian and idealized. Thus they provide a seamless, clinical, recessive, white ground to set off Man’s enlarged activities. The art gallery is an aristocratic relative of this conventional white cube. Its major task is to place the art object, and the spectator’s focused consciousness of it, at eye-level center in the interior, and, in so doing, to conceal from the spectator any awareness of its own presence and function. So:

Nothing which is not the work (of art) manages to distract the eye. . . . A work is thus dramatized or emphasized (against its will or by request) by the so-called neutral architecture, or indeed the work turns up its nose at any external influence and attempts, despite everything, to attract the eye regardless of the context. . . . In most normal artistic settings, which we have seen in the majority of cases are white cubes, the problems set by the architecture attempt to conceal themselves, in order to support (artificially) the triumph of a bourgeois art, which thus given value can assert itself “freely,” within the soft shelter which receives it.4

The Modern Movement in architecture is the history of two conflicting conceptions of the role of the architect. On one hand, the architect is seen as an engineer, on the other, as an artist. Functionalism, from the Russian Constructivists through Le Corbusier, culminating in the Bauhaus School of Gropius, can be seen as a method of resolving this conflict as well as the contradictions between two bourgeois value systems: humanism and technological operationalism. The solution, as envisaged by the Bauhaus, lay in subjecting the architectural work and men’s needs to a “scientific” analysis in order to produce a functional system.

Man’s needs were seen as social needs and were to be incorporated into a unified (total) formal (esthetic) program. An abstract language composed “scientifically,” like the basic elements of physics, would be used to produce a materialist architecture built from a language of elemental, ideal forms. Based on a total, reductive analysis of esthetic form, social needs and technical requirements, this approach enabled science and technology to be wedded to esthetics in the interests of social progress. Art/architecture was to be constructed of democratic, recomposible, open modular units (in opposition to totalitarian blocks). Art/architecture, as pure technology, came to be identified with the earlier notion of “art for art’s sake,” as the Bauhaus architects saw the function of their architecture as the creation of a language of “its” own. This language was liberalist— antirhetorical, antisymbolic and (supposedly) free from ideological contamination, a utopian language of pure function and pure materiality.

Because in the functionalist building symbolic form—ornament—is (apparently) eliminated from the building (form and content being merged), there is no distinction between the form and its material structure; that is, the form represents nothing more or less than the material; second, a form or structure is seen to represent only its contained function, the building’s structural and functional efficiency being equated with its real utility for those who use it. Esthetically, this idea is expressed in the formula: efficient form is beautiful and beautiful form is efficient. This has a “moral” dimension; “efficient” connotes a pragmatically “scientific” approach seemingly uncontaminated by “ideology,” which has (capitalistic) use value (“efficiency” is how well a building contributes to the operations of the company housed within it).

One can examine the later buildings of Mies van der Rohe, especially his corporate office buildings. These use transparent glass “curtain walls” to eliminate the distinction—and contradiction—between outside and inside. Glass and steel are used as “pure” materials, for the sake of their materiality. Until recently, these Bauhaus-derived buildings were sheathed in transparent glass. They read from inside out, making evident their functional construction. The function of the building is expressed in terms of the structural,evident materiality of the glass and steel that are exposed directly to view, as are the human activities within the building. The social function of building is subsumed into its formal disclosure of its technical. material and formal (self) construction. The neutrality of the surface, its “objectivity,” focuses the viewer’s gaze only on the surface material/structural qualities, deflecting it from the building’s meaning/use in the social system’s hierarchy. The glass gives the viewer the illusion that what is seen is seen exactly as it is. Through it one sees the technical workings of the company and the technical engineering of the building’s structure. Yet the glass’s literal transparency not only falsely objectifies reality; it is a paradoxical camouflage: for while the actual function of the corporation may be to concentrate its self-contained power and to control by secreting information, its architectural facade gives the impression of absolute openness. The transparency is visual only: glass separates the visual from the verbal, insulating outsiders from the locus of decision-making and from the invisible, but real, links between company operations and society.5

In attempting to eliminate the disparity between the facade (which conventionally mediates its relation to the outside environment) and its private. institutional function, this type of architecture appears to eliminate the distinction between outer form and inner function. The self-contained, transparent glass building denies that it has an outside and that it participates as an element in the language of the surrounding buildings in the environment. Rather than coming to terms, within its formal statement, with the social language of the surrounding commercially built environment of which it forms a part, the classic modernist building is aloof and noncommunicative. It does not acknowledge that it, too, is usually a commercial proposition. The building’s functionalism conceals its less apparent ideological function, justifying the use of technology or technocratic bureaucracy by large corporations or government to impart their particular version of order upon society. Where other buildings have conventional signs of their function oriented toward public scrutiny, the glass building’s facade is invisible and unrhetorical. The esthetic purity of the glass building, standing apart from the common environment, is transformed by its owner into social alibi for the institution it houses. The building claims esthetic autonomy over the environment (through its formal self-containment), yet it evinces transparent “openness” to the environment (it incorporates the natural environment). This rhetorical ploy efficiently legitimizes/naturalizes the corporate institution’s claim to autonomy (“The World of General Motors”); the building builds the corporate myth. A building with glass on four sides seems open to visual inspection; in fact, the “interior” is lost to the architectural generality, to the apparent materiality of the outward form, or to “Nature” (light, sun, sky or the landscape glimpsed through the building on the other side.) Thus, the building stands apart from any language but its own.

Esthetic formalism and Functionalism in architecture are philosophically similar. By the same token, Functionalist architecture and Minimal art have in common an underlying belief in the Kantian notion of artistic form as a perceptual/mental “thing-in-itself,” which presumes that art objects are the only category of objects “not for use,” objects in which the spectator takes pleasure without interest. Minimal art and post-Bauhaus architecture also compare in their abstract materialism and their formally reductive methodology. They share a belief in “objective” form and in an internal self-articulation of the formal structure in apparent isolation from symbolic (and representational) codes of meaning. Both Minimal art and Functionalist architecture deny connotative, social meanings and the context of other, surrounding art or architecture.

By the end of the war, three Bauhaus architects, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Breuer, had emigrated to the United States and established themselves as influential teachers in large university architecture departments. There, as advocates of the Modern Movement, they trained a new generation of American architects. The architects as well as the architecture produced by them and their former Bauhaus teachers were given the name “International Style” by the architectural historians Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. Mies’ classicist glass office towers and apartment buildings became the new standard of American technology, especially as this style was easily exported to other areas of the world by American big business. Mies’ classicism was based on an apparent trueness to materials (materials being seen for what they were, instead of disguised by the use of ornamentation) wedded to an idealized, “universal,” and highly abstract, notion of space. These modernist structures soon became popular packages for international (multinational) corporate branch offices in the capitals of the “FreeWorld.” Used as an overseas branch office, the International Style building functions ideologically as a neutral and objectified rationale for U.S. export capitalism, although it would like to be taken as merely an abstract (not symbolic) form. Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn have indicated this symbolic rationale, which America had for its activities and which the form of its corporate architecture (and art) reflected during the postwar period:

. . . a technology which is democratic because it is good, neutral, and progressive, a technology which is equally available to everyone—the means for a better life, and free from ideological bias. The American artists of the sixties and seventies have reproduced this pattern, becoming the cultural engineers of “International art.”6

Not that some American artists and architects have been unaware of the dilemma of their work’s possible expropriation, once it is in the public sector, in the interests of the elite “Establishment” and also by commercialized mass culture. Politically conscious American artists have evolved two basic esthetic strategies to deal with this twofold social expropriation. The first is to avoid having the art product packaged automatically by the media by the simple procedure of having the art package itself. The American Pop artists of the early to middle 1960s equivocated between imitating the cultural clichés prepackaged by the media (in one sense, accepting the popular or vernacular code/reading) and various formal distancing devices making the “common” and ordinary appear strange (as these devices are formal and artistic method, this also allowed their works to be read as “art for art’s sake”). A second strategy was to use popular techniques and subject matter and at the same time (in the same work) allow the work to read alternatively from a formal, “high” art perspective. A work by Lichtenstein, for example, can be both “art for art’s sake” and something assimilable to popular cultural meanings. Both readings are simultaneously correct. Owing to its seeming ephemerality in terms of the popular code, such work cannot immediately be assimilated into the institutions of “higher” culture; conversely, the work cannot be immediately assimilated into the value-system of commercial, popular culture (although it speaks the same language) because of its anchorage in “high” art. The aspect of two equivalent, total/complete readings allows a work to question the position for the spectator which either one of these two readings poses and it also permits a questioning of both “popular” and “high” art’s formal assumptions. As Lichtenstein told Gene Swenson:

I think that my work is different from comic strips—but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art. What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different, one intends to depict and I intend to unify. . . . The heroes depicted in comic books are fascist types, but I don’t take them seriously in these paintings—maybe there is a point in not taking them seriously, a political point. I use them for purely formal reasons, and that’s not what those heroes were invented for. Pop art has very immediate and of-the-moment meanings which will vanish—that kind of thing is ephemeral—and Pop takes advantage of this “meaning” which is not supposed to last, to distract you from its formal content. I think the formal statement in my work will become clearer in time.7

Lichtenstein’s choice of indirect, and ultimately artistically self-referring, esthetic “political” strategies is a typical one for “progressive” artists of the ’60s, who believed that, at best, the radicality of their art activities could “trickle down” to society at large, despite the fact that the art might utilize mass media—popular clichés—for its “content.” But Lichtenstein’s work, whether reproduced (“second-hand”) in the mass media or viewed in art galleries, did allow for such a dual reading. Lichtenstein is ambivalent about whether he wants to consider his work political. In American culture to define a work as ostensibly “political” automatically categorizes it as academic or “high” art; mass culture will have little interest in it, because it assumes what for the mass public is a patronizing attitude. As a category, “the political” is negatively coded: it means, “no fun.” Andy Warhol’s films, his Brillo boxes presented as sculptures, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”8 and the rock group “The Ramones” are various examples of self-conscious works placed in the public media and capable of dual readings as both“high” and “low”cultural forms, but, ironically, being neither one or the other.

It is easy to condemn this approach from a rationalist Marxist perspective because the work appears to equivocate in its attitudes toward commercial, vulgarized mass culture, even adopting some of its conventions and sentiments. Instead of negating (and proposing an alternative to) degraded American popular culture, it seems either passively to reflect or actively to celebrate it. European “leftist” architectural critics unconsciously equate mass culture with Fascist irrationalism, seeing rationalist socialism as both a “negation” of “degraded” mass culture and as the only “constructive” solution to the problems it confronts. They see present-day American society in terms of Europe of the 1930s. Similarly, in their critique of the use to which American International Style architecture is put, they use an idealist and historical model as an implicit standard. “Revolutionary” art for them is identified, for historical reasons, with the Russian Constructivist period. In fact, the work of Russian art and architecture after the Revolution was contextualized to real conditions and needs at that time; architects wished to purge personally symbolic (aristocratic-“art-for-art’s-sake”) elements from the architectural language to functionalize and socialize the means of artistic/architectural production. El Lissitzky summarized this approach:

(1) The negation of art as mere emotional, individualistic, and romantic affair.

(2) ‘Objective’ work, undertaken with the silent hope that the end product will be regarded as a work of art.

(3) Consciously goal-directed work in architecture, which will have a concise artistic effect on the basis of well-prepared objective-scientific criteria.

Such an architecture will actively raise the general standard of living.9

The difficulty with applying Constructivist standards to present-day architectural/social problems is that they impose a blinder on reality as it exists at present. The neo-Constructivist theoretician wishes to remake this reality in accord with “revolutionary” (in fact highly elitist) solutions “from above” and only in terms of his own specialist and theoretical language.

Like International Style Functionalist architecture, Minimal and Conceptual art of the 1960s seemed to claim autonomy from the surrounding social environment. It represented only itself, as a factual, structurally self-referring language. It deliberately sought to suppress both interior (illusionistic) and exterior (representational) relationships to achieve a zero degree of signification. Beveridge and Burn point out that when this type of art is used by big business, the government or the cultural Establishment, either domestically or as a cultural export, it functions perhaps contrarily to the artist’s intentions—to affirm America’s apolitical, technocratic ideology. For: “to reproduce a form of art which denies political or social content . . . in fact provides a cultural rationalization for just such a denial.”

In rejecting the reductivism and utopianism of modernist architectural doctrine, Robert Venturi and his collaborators propose an architecture that accepts the actual conditions, social realities and given economics of a particular situation. This means, for commercial buildings in a capitalist society, taking the syntax of the commercial vernacular seriously, including the building’s relation to the surrounding built environment, the program of the client on whose behalf it was built, and the public’s reading and cultural appropriation of the building. A Venturi and Rauch building relies on both popular taste and specialist codes. By displaying its rhetoric and (social) function openly, and by using contradictory conventional codes in the same building, Venturi opts for a realist (conventional) and multivalent architecture, one whose structure is conventional (semiotic) rather than abstract or materialistic, and whose aim is basically communicative. Venturi and Rauch’s unbuilt 1967 project for the National Football Hall of Fame is an example of combining architectural allusion with communicative devices taken from the commercial vernacular.

Unlike modern “masters” who advocate unconventional solutions, Venturi advocates using known conventions, even humdrum ones. In dispensing with the myth of the “heroic and original” building, which in its search for new forms and expressive use of materials has simply fueled the surplus economy of late capitalism and helped to provide large corporations with the alibi of “high culture,” Venturi and his associates’ approach implies a critique of post-Bauhaus ideology. The Bauhaus had associated efficiency and the notion of technical/formal innovation: “revolutionary” design would be efficient design. Today “efficient” design is more symbolic than real; it symbolizes not cost efficiency, but the corporation that has built the structure’s hegenomic power (possibly due to its efficient use of social technology). Although the building’s structure may read as “revolutionary” (in an esthetic sense), its function (in a social sense) is more often than not reactionary. Venturi prefers to take the ideological or symbolic assumptions of a cultural vernacular at their face value in determining his program. “Democracy” and pragmatic “pluralism” as given ideological values and cultural conventions of the local vernacular can be assumed to be part of the architectural object and, as they are taken into consideration, are free to emerge in terms of the building’s rhetoric with alternative meanings/readings.

Venturi and Rauch’s advocacy of conventional forms and techniques has an economic dimension. In public building it is usually more (cost) efficient, in both capitalist and Bauhaus formal terms, to build conventionally. If “good design” costs twice as much, then “good design” is not realistic and needs redefinition. And, as Denise Scott Brown notes, in practice Bauhaus-style total design, usually advocated by governmental planning boards, is often “used to betray rather than support the social concerns from which . . . it sprang.”10

The question that the work of the American and British Pop artists and Venturi raise is the relation and socio-political effect of art and architecture to its immediate environment. Actually, this issue is implicit, merely on a daily, pragmatic basis, in all architectural work. What Venturi appropriates from the Pop artists is the understanding that not only can the internal structure of the architectural work be seen in terms of a relation of signs, but that the entire built (cultural) environment with which the building is inflected is constructed from signs. Pop art acknowledges a common code of schematic signs, conventionalized meanings and symbols which link vernacular, environmental signs to artistic/architectural signs. Abstract art’s opposition to representational realism denies that an abstract work speaks the same language as its surrounding environment. The ideology of abstract art equates realism with representational art and, in turn, with an illusionism that can be manipulated to convey univalent, ideologically reactionary information to the masses, who might only understand the older convention (an often cited example is the Socialist Realism of Stalinist Russia). Modernist art has been committed to a purge of illusionist/connotative meaning in order to forge a purely formal, abstract and functional language. For the modernist, realism is identified not only with representational art, but with a morally pejorative pragmatism. If both the cultural and the “real” environment are seen in terms of a culturally connected semiotic coding, and if in practice an abstract work also functions, symbolically, in relation to other cultural signs, then a “new realism” whose basis is the function of the sign in the environment is necessary.

Signs in architecture can be either denotative, architectural signs, referring to building itself; or connotative, representing what is to be found within the building (literally or metaphorically), or to alternative—perhaps contradictory—meanings elsewhere. Both types of architectural sign connect with the codified sign system of which they are a part and to all other signs in the cultural environment.

Unlike the buildings of Mies and his followers, whose idealistic purism veils a corporation’s less than pristine business practices, Venturi and Rauch buildings incorporate the “commercial” in their code, which allows them, ironically, to comment upon the predominant capitalist commercial environment of the American built landscape. This is also an acknowledgment that meanings in architecture are not inherent to or exclusively framed within the work of architecture itself, but already exist as part of the environment in which the building is placed. A good example is the Guild House where, instead of idealizing or sugar-coating the realities of the lives of the elderly, or of the rather banal environment surrounding the building, or its institutional nature, the building simply tries to make evident what those assumptions are. This is done by building a clearly standard, cheap building and by expressing an ideology (shown in the building’s aspirations to elegance) that suggests alternative symbolic meanings. Thus Venturi and Rauch build conventionally, but use this “conventionality” unconventionally to express human conditions in a realistic, discursive manner.

