PRINT September 2010

Denise Scott Brown

AT SEVENTY I FELT I WAS BEGINNING, maybe, to achieve a sense of my own personal style. Before that, there seemed to be no ordering principle to be found within my roles and directions. Even now, “Denise style,” if it exists, is probably better defined by others than by me. As for fashion, what’s in it for me? Which items around me can be adapted to my body or my experience? I fantasize about a clothing catalogue that offers selections from other catalogues to customers like me, ranging from elderly to ancient. It would cater to tastes from sassy to conservative and to various forms of ambulation. Might a wheelchair user appropriate a Spice Girl’s tutu and wear it over slacks to lend color to her lap and a twinkle to her eye? I doubt I’ll see this fantasy realized, because the populations who “own” the images would feel dispossessed. My catalogue, even if profitable, might diminish sales in theirs.

This is prelude to some definitions. I suggest that style is innate but fashion is around you to be grabbed, and that both depend on time and context, but in different ways. Fashion, as I use it, refers to “something preferred at a certain time.” I think this definition approximates that of Diana Vreeland, whose passion for fashion made its fun serious. Nevertheless, artists and architects generally consider fashion beneath them and give the word style a second meaning, the one I use for fashion. So style is seen in two ways: as innate, to be discovered a posteriori by historians, and as a thing of the moment (“Did you see the latest issue?”), a fashion labeled and promoted by its makers and taken up by the rest of us.

In the 1960s, Robert Venturi and I played a game we called “I can like something worse than you can like.” Creativity can’t happen without fun, even outrageous fun, but our serious purpose was to open our eyes by assaulting them with things in the everyday landscape deemed ugly, tasteless, and bizarre. I discovered this sort of fun in the 1940s, when I first encountered African adaptations of leftover pop bottles and paraffin cans into traditional folk art forms. In architecture school, Le Corbusier’s harangue against “eyes which do not see” added modern machines and industry to my sources of aesthetic shock; and studying in London in the early 1950s, I was drawn to the way English Pop artists and New Brutalists in search of “an active socioplastics” melded shock with social concern. The strands were further intertwined during my years studying and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s and ’60s, as American Pop and social planning developed in parallel. Social-planning gadflies of that time demanded that we architects learn open-mindedly from what exists and lambasted us on the naïveté of our early-modern social principles. As the civil rights movement progressed, issues of poverty, democracy, diversity, and values assumed center stage in my education. The patterns initiated in Africa and England were “made operational,” as planners say, at Penn and have strongly influenced what Bob and I have done in our professional lives.

So although our contribution is often caricatured as plastering neon over everything, and although we have indeed tried to rebalance form and symbol in architecture, we have defined communication as an important function of architecture, a social function that helps build community. We take a wide view through a big window onto architecture and urbanism. We draw on contrarian fun and the study of popular culture, but also on the urban social sciences and humanist and theological thought on moral issues such as the loss of innocence since the Holocaust. Las Vegas is, for us, a colored lining to some somber clouds. And our postmodernism, unlike the po-mo of the ’80s, is a way of rethinking the agenda of the modernist movement much as it had been rethought by its loyalists nearly every decade since 1900.

Our approach to style is broad and deep. It’s nonjudgmental at first, to make subsequent judgment more sensitive. It’s wide-eyed when considering the outrageous and aware of the chiaroscuro of plans—of their unintended dysfunctions. And in considering the questions raised by architectural style, my view is that of a maker, involved in a type of making whose limitations don’t allow much toying with reality. To paraphrase Louis Kahn, a sculptor may carve a car with square wheels to make a statement, but an architect can do so only if it will run efficiently that way. And although I may sing paeans to the shocking beauties of neon, I must also analyze a sign as a contraption designed to do a job.

This is to say that I am an old-fashioned modernist in a 1930s mold. I still believe that function is one of the glories of architecture—for aesthetic as well as moral reasons. There are times in the process of designing a building when functional requirements call for steps that outrage the norms of styles that are in vogue. The temptation is to ignore the demands of function and produce a well-mannered solution that rocks no aesthetic boats, although it may give users a hard time—in finding the front door, for example, or in getting sufficient light. On the other hand, an architect who holds back and reconsiders the shocking solution may come to like it. To quote Lou again, “You hate it and you hate it and you hate it, until you love it, because it’s the way it has to be.”

