An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Pratt Institute's graduate journal of architecture, TARP.
“Architecture is like the design of mittens, not gloves. Gloves are too tightly shaped to the fingers of a single hand; mittens give you wiggle room for the future.”
Robert A.M. Stern
The glove, a functionalist stalwart from the beginnings of modernism, has been much maligned by the post-modernists. In the course of research for a studio project I began to look at gloves, and discovered something quite startling – they don’t fit the old modernist cliché anymore. I found myself looking at specialized motocross gloves by Troy Lee Designs (specifically, the “Pro Apex” model, available in black or white leather). Granted, these $80 gloves are not your typical fleece-lined “leather” one-size-fits-all winter glove, and RAMS would probably not be caught dead in a pair; but what could these gloves possibly tell us about the direction of contemporary architecture?
When is a glove like a building?
The first thing you notice when looking at these gloves is that the old form/function dichotomy is gone. There is a slippery relationship between performance and form:
Some of the ornament – namely the carbon-fiber knuckles, openly advertises performance. Anybody who has spent much time in the 21st century will recognize this – carbon fiber has appeared in everything from laptop computers to car bodies and kayak paddles. The strength-to-weight ratio is phenomenal, but so is the price-to-weight ratio. Carbon fiber is the new gold leaf – it indicates that no cost has been spared on performance. Comparable gloves have plastic knuckles, and some competing manufacturers grouse that brittle carbon fiber shatters on impact, driving high-tech shards into your knuckles and palms, but who cares? The carbon fiber knuckles are interesting, though, because they are simultaneously functional and decorative.
There is the openly decorational – the Troy Lee Designs logo on the wrist. The manufacturer puts these badges on for the television cameras – the orientation becomes clear when you put your hands in “motorcycle” position and look in the mirror. Motorcycle branding, like the signage of Venturi’s Las Vegas strip, must be instantly recognizable at high speed. This is less interesting from an architectural standpoint– after all, consumers buying these incredibly expensive gloves should be able to recognize a TLD glove from the design, right?
There is ornament that is purely functional – look at the leather piping surrounding the velcro tabs at the wrists. Though it is not accentuated, it serves to make the transition between the softer grasping surface and the velcro surface. It prevents a frequently-used surface from falling apart. Like a chair rail or base board, it solves an architectural problem.
The glove even has something like architectural poché – the form and experience of the inside is very different from its outside. Functional decoration tends to happen where the glove designer must negotiate these two conditions, either for hand entry, finger exit, or ventilation. There is no reason to pretend that the inside and outside are continuous (though in the topological sense they are) – even reversible gloves celebrate the difference between the inside and the outside. Within this poché are layers of foam or batting with either sculptural or insulative qualities.
Finally, there are pieces to the glove that are purely, frankly, functional. The cut, arrangement and material of the pieces of the glove must match their application: kayak gloves might require pads of material that can grip a wet paddle, a cycling glove might have its seams placed so that pressure between the thumb and forefinger will not irritate the wearer. The design of gloves has become incredibly specific, and the range of materials that can be deployed both in the lining and the outer glove is almost endless. One motorcycle glove manufacturer opines on the difference between deerskin and elkskin: one provides softness and flexibility, the other gives the maximum abrasion resistance. Whether the designer chooses to highlight certain functions (say flexibility, or ventilation) is part of the delicate calculation that goes into making a commodity objet.
A glove’s program (if you will) is both incredibly specific and terribly banal. The user must be able to manipulate small objects like keys and pens one moment and accessing the glove’s more exotic functionality the next. A glove that is so specific in its function that it prevents a certain amount of flexibility becomes an impediment and quickly gets stuffed in one’s pockets. Despite the wide range of performative applications, there is very little figural experimentation in the glove (hockey equipment notwithstanding). A glove must be warm, dry and (possibly) match one’s outerwear. Robert Stern’s mitten may be cozy, but the number of exotic mitten species suggests a basic dissatisfaction with the typology (mitten-over-fingerless-glove, “lobster-claw” two-fingered glove, etc). There’s a reason they’re often clipped to school-children’s jackets.
Complexity and Contradiction
I read Robert Venturi’s Learning From Las Vegas (LFLV) first, and only recently returned to read Complexity and Contradiction (CNC). LFLV is certainly the more seminal and more influential manifesto of the two, but I feel that CNC is the more nuanced and useful discussion for architects. While the book foreshadows Venturi’s later fascination with advertising and building-as-sign – besides the famous “Main Street’s almost all right”, he references Peter Blake’s photographs of roadside signage from God’s Own Junkyard, the analysis is about the complexity and compromise that go into even the most orthodox of Modernist icons.