In this anti-utopian, anti-introspective merging of realism and irony, the approach parallels that of Pop art. For Roy Lichtenstein Pop art assumes

an involvement with what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things which are also powerful in their impingement on us. I think art since Cézanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art; it is utopian. It has had less to do with the world, it looks inward-neo-Zen and all that. This is not so much a criticism as an obvious observation. Outside is the world; it’s there. Pop art looks out into the world; it appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad but different—another state of mind.11

Venturi specifically acknowledges the influence of Pop art as well as “popular” culture.12 Venturi prefers to make a building’s symbolic function apparent by emphasizing it; this is done in a code which is understood not only in the architectural world, but also in the vernacular. An example is the proposal for a Town Hall, part of a larger city plan, for Canton, Ohio, from 1965,

whose front is more important than its back. . . . The change in size and scale in the front of the town hall is analogous . . . to the false fronts of western towns, and for the same reasons: to acknowledge the urban spatial demands of the street. . . . The front screen wall . . . is faced with very thin white marble slabs to reemphasize the contrast between the front and the back. . . . The enormous flag is perpendicular to the street so that it reads up the street like a commercial sign.13

The flag displayed on a public building emotively signifies, in a code understandable to all Americans, at least two related readings: the pride of American citizens in their country and, especially when the flag is displayed on a commercial building, the confusion of capitalism with the American system (of government).

It is interesting to compare Venturi’s use of a symbolic, heraldic flag on a public building to recent works of Daniel Buren using flaglike hangings in his conventional vertical-strip pattern. In the Wind: A Displacement, done in 1978 as part of the exhibition “Europe in the Seventies: Aspects of Recent Art” at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., featured eight flags hung from flagpoles in the museum’s central courtyard (an area that reads as interior when viewed from the inner windows of the museum but which is exterior from the point of view of people outside the museum, as it is an extension of the entrance courtyard). The flags hang perpendicular to the building with their flagpoles titled slightly upward; in other words, the vertical stripes read the same relative to spectator and to the ground as do conventionally displayed American flags. The flags were arranged in a circular sequence; so if the first flag is blue and white, the second is black and white, the third is orange and white, the fourth is black and white, the fifth is green and white, the sixth is black and white, the seventh is yellow and white, and the eighth is black and white. While Venturi and Rauch’s project ironically acknowledges the symbolic potency of the U.S. flag, Buren’s work neutralizes any connotational reading for the work, allowing it to refer back to its architectural positioning and to help render the architecture’s/art’s assumptions and functions more apparent. Buren’s work is designed to negate its own potential appropriation as either “high” art or symbolic content. For instance, the use of alternate black-and-white-striped flags between each of the colored flags is a way to cancel the presence of rival symbolic content which the work (a sum of flags) might take in relation to the symbolic function of (other) flags.

Unlike the Functionalist building and unlike the neutrality of Buren’s material means, Venturi’s architecture acknowledges the same communicative codes that vernacular architecture exploits (usually to sell products). In Learning From Las Vegas Venturi, Brown and Izenor criticize the new Boston City Hall (and modernist megastructures in general) for not overtly acknowledging its symbolic assumptions of, or aspirations to, monumentality. They observe that it would have been cheaper (more efficient) for the architects to have built a conventional building to satisfy the Hall’s functional requirements topped by a large sign: “The Boston City Hall and its urban complex are the archetype of enlightened urban renewal. The profusion of symbolic forms . . . . and the revival of the medieval piazza and its palazzo pubblico are in the end a bore. It is too architectural. A conventional loft would accommodate a bureaucracy better, perhaps with a blinking sign on top saying I AM A MONUMENT.”14

As Venturi and Rauch’s buildings admit more than one linguistic code, they can sometimes express conflicting present-day values rather than being tied to a “higher” language of unified form. Venturi, Brown and Izenor criticize upper-middle-class American architects for their rejection of the forms and symbolic importance of architecture of their own vernacular:

