New York

“Buildings for Best Products” and "Siteten

It is much easier to get away with being outrageous in art than in architecture—when the imagination not the body is responsible for coping with the results. Outrageous buildings are, for the most part, hard to take in the flesh. They intrude upon—in fact control—our physical space, so their power to offend, their ability to disappoint, is greatly heightened.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s brilliant analysis of Las Vegas, and Venturi’s earlier, even more brilliant explication of “complexity and contradiction” in architecture have, I suspect, damaged the practice of architecture as much as they have contributed to its theory. At a time when the Bauhausian glass box was entering its third or fourth generation of imitations, Venturi and Brown exposed the purist, elitist, antisocial aspects of modern architecture and argued persuasively for a change. Now that the change has happened we are left not with more habitable buildings of richer interest, but an eclectic, historicized muddle. Pediments, cornices, “Mansard” billboards for roofs are tacked onto frames little different in structure from the boxes the architects are supposed to be avoiding. And Venturi himself, when applying his theories to real projects, has come up with some strained didacticism and some excruciatingly corny, Monopoly-board plazas.

Of course he co-opts this sort of criticism immediately, affirming that the ugliness and boredom of his designs is deliberate, that they reflect the taste and value-structure of the 20th-century American vernacular, etcetera. But applying a nonarchitectural process of accumulation and evolution (the strip) or the lowest common denominator of expedient nondesign (the tract house) to a self-conscious architectural endeavor often kills the haphazard vitality that his theories—but not his buildings—celebrate. Asher Benjamin, with his Country Builder’s Assistant (1797) and American Builder’s Companion (1807) shaped the character of what still stands as New England’s finest (and essentially “vernacular”) architecture. I wish Venturi could channel his stylistic astuteness into something relevant but not ugly and boring. His buildings have a somewhat angry tone, to my eye, a frustrated idealism for which the vernacular is a kind of false front.

As two recent exhibitions show, the banal need not be boring. One also proves that the Venturi’ s theories have fallen into the wrong hands. The design department at the Museum of Modern Art sponsored “Buildings for Best Products” at the suggestion of Philip Johnson. Six contemporary architects were asked to come up with designs for a showroom / warehouse for Best Products, a national discount appliance chain whose presence graces many a shopping mall. All this goes back to 1972, when Sydney Lewis, the enlightened head of Best and an art collector (well known to artists anxious to equip their remodeled SoHo lofts) hired SITE to renovate one of his showrooms, a “shed” so ordinary that it couldn’t even qualify as “decorated.”

SITE (for Sculpture in the Environment), whose motivating force is the sculptor James Wines, is a group of artists and architects who have been together since the late ’60s. Their interest in alternatives to conventional public art and public spaces has led, in addition to their work for Best, to a number of publications on environmental issues, and the book Unbuilt America, which documents unrealized architectural projects, both conceptual and actual. Adaptive re-use of buildings, now a major theme, has been a primary concern for them from the outset.

Their first commission for Best was Peeling Project, in which the brick veneer on the facade of the Richmond, Virginia, showroom was peeled away at the corners and held in position with a special adhesive, giving the appearance of a slightly curling sheet of paper. Since then SITE has executed or planned many other buildings for Best, each slightly different, but all operating within the same premise of minimal intervention with maximum wit. One has a jagged, unfinished roofline punctuated by a cascade of bricks tumbling onto the roof of the port-cochere; another pulls out (on tracks) the lower left corner, again leaving irregular edges. The hole serves as the entrance; the missing chunk slides back to close the store at night. A third, called Tilt, lifts the entire facade at an angle, allowing people to enter underneath. Still another pulls the facade out and separates it into sections, like those fold-out, pop-up cardboard cards that are meant to look 3-D.

SITE’s designs have generally been well received by the public. According to Ronald Feldman (who hung around one store chatting with customers), even those who don’t like the buildings find them a curiosity and bring friends to see them. Those who do like them exhibit considerable civic pride, comparing their store to the other cities’ (photos of all projects are displayed in each store) and awarding their own the prize. People gather at the Notch showroom in Sacramento each morning and evening to watch the ragged corner chunk open and close.

SITE’s designs are, above all, witty, irreverent and slightly zany. Their upfront, easy-to-get, comic-book humor would probably never have found its way into architecture without Pop art. Their discreet amending of the banal interprets, while commenting upon, Venturi. Their success as sculpture may owe something to Oldenburg, though their actual-size scale avoids the disappointment one feels when Oldenburg’s proposed colossal monuments shrink to real objects. Their success as solutions to the banality of warehouse design is underscored when seen alongside the other proposals shown at MoMA.

