December 10, 2009

Neo-Venturian Activism, Anyone?

"Suburban sprawl eludes our concepts of urban form.  It isn't enclosed or directed like the space of traditional cities -- it is open and indeterminate. [...] Traditional urban architecture is praised for its "unity" and suburbia is denigrated for its "conformity." [...] In the undefined space of the commercial strip, we find our way through signs and symbols, and in the vast space of suburbia there is a similar need for explicit symbolism." - Robert Venturi

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates’ Signs of Life exhibition – a by-product of their 1970 Yale studio, Learning From Levitown – explored the chaotic topic of American suburban aesthetics.  The messiness of a landscape otherwise unacknowledged by academia and the profession demanded new methods of documentation and analysis.  It just so happens that one of the most exciting aspects of VSBA’s work during this time was the manner in which they adapted their urban analysis techniques to a non-place (suburbia).  I'm referring specifically to the hierarchical maps of signs on the commercialized "Strip" of Las Vegas, their overwhelmingly informative image-boards, and yes, even those infamous scenes of banal suburban spaces speaking (via glorified cartoon bubbles) about the multitude of – often ironic – juxtapositions of architectural styles found embedded within the fabric of our everyday lives.  

Experimentation with documentation and analysis emphasizes the value VSBA places in understanding context – that immediate and no-so immediate surroundings can inform and interact with a specific building and visa versa.  And nowhere is this lesson more critical than in the suburbs where "messiness" and "chaos" are the only adjectives to describe the product of sprawling, vehicular-scaled spaces with a developer-led haphazard eclecticism of nostalgic architectural styles and time periods. There is something to be said for the blatant, matter-of-fact manner in which VSBA communicates how the built environment communicates to us.  It's almost as if you don't know whether you are expected to laugh or take notes.  This type of "serious-but-funny" inquiry strikes me as both dynamic and richly layered, and a characteristic theme of VSBA's work as a whole.  Such qualities are evident in the 1975 City Edges Planning Study (Philadelphia).

It was as if VSBA’s playful cartoon bubble descriptions, originally a fantastical thought contained within the walls of the art museum, were all of a sudden released into the wild.  Now the billboards surrounding prominent roadways could be exploited for the dissemination of information to passersby about their environment. 

VSBA’s seminal work in articulating the relationship between constructs and context is neither wholly unique to VSBA nor at the leading edge of contemporary theory.  On the contrary, their work builds upon a line of thought that was shared by - among others - Renaissance-era Mannerists who dealt with themes of dialogue, play, and communication centuries ago.  Today, nearly forty years after VSBA's work with signs and symbols in the American city, street artists are subversively working with the same ideas.

Alas, the economy we are in has afforded us the blessing of vacant advertisement space: and no media is left out (television, print, and billboard space is all up for grabs!)  This provides an extraordinary opportunity to revisit VSBA’s extra-ordinary work concerning signs and symbols contained within the American landscape.  No longer will billboards along thorofares and highways needlessly promote messages of local and national corporations; of private interests and narrowly held points of view. Rather, the space can be used to promote a more civic and nationalist agenda at a time when the entire country is recovering from the worst of the economic downturn.  At the very least, Venturi-inspired environmental graphics can contribute to and expand upon the American landscape, rather than adding a particularly inauthentic quality to our beloved towns and cities. 

I'll leave you with these rather simple proposals for unassuming billboards I pass every day on my commute to work.  Rather than spending the time to photograph each case study, I've found Google Street View to be a much quicker and perhaps easier-to-digest method of representation.  These were influenced both by VSBA's passion for discovering the signs and symbols of American life, and street artists attempts to reconfigure advertisment space in the public sphere.  A sort-of Neo-Venturian Activism, I guess?!

Figure 1.

The first example occurs at a prominent intersection just before the entrance to a highway.  The billboard attempts to point out a historic hilltop neighborhood, which happens to be ironically partially blocked by its own form.

Figure 2.

Next, we see a spectacular downhill approach to the city, framed by painted ladies staring longingly at the city below.  This image is wholly a representation of "San Francisco" - both in spirit and content.

Figure 3.

With the silhouette of the city skyline beyond, this billboard references the vacant lot immediately in front of it.  It favors the extra-ordinary over the extraordinary, and for that I believe VSBA would be proud.

Figure 4.

Finally, a billboard that challenges its immediate surroundings - those which have become quite uninteresting and dull over the years.

1 comment:

AM said...

figure 4.

I'm a boring Monument