Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Interiority Complex

This is a post exploring connections between the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and Adolf Loos. It was going to be about Charles Moore too but that seemed too much for one posting, so perhaps that will go in another, subsequent one (you have been warned). It concerns miniatures, dolls houses and inglenooks too, all of which will be familiar to anyone who's visited this blog a few times. I actually wrote something similar a few years ago, before I started blogging and had an outlet for such things so in a way it predates much of what I've written about here since.....

Interior view of the Tucker House, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, 1974. 

I'm looking at a photograph of a room in a house designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The room is in the Tucker House, a tower-like timber cottage they designed in upstate New York in the mid-1970's. In the centre of the picture is a study desk and on it can be made out a copy of the Japanese architecture magazine GA Houses. The cover of the magazine features another house designed by the couple, the famous Vanna Venturi house completed in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, in 1961.

Blow up of the interior of the Tucker House, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Tucker House, 1974.

The presence of the Vanna Venturi House within the later house is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, because it predates and therefore prefigures all the houses that came after it, Venturi and Scott Brown never really escaped from its legacy. It is probably both a blessing and a curse to design so hugely influential an object. Secondly - as Robert Somol has noted elsewhere - there is a correlation between the flattened, almost two dimensional facade of the Vanna Venturi House and its ubiquity in architectural books and magazines. It is as if the house was designed for that one iconic view of the front facade, its elevation appearing as flat as the pages in which it is reproduced. The house is in other words already a kind of representation of architecture even before it is reproduced in photographs.

Exterior of Tucker House, Venturi and Scott Brown, 1974.

The photograph of the Vanna Venturi House brings the mediated image of the couple's work into the physical interior of one of their later houses, where it is photographed again. We are effectively seeing the real design and its virtual dissemination at the same time. It's a very knowing situation in other words, one where the relation of the Tucker House to VSBA's oeuvre as a whole and its role within it is wrapped up in a kind of tight-knit ball together.

The GA cover acts as a souvenir or a miniature of the real thing, like a model of the Empire State Building displayed on a sideboard. It's interesting too then, that there is another miniaturised representation of architecture within the Tucker House in the form of the fireplace which is actually a small version of the house itself. So, the house contains a miniature representation of itself as well as a miniature representation of an earlier house by the same architects. The circular window of the house has been replaced by a mirror too so that it forms another reflection of its larger host. All this self-referentiality might seem of little consequence, not much more than a cryptic parlour game where it not for the fact that it keys into something much more interesting about the psychological aspect of houses, particularly in relation to modernity.

Interior of Tucker House, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, 1974.

For an explanation of this we need to turn to Adolf Loos, an architect who formulated an extremely subtle understanding of the role of architecture in relation to the modern condition. For Loos, writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, the house performed a number of contradictory roles. In order to protect us from the alienation of our contemporary urban lives the house needed to become a kind of sanctuary. Atomised in the new city, the modern man and woman needed to retreat behind the psychologically calming walls of their suburban villa. For Loos this led to a dramatic split between the public and private persona of both the owners and the house that they lived in. While the exterior was blank, offering an appropriately sober anonymity, like a well-cut suit, the interior played out much darker and more revealing characteristics.

Adolf Loos, reading seat, Moller House, 1927.

Beatriz Colomina has investigated these split aspects of Loos' work brilliantly, also noting how he occasionally breaks his own rules at decisive points by expressing the most private parts of the interior on the outside. Thus the inglenook seat of the Moller House - which Colomina likens to a theatre box - projects out in front of the otherwise mute facade facing the street. It is as if the seat of Loos' impeccably cut suit has split right up the seam and revealed something we were never meant to see.

Adolf Loos, Moller House, 1927.

For Loos, the condition of modernity suggested that we need to keep our demons well hidden, played out within the private spectacle of the domestic interior. Which suggests an immediate paradox in that Loos' interiors become, to some extent, a representation of domestic life in themselves. His intense, interlinked space read almost like a densely plotted novel about family life. Tensions between men and women, husbands and wives, friends and lovers are not just suggested but enabled through his carefully choreographed interiors. Not only that, but their subsequent dissemination and fame meant that these interiors were actually anything but private. Colomina's revelations about the careful way that Loos used photography to control the representation of his architecture suggests that he was highly aware of this.

Which is partly where his relationship with Venturi and Scott Brown comes in. VSBA are one of the most media conscious of architects. Their use of writing, photography and polemic have made them extremely effective propagandists for their own work. As Somol has suggested, their obsession with the reproducibility of architecture - that is, its ability to be represented in magazines, books and lectures - has led them to develop a design approach in which the facade is the dominant element. Following Loos, the Venturi's understood that the facade not only spoke in the traditional sense to the physical space around it but also to an extended media space of books, photography and, subsequently, the internet.

For the Venturi's the facade becomes the main expressive feature of architecture, an almost pure piece of information to be broadcast. This idea is taken to literal ends in their early design for the National Football Hall of Fame (or the 'bill-ding board'), where the facade takes the form of an enormous scoreboard, as well as in subsequent projects employing LED's and electronic signage. The tensions of site, context, taste, budget and history are then played out on these surfaces to form a tense compacting of information both physical and virtual.

Venturi, Rauch, Scott Brown, National College Football Hall of Fame (1967)

The standard critique of their work is that this schism results in 'mere facadism', the subordination of three-dimensional spatial possibilities of architecture to two-dimensional sign based ones. This ironically rather superficial reading suggests too that Venturi, Scott Brown's work is the polar opposite of Loos who was perhaps the first architect to posit space as the real medium of architecture. Following this it would seem reasonable to say that whereas Loos plays out a rich spatiality behind a blank facade, VSBA hide their mute 'shed' behind a decorated exterior. But VSBA's interiors are actually very subtle and spatially complex things. Take the Tucker House with its complex, enmeshed volumes interconnected by a coiling staircase. It's actually a little like a Loos house, in fact, a simple cubic mass out of which has been carved a three dimensional spatial puzzle.

Loos' houses hide their decorative interiors behind strikingly modern walls. The severe, white stucco boxes contain classical ornamentation, richly veined marble, thick velvet drapes and chintzy fabrics within. This split was decidedly problematic for the early moderns who found Loos a little difficult to locate. Only subsequently was the psychological complexity of his work understood as articulating something more revealing about the condition of modernity. VSBA's houses seem to start from the other side. They smuggle modern spatial dynamics into what appear at first to be quite traditional objects. Walking into the Vanna Venturi house, for instance, one is struck by both how modern, almost Corbusian, it feels and also by how strange it all is. The conflicting stair, chimney and entrance have an early modernist sensibility, like a Cubist collage there is a dissonant jumble of recognisable fragments that never settle into anything like normality.

Interior view of the boudoir, Villa Muller, Adolf Loos, 1930.

And like Loos, the area of biggest tension is the wall between inside and outside. The spatial forces of the interior push out into the carefully ordered external facade. And again like Loos, it is as if the dis-harmonies of family life make their presence felt on the idealised representation of architecture of the exterior. The facade of the house belongs to the world, to magazines and books and culture, while the interior belongs to the private realm. But they are not entirely separated and both impact on each other.

Just as the private realm pushes out on to the exterior, the public world makes its presence felt on the inside. Venturi Scott Brown appear to set up carefully staged hymns to private family life that are invaded, as it were, by architecture. The photograph of the Vanna Venturi house within the Tucker House marks an intrusion of the public role of architecture into the interior. Equally, the presence of a miniature model of itself within the heart of the Tucker House brings the public exterior inside and acknowledges that family life is part of a system of representation too. The architect's conscious and artful arrangement of the elements of a traditional house is revealed as exactly that at the point at which immersion within the illusion should be complete.

View of the living room looking towards the internal window of the boudoir, Adolf Loos, Villa Muller, 1930.

Like Loos, the presence of another, smaller house within is both cute and unsettling. In Loos' Muller House, the boudoir at the centre of the plan nestles within the structure like a miniature version of the host. This room has an internal window that overlooks the main living room, allowing the occupant to spy on the goings-on around them. But viewed from the other side, the room itself becomes the object of view. The window sits within a white painted cubic wall just like the external face of the house. Both Venturi Scott Brown and Loos use the figure of the Wendy house, the house within a house, to make a decidedly uneasy relationship between the private and the public realms and between the conflicting demands of modernism and tradition.

Interior view of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's own house in Philadelphia.

Loos makes a more literal appearance in one of Venturi and Scott Brown's interiors. His name is an unlikely inclusion in a frieze of famous architect's adorning the dining space of their own house in Philadelphia. It is a fan's list, a chart run down of the couple's favourite architects stencilled onto the walls like a formalised version of the pop groups one might write down as a teenager. It is also another self-conscious playing out of the public history of architecture within the private house.


AM said...

I wouldn’t say: “Loos who was perhaps the first architect to posit space as the real medium of architecture”.
Loos “raumplan” wasn’t that much different from the English housing tradition “reported” by Muthesius.
On Loos and Venturi… well they are both just great, huge, architects.

Sorry I can’t make a formal invitation for you to visit or lecture at Portugal. I’ve tried to interest some scholars and professors on your work, through.

Charles Holland said...

You're right that Loos' interiors owe much to his admiration of the English house tradition. But I still think his theory of their spatiality was a significant conceptual shift for architecture. I may be totally wrong - and if i had the time and abilities I might try to write more about this - but i think the idea of spatial intelligence in architecture is a twentieth century concept....

And thanks for even thinking of lectures etc. I'm sure one will turn up some time....would love to come and see some Siza especially.

Markasaurus said...

Even the facade of the V. Venturi house sets up the dichotomy of traditional versus modern- the chimney on the central axis divides the two halves, one containing a traditional (in an almost child-like representation) sash window while mirrored on the other side is an almost perfect Corb ribbon window.

It's great to see someone write about the VSBA's interiors, I think they're fascinating (at least these earlier projects). If only the more clients were willing to allow a staircase that ends at a blank wall!

I hope you follow this up with a Charles Moore post. I have been salivating over his ink drawings and early houses for the past month thanks to a great find on eBay.