They understand the symbolism of Levittown and do not like it, nor are they prepared to suspend judgment on it in order to learn and, by learning, to make subsequent judgment more sensitive to the content of the symbols. . . . Architects who find middle-class social aspirations distasteful and like uncluttered architectural form see only too well the symbolism in the suburban residential landscape. . . . They recognize the symbolization; but they do not accept it. To them the symbolic decoration of the split-level suburban sheds represents the debased, materialistic values of a consumer economy where people are brainwashed by mass marketing and have no choice but to move to the ticky-tacky, with its vulgar violations of the nature of materials and its visual pollution of architectural sensibilities. . . . They build for Man rather than for people—this means, to suit themselves, that is, to suit their own particular upper-middle-class values, which they assign to everyone.. . Another obvious point is that “visual pollution“ (usually someone else’s house or business) is not the same order of phenomenon as air or water pollution. You can like billboards without approving strip mining.15

Similarly, “beautification” substitutes for serious eco-logical planning and is aggressively promoted by Lady Bird Johnson, big land developers and Exxon; it clearly serves the ideological interests of those who have the most to lose if the idea of American dependence upon a consumer economy and overuse of energy is seriously challenged.

Venturi and Rauch will mix the “low” commercial code with the “high” architectural code, so that the commercial look of one of their buildings tends to subvert its reading as “high”-value architecture. And in a reverse fashion, the specific historical-architectural references in their buildings tend to question, to put into historical perspective, the usually immediate, unexamined assumptions communicated through commercial, popular codes. This commercial code has evolved to merge the interests of middle-class desires. The code of “high” architecture is a coalition of upper-middle-class “cultured” values, upper-echelon Establishment “taste,” with values of the architectural profession as institution. The International Style unifies upper-middle-class and upper-class values in the interest of corporate business and government; at the same time, it looks down upon the “blight” and “visual pollution” it discerns in the complex diversity of smaller, less organized and lower-class codes, all representing alternative value-systems.

Venturi uses irony as a way to acknowledge contradictory political realities, rather than to suppress or to resolve them in a (false) transcendence, employing it to make certain assumptions of a building’s given program overt. This use of irony as a “distancing” device suggests Brecht’s notion of the self-aware style of acting (as found in classical Chinese theatre): “The Chinese performer limits himself to simply quoting the character played. . . . The performer’s self-observation, an artful and artistic art of self-alienation, stops the spectator from losing himself in the character completely. . . . Yet the spectator’s empathy is not entirely rejected. . . . The artist’s object is to appear strange and surprising to the audience. . . . Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.”16

In the commercial environment “pure”architectural forms are often modified or violated by applied verbal signs. This is common, as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes have both noted, for communications media in general:

Today, at the level of mass communications it appears that the linguistic message is present and independent in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon.17

Picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him [the viewer], right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. The directives which the captions give to those looking at pictures in illustrated magazines become even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each simple picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones.18

Venturi and Rauch facades often function as linguistic modifiers of the building to which they are attached. For example, beneath the quartz-light fixture that illuminates the large painted number “4” at the top of Fire Station 4 in Columbia, Indiana (1965), itself a verbal and heraldic sign, two black bricks are set into the white brickwork that constitutes the facade to underline the light fixture; the line functions as literary irony and in the decorative/architectural modes simultaneously.

Walking along Main Street or driving in an automobile one sees a row of signs in sequence. Each sign stands out from the signs preceding and following it, having a prescribed, separate meaning in relation to the other signs that surround (and define) it in terms of its position. For a sign to convey meaning, it must conform to the general code shared by the surrounding signs and distinguish itself from—establish its position relative to—other signs. Each sign depends ultimately for its meaning upon its position in relation to the others. Signs change (and react to change in other signs) relative to their function, to general changes within the code of signs, and to shifts in the sequence of signs of which they are a part. Functions of buildings change (a real-estate office might become a medical clinic and then a used-car showroom or an art gallery), which is reflected in their representation in the sign-system.

By the early 1970s this notion of art as continual innovation came to be seriously questioned. Ecological concerns had generated a new cultural ethos that did not accept an idea of progress with its imperative to experiment with nature in order to create an ever-new future. Conservation of natural resources went along with conservation of the past. These changes in social perspective were reflected culturally in the 1970s fashion for “historical” re-creations of past decades, in the “new nostalgia,” as well as in the neoColonial look of the facades/decor of vernacular architectural forms.