Of course, the doctrine of functionalism needs rethinking for today. Form does not, after all, arise purely from function. Grammars of form, rules of combination, go with every style—the orders of classical Greece (and beyond), for instance. Indeed, style in architecture is, largely, just such a grammar—a way of putting things together at a certain time. Styles change as conditions change, particularly as social life changes. Such transformations trigger a shift in sensibilities, but not easily, and the shocking solution plays a role in the process.

Today’s architects may be skeptical of style’s legitimacy, but they do tend to embrace the notion of paradigm. A paradigm serves as a conceptual framework for the formulation of ideas, and, logically, ideas must then change when the paradigm shifts. Architects define new formal grammars in relation to such shifts. For example, modern architecture as we know it evolved through a consensus among forward-thinking young European architects after World War I that a new world social and technological order had emerged. The new paradigm, according to these architects, called for a stripped-down, “rational” architecture and for a cubist formal grammar identified with both Le Corbusier and the Machine Age. Though these ideas were dubbed grossly naive by social planners, the nature of urban building did eventually change worldwide, to a great degree along the lines the early moderns had predicted and advocated. And pari passu, the changes hold today.

But some contemporary architects are moving on by going back—to the late ’60s, when Bob and I turned away from late modernism, away from high-style architecture, and learned from Las Vegas. As we said, “Roadside copies of Ed Stone are more interesting than the real Ed Stone,” and we subsequently studied exuberant everyday landscapes in Tokyo and Shanghai. Ours was perhaps the fourth renovation of architectural modernism since 1900. Our calls for an understanding of complexity and contradiction, for accepting symbols in space as well as form in space, for accommodating ugly and ordinary architecture, and for learning from the everyday landscape and the duck and the decorated shed were reflections of a major paradigm shift then taking effect. The ’60s were an era of relentless questioning, and breaking the rules was, you might say, the rule of the day. We certainly shared this interest, and perhaps it made us philosophize about stylistic change and how it happens. An interest in Mannerism helped. Although its first historians interpreted its architectural twists as creativity run amok, neurosis, or the bored doodling of spoiled-brat aristocrats, we came to see Mannerist rule breaking as a means of accommodating functional and other conflicts in a complex world. It encourages us, as designers, to bend certain rules and allow others to hold so that the overall pattern of systems and desires can hang together. Mannerism can be seen as the art and science of rule breaking, a result of complexity, and an engine of style change.

The past ten years have witnessed a reassessment of our work from the 1960s and ’70s on terms much nearer than in the past to our own view of what we have done. Now, as the paradigm shifts again, groups of young architects are responding once more, and some are taking up many of the same threads we began pursuing some four decades ago—“renovating the decorated shed,” as one of them put it. They are thinking through the new constraints and opportunities of global population growth and socioeconomic change, the central importance of natural and human-made schisms, and the breathtaking advances in technology and communications. Bob and I could derive the architectural concomitants of the change from electro-graphics to LED and from the Machine Age to the Information Age (I love my BlackBerry, my impulse machine made like a piece of jewelry), but the effect on urban and architectural paradigms, let alone on lifestyle, of iPods, iPads, Kindles, and the rest will, I’m afraid, have to be left to younger architects. Bringing these into the modernist tradition, and evolving a philosophy of change over time, will be their job. And they’ll do it in their own style.

As for personal style, the place where I started this essay, I notice a posteriori that in 1966 I did have a style—you could call it Arms Akimbo. Perhaps its fungibility allowed me to take many directions. And returning to fashion, I am waiting for a computer wristwatch, a kind of wide slave bracelet that would miniaturize my BlackBerry and be operated by my right thumb and index finger. Its home page would be a rectangular watch face, its long side parallel to my arm bone. I would want it to incorporate a version of Photoshop—so I could walk out in the morning, switch on my information system, and adjust its face and its bracelet to match the colors of my outfit.

Denise Scott Brown is a founding principal of the architecture firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia.