Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ducks and Sheds

Some buildings are what they are. Others are only what they appear to be.

The former are ducks. The others are decorated sheds.

When taken at face value, neither of these terms are excessively endearing. But they were never intended as judgments. Just observations. They are not measures of quality or worth or of ingenuity. Just categorizations. Slightly esoteric categorizations, but when understood, can really shed light on the candor and integrity of a piece of architecture.

The terms “duck” and “decorated shed” were codified in the 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, his wife Denise Scott Brown, and their friend Steven Izenour. The book argues that there are two distinctly different types of buildings and that all buildings can be classified as one or the other.

Ducks (aptly named after the duck-shaped roadside building in Eastern Long Island that was originally used to sell ducks and eggs) are symbols themselves. They are buildings that can't be anything but what they are as their shape foretells the activity taking place inside. They do not require signs, often blurring the line between building and sculpture. Ducks have innate ornamentation and are straightforward and honest in their intentions. What you see is what you get, and what you get is what you would expect.

In contrast, a decorated shed is a generic structure with a purpose identifiable only by its signage. In fact, decorated sheds could not exist without signs and other applied ornamentation. Unlike ducks, they are not symbols themselves, but require applied symbols. The ornamentation is explicit and serves to distract the viewer from true structure. Is it a clothing store, a restaurant, or a hotel? Just check the sign.

So is New York a city of ducks or decorated sheds? I think the obvious answer is that it is a city of decorated sheds. We readily identify the Chase bank on the corner as a bank because of the “Chase” sign and that trademark blue logo made up four geometric wedges that has become synonymous with its name. There is nothing about the glass box structures of the buildings themselves that allow us to identify them as banks. The applied ornament (the name and logo) defines the building, not the architecture itself.

In a schizophrenic city such as New York, decorated sheds make economic sense. If one business decides to close its doors, we can remove the sign and add another. No additional construction necessary (just no more Starbucks please -- 171 is enough). But no great architect really wants to design decorated sheds. Architects enter the profession to design ducks, to design buildings that take on great meaning without applied ornament. Decorated sheds lack a certain romantic quality. They are generic. Cookie cutter. A dime a dozen.

But there are the plenty of buildings in New York that are ducks or at least blur the line between duck and decorated shed. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, represents one of the great ducks of New York. The cathedral was constructed in the classic Gothic style that was typical of thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. It can be classified as a duck because it’s form literally represents the form of the Latin cross. With its transepts and nave, the structure could not be mistaken for any other purpose but a church. The ornamentation, too, is not “applied.” Instead, it is an innate and very natural part of the structure.

Though the distinction is not always crystal clear, here is a quick list of some of the other New York ducks that come to mind: Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty, the Brownstone House on 72nd near Central Park, TWA airport terminal at JFK Intl Airport, and the Washington Square Park Arch. I would love to hear of anymore you can think of.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Blurb and Us

The museum experience, irrespective of the museum itself, is a very interesting experience. It reveals to us nuances of our own personalities and can be a good gauge of our patience and thirst for knowledge. Our interaction with the blurb (i.e. the three sentence description that “explains” the thought behind the work) is particularly revealing. When we approach a piece of art at a museum, depending on our personality and level of interest, we do one of three things. 1) We quickly look at the work, turn to the person next to us, say “this is cool/interesting,” and then move on without reading the blurb. 2) We look at the artwork, think about it for a moment, come up with our own interpretation, and then read the blurb to compare our interpretation to that of the artist and/or critic. Or 3) We read the blurb first, briefly glance at the piece of art, and then walk away feeling satisfied that our “independent” interpretation sufficiently matches the interpretation of the expert.

Even the most interested and thoughtful of museum-goers has experienced being a #3 at some point, so no judgment if you are one, but this leads me to question a few things. First, who is writing the blurb? If it is not the artist (99 times out of 100, it’s not), did the writer even question the artist in the first place or are they just passing their own interpretation as the vision of the artist? And who made them powerful enough to influence the thoughts and dampen the creative interpretations of all the #3’s out there? Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the blurb. It is generally essential for me to get anything out of most exhibits. They provide food for thought and can often be conversation starters for intellectual debates. But the subjective nature of many of them and the creative liberties that are often taken with them can create a homogenous group think that runs contrary to what art is all about. One man’s vision should never be presented as immutable fact. And more importantly, because we cannot control how it is presented, we should never be passive enough to accept it as such. Andy Warhol said “Art is anything you can get away with.” I agree, but sometimes, we make it too easy to get away with.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ideal and the Real

An architect once told my grandfather, “Building is like art. You either build for beauty and individuality or for profit and income.” This architect was smart. Also rich. And practical. I am practical myself. In fact, I am extremely practical. But I hate practical people. I hate everything about practicality. There is nothing redeeming about it, except that it gets you places. It gets things accomplished. It gets things done.

Idealism. Now there is a concept. It requires no work. Just thought. It is the ultimate notion of the muser. The ultimate tenet of the sage. I admire idealists. I strive to be one, and I find myself becoming more and more like one everyday. Don’t get me wrong. There are costs. It gets me nowhere. But who wants to get anywhere these days? Another smart man once said, “It is better to travel than to arrive” (I think it was Robert Pirsig). Inaction abounds with idealism, but it is a nice perception to have of oneself. And sometimes, just sometimes, perception can be reality.

Architectural idealism is unlike other forms of artistic idealism. It requires money and power. Which require practicality. Pretty ironic if you ask me. Art requires paint and a canvas. Music requires a guitar or two sticks and a bucket. Architecture requires steel, glass, real estate, and a construction crew. It requires city permits and boardroom approvals. Most importantly, it requires compromise, and it is compromise that is the perennial enemy of the idealist.

So was the architect right? Or can we build for both beauty and profit? The realist in me has doubts. But he is making the assumption that pure beauty cannot be profitable. My idealist side counters with the assumption that profit, though secondary, will generally follow if we refuse to sacrifice our vision. This is analogous to the cliché that if you follow your dreams, the money will follow you (the good old notion of being “long term greedy”). Or maybe compromise and sacrifice are not enemies of the idealist. Maybe they should be the ultimate aspirations of the idealist. For compromise and sacrifice create a shared vision, and a shared vision can be beautiful (and profitable) for all.