The historically eclectic, domestic (national, indigenous, vernacular and “homespun” as opposed to International Style) and “rustic” aspects of this style owed something to the “high” architecture of the late 1960s post-modernists (Venturi, Charles Moore and others), but used these influences for its own ideological purposes. It is possible that revivalism, in its nostalgic aspect, doesn’t intend to clarify, but is meant to veil an accurate reading of the recent past: the connection between “the way we were” and the position we are in now. In place of integrity, postwar history to the present is broken into a confusion of delimited, self-contained decades, as first the ’30s, then the ’50s, and now the ’60s are revived. The public’s access to these “magic” eras is further confused with personal nostalgia: history as “memory”: memory associated by media with the time when we “grew up.” Like the cultural form of the western, the culturally mediated memory of coming of age in one of these recently past decades mythically stands for America’s Past. In media representations the present appears confused with the particular “past” time being revived. In films and in television series such as “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “The Waltons,” one sees the projection of present-day, largely middle-class “problems,” represented by lower-middle-class characters (possibly “our” family forebears, one generation removed) situated back in the half-accurately depicted, half-nostalgically recalled decades of the ’50s, the ’30s, the ’40s or the ’60s.

The problem of the authenticity of historical reconstructions is now seen to be crucial, not only in the “new nostalgia” of popular culture, but in the recent, clearly parallel, interest of architecture in the nature of historical syntax: What makes a building real or fake? And what constitutes an architectural tradition?

Consider . . . [these] buildings, the restored Raleigh Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, and the 1970s gas station called “Williamsburg.” If the claim for authenticity is that they must actually have been built in the 18th century, or as an exact replica of the same, then, alas, the gas station and the conjecturally reconstructed parts of Williamsburg must be called fake. And even the use of indoor plumbing and electricity in Gunston Hall would have to be viewed as a compromise. Clearly, such an unrealistic definition of authenticity presumes that architectural tradition cannot change over time without losing validity or collapsing altogether. . . .

An architectural tradition is composed both of references to an ideal type and of accommodations to particular circumstances. Viewed in this way, the Colonial tradition is more than just a set of 18th-century buildings or latter-day replicas. In other words, the Colonial tradition is a collection of architectural elements to be used in contemporary buildings to evoke to the modern eye (and in the modern heart) both the shapes and the size and, finally, the feel of 18th-century America.19

The historical, in the form of an architectural allusion, signifies an ideal; but its specific meaning only has relevance in its relation to surrounding, present-day meanings, expressed by surrounding signs in the environment. And this is never neutral, but an active, present representation of one ideological view’s explanation of the past in relation to present reality. The past is symbolic, never “factual.” In architecture a sign of the past signifies a myth larger than the mere architectural function. “History” is a highly deceptive concept, as there are only histories, each serving some specific present-day ideological need.

Venturi and Rauch’s 1968 restoration for the Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia heuristically overlaps present and past. It was constructed because the newly introduced (actually revived ancient) liturgical practice of the Catholic Church required a free-standing altar to replace the traditional one against the wall. Instead of destroying the old sanctuary, Venturi and Rauch left it as it was and installed an electric cathode light tube (since removed) suspended on a wire, ten feet high, parallel to the ground and just above the eye-level of seated parishioners. The electric line defined an ellipsoidal semicircle inflected inward, and following the perspective of the parishioners’ line of sight, as well as the line of the old altar. It ran from just behind the new altar, following the curve of the apse behind it, to define a boundary that separated the old, rear altar from the new altar whose activities its light functionally illuminated. Here the light tube functioned only as a sign (replacing nothing), a two-dimensional, graphic indicator, drawing a (mental) line through the old altar (thus leaving it in relative darkness) without physically destroying it. It literally illuminated/delineated the new area and so juxtaposed the old and the new, placing them in an historical, or archeological, relation to each other. Venturi proposed the word “hybrids” for such works that combine two contradictory or mutually exclusive categories of meaning/description: “I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure’ . . . . ambiguous rather than ‘articulated’ . . . . I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality . . . . I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or,’ black and white, and sometimes gray, to black and white.”20 Again: “Our scheme for the F.D.R. Memorial was architecture and landscape; our foundation for the Philadelphia Fairmount Park Commission was architecture and sculpture; our design for Copley Plaza, architecture and urban design . . . [while that for] the National Football Hall of Fame is a building and a billboard.”21

The task of the work of art or architecture is not the resolution of social or ideological conflict in a beautiful artwork, and not the construction of a new ideological counter-content; instead the artwork directs attention to the seams in various ideological representations (revealing the conflicting variety of ideological readings).22 To do this the work uses a hybrid form, one which partakes of both the popular code of mass media and the “high” code of art/architecture, of both the popular code of entertainment and a theoretically based political analysis of form, and of both the code of information and of the esthetically formal.