The six architects chosen for the MoMA project are among the most witty, serious, distinguished, energetic and vocal of postmodernism’s practitioners. Why then are their proposals so arbitrarily whimsical? Ironically, they treat the whole thing as a joke in a way that SITE, despite its humor, does not. The result, far from being of practical use (SITE’s designs remain totally functional), is a Mad magazine microcosm of the postmodern architectural dilemma.

Three of the projects depend on overt historicizing, souped up with Pop devices and jazzy color schemes. Robert A.M. Stern’s The Earth, the Temple and the Goods parodies Vincent Scully’s title and pooh-poohs the consumer-oriented values of the very people to whom the store caters. The temple design includes a gold-columned portico topped with stencillike plaques representing the merchandise inside. A giant, 3-D, red BEST substituting for pediment sculpture recalls the zooming perspective of Ed Ruscha’s Standard gas stations.

Greenberg’s is the more classically classical; Graves tosses in huge red cylindrical columns with the industrial flavor of storage tanks or silos. The inverted column over the door with its blue and red color scheme recalls the palace at Knossos, and the building’s overall appearance is really quite magnificent. But the historical references that generate both projects would be lost on the average customer, who is undoubtedly unfamiliar with ancient shopping mall design.

Charles Moore and Anthony Lundsen offer exotic fantasies. Moore’s facade is an elaborate pile of mirrored plates that resolves, on close look, into giant elephant sculptures inspired by those at the entrance to the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Lundsen’s fantasy is more: strictly architectural; a slanting glass plane, curved in section like molding, passes at an angle through the facade.

The most wrongheadedly “Venturiish” of all is Stanley Tigerman’s jumbo tract house, replete with scaled-up clichés—picnic table, grill, mailbox, wife at the door, etc., accompanied by a snide commentary: “. . . And so it was that the Best search for a new home began. Really, they just had to find a comfortable place, one that could kind of nuzzle up to its little friends, so that when they came out to shop it would be as if they never left home. Why, they could just park their car right on the front lawn . . .” This attitude represents precisely the elitist hostility to middle-class values that Venturi wishes to abolish. Ironically, it is just this sort of adversary stance on the part of the architect vis-à-vis the occupants of his buildings that gave orthodox modernism a bad name. So it appears we have come full circle, the only difference being that the Seagram Building is a masterpiece of its kind, while Stanley Tigerman’s showroom is not.

Even if these buildings were ideologically suitable, economically they would be, if not unfeasable, at least very costly. SITE, on the other hand, has taken the economics of its offerings into account. Despite their unusual devices, they are still extremely simple, economical in their choice of materials, and not much more expensive to build than the old-time showroom. SITE’s architects have accepted the dreariness of shopping-mall architecture as a given. For them, perhaps, the shed of the discount store is a symbol so pervasive that it has become a kind of “duck.” Venturi and Brown argue that modern buildings are ducks because they read as ideologically loaded objects (hence the “duck,” from a store selling Long Island ducklings built in the shape of a duck). If the discount showroom has become a duck, it explains why it cannot successfully be transformed into a temple, a house, a stoa or a world’s fair fantasy without losing its identity. SITE has made no attempt to do this. It has made the banal interesting—even dandified it.

The dilemma of postmodernism in all the arts may reduce to one simple question: Now what do we do? Modernism’s formalist ideology systematically whittled away at form, symbolic content, ornament and decoration until it reduced itself to an all-white painting, a grid, a cube, a glass box—in effect, a gesture. And gestures do not propagate well. The ’70s answer to the next move has resulted in a diffuse, hard-to-define pluralism. Decorative painting, performance, impermanent sculpture, language, were all sucked into the void. But such strategies are of little use to architecture—the only “impermanence” it knows is the wrecking ball, summoned to dispose of its structural and/or social failures (and, unfortunately, a good share of its successes).

Coming to architecture as artists and environmentalists, SITE’s members can approach architectural problems unencumbered by the modernist baggage that continues to burden even those architects who have tried to shake it off. Their sculptural interests contribute a great deal to their ability to site buildings; their theories are worked out on the landscape, not the drawing board. Their handling of wit and irony indicates not a slapstick kind of quick laugh, but a subtle, carefully worked out understanding of the problems they set themselves and the circumstances they are given. For SITE, the building is the straight man; its dullness is the perfect foil for their witty epigrams.

Nancy Foote