Dan Graham



1. Dan Flavin, “Some Remarks Excerpts from a Spleenish Journal,” Artforum, December 1966.

2. Flavin, “Some Other Comments,” Artforum, December 1967.

3. People tend to compare Flavin’s fluorescents to Duchamp’s readymades. It is important to make a distinction. Duchamp took an object produced as a commodity from the non-art sector and introduced it into the art gallery in apparent contradiction of both the usual function of the gallery (which is to designate certain objects “art” and to exclude others) and of other ‘non-contaminated’ art objects within the gallery. This would seem to question, on the level of abstract or logical truth, the aristocratic function of art and of the art gallery as institution. In fact, Duchamp’s critique is only on the conceptual/philosophical level, and was immediately integrated back into the art institution’s definitions of what constitutes (the function of) art without directing the spectator’s attention to the specific details/practice of the functioning of the gallery or of art in relation to society at a specific historical moment. Duchamp’s work resolves the contradiction between gallery art and art in relation to society into a totalizing abstraction; further, it is ahistorical: the condition of “art” is seen as neither social nor as subject to change. By contrast. Flavin’s fluorescents only “work” through specific situation installation, either through necessity or esthetic calculation.

4. Daniel Buren, “Notes on Work in Connection with the Places Where It Is Situated, Taken Between 1967 and 1975,” Studio International, September–October 1975.

5. In recent years the transparent glass style has been inverted with the glass facade being replaced by use of reflective (or semi-reflective, one-way) mirror-glass. Unlike the earlier transparent glass structures, which openly revealed their structural framework, the glass building now presents the viewer on the outside with a purely abstract form (from the inside it allows the corporate worker a concealed vantage point)—a cube, hexagon, trapezoid, or pyramid.

6. Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn, “Don Judd,” The Fox, No. 2, 1975, pp. 129–42, esp. p. 138.

7. Roy Lichtenstein, as interviewed by G.R. Swenson, Art News, November 1965.

8. The American television series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” functioned in a way not dissimilar to Lichtenstein’s art. On one level it could be read as “soap opera.” It was impossible for the viewer to know if it was one or the other. Its adherence to principles of identification with characters in a narrative format, its emotional directness, and other conventions of “soap opera,” allowed it to be a believable “soap” In “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” the validity of the satire itself was continually undercut by the emotional “reality” of the characters’ problems, which, in fact, resembled those of most Americans. Because the show was conceived in this fashion as a form of both “high” and “vernacular” art, the writers and actors on the show never deluded themselves into thinking that the program was a “higher” form of art, nor did they take themselves totally seriously as “stars” or media-manipulators.

9. El Lissitzky, “Ideological Superstructure,” (Moscow. 1929), in Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, tr. Eric Dluhosch, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, pp. 70–71.

10. Denise Scott Brown, “An Alternative Proposal That Builds on the Character and Population of South Philadelphia,” Architectural Forum, October 1971.

11. Lichtenstein, interview (note 7).

12. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steve Izenor, Learning From Las Vegas, Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

13. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture, I), New York, 1966.

14. Venturi, Brown and Izenor, Learning (note 12).

15. Ibid.

16. Bertolt Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” in Brecht on Theatre, trans. and ed. John Willett, New York, 1964, pp. 91–99.

17. Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” in his Image—Music—Text, trans. and ed. Stephen Heath, London, 1977, pp. 32–51.

18. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in his Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York, 1969, pp. 217–42.

19. Richard Oliver and Nancy Ferguson, “The Environment Is a Diary,” Architectural Record, February 1978.

20. Venturi, Complexity (note 13), p. 23.

21. Robert Venturi, quoted in Robert Maxwell, “The Venturi Effect,” in Venturi and Rauch: The Public Buildings, New York, 1978.

22. This runs parallel in French semiotic theory to Julia Kristeva’s critique of the unitary text based on “the construction of a single identity (with its own consistent identity).” She advocates instead a plurivocal text “where (various) discourses confront each other . . . in opposition” and which is “an apparatus for exposing and exhausting ideologies in their confrontation.” Julia Krivesta, “The Ruin of a Poetics,” 20th-Century Studies, 7/8, 1972.