Looking at the second half of the book, however, I would argue that what Venturi and Rausch were up to was really bloody-minded modernism – a critique of reductive modernism within the language of modernism. Venturi and Rauschs’ built examples of complexity and contradiction read a bit like vaudeville jokes told at a dinner party – the entire story of the building is telegraphed a bit too vigorously, as if Venturi’s eagerness for the building to be “read” overwhelms his discoveries in the first half. More than anything, the second chapter seems to pose the question of whether one can approach a project with the intention of creating complexity, or if the world will impose its own regardless.
Where Venturi goes wrong, too, is his insistence on historical precedents. Venturi knows too much – he seems unable to draw a window or a roof line without knowing the exact historical references implicit in those choices.
What I find most interesting in CNC is its pragmatism. Venturi is writing from the perspectives of both a practicing architect and a scholar. This dual lens allows him to see beyond the headlines of the historical canon and speculate about the secret lives of buildings, the reality that no building project is ever as simple as it sets out to be. He is a master storyteller of the architectural project, drawing us into the moments where the architect had to abandon orthodoxy and confront real architectural problems.
Architects from the beginning of architectural history have been trying to separate their profession from fashion. This is surely a pragmatic move – it entrenches the practicing old guard against the novelty of talented newcomers and emerging but untested technologies. It ensures that buildings are judged against a carefully-curated architectural canon rather than ever faster-flowing streams of popular culture. When it comes to ornament in architecture, there have been three strategies for warding off the taint of fashion: first, the couching of ornamentation in historical canon. Second, the removal of ornamentation entirely from architecture, placing it into the hands of “lesser” arts like interior design. Finally, the re-evaluation of decoration in terms of semiotics to allow it to be folded back into Modernism.
I would like to discuss ornament without resorting to semiotics. Semiology has been used to enfold ornament in the functionalist trope of modernism: everything becomes decorative (because all buildings can be “read”) and then everything becomes functional, because everything serves the reading of the building. Literature seems to have survived signs and signifiers, and I believe architecture can too. Multiple readings can exist simultaneously without invalidating one another – furthermore, buildings designed purely for one reading seldom hold up to other readings. To design a building with the most distorted, reductive reading of LFLV, one ends up with something very simple, and rather banal. The problem of ornamentation has been poisoned by the duck/decorated shed dichotomy for too long. It was never that simple, and nor should it be.
There are two types of ornament that I would like to focus on, because I think they have largely been ignored in LFLV and its intellectual progeny. In the spirit of coining new words, these are the deco-functional, or functional decoration, and the perfor-namental, or ornament that is also performative.
Venturi’s discussion of the deco-functional in CNC is split in two directions, one stemming from his love of the Classical and Baroque ornamentation and the other from his growing fascination with machine-made commodity “honky-tonk elements”. In his discussion of historical precedents, he points to ornamentation that is used to make structurally separate elements seem plastic and continuous - the rocaille of the Rococo chair leg covers up the structural and manufacturing requirement of having a separate chair-leg, and ornamentation that allows joints between distinct structural elements to appear harmonious, like the Doric column. He also lauds double-functioning ornamentation, where features are able to perform two separate functions within a building: “drip mouldings which become sills, windows which become niches, cornice ornaments which accommodate windows, quoin strips which are also pilasters, and architraves which make arches”.
The discussion of “honky-tonk elements” brings up an entirely different problem, and one that I suspect many architects trying to design minimal residences have had to come to terms with. Machine-made objects, despite their fetishization by the early Modernists, are also designed to be installed by unskilled labor. Given that requirement, they include a certain amount of tolerance for poor plaster work or just general screw-ups. At least one manufacturer of trim-less recessed downlights also makes a “goof ring”, or an accessory that can be applied later when the carpenters have cut the holes slightly too large. Bridging the gap between unskilled labor and industrial design is usually some sort of ornamental flange, rim, or flourish, and therein lies the crux – to get truly minimal machine-made fixtures, the architect often must resort to carefully crafted custom designs or expensive specialty products that must be installed by skilled labor. This has led to expensive lighting coves, custom recesses and otherwise unnecessary translucent sculptural improvisations on the ceiling – its often cheaper to pay the unskilled carpenters to solve the problem with sheet rock or to conjure up a fancy lampshade than it is to design and pay for the manufacturer and testing of a custom fixture. Venturi solves this by witty insertions of banal fixtures, like the prominent bare light bulb in a porcelain socket in the Vanna Venturi House, or his use of large “industrial” RLM shades in the Philadelphia restaurant, but these fall under the polished rubric of the “insertion” – more conceptual judo than integrated design.
I would speculate that the contemporary fascination with continuous surfaces and smooth, radiused corners is to some extent a symptom of eschewing the architectural problem of transitions. Windows become all-glass curtain walls, corners become curves, roofs extensions of the landscape. Without being able to resort to deco-functional devices to make an entryway or fenestration, we are forced into acrobatics at the level of form and figure. This does not mean jambs and lintels out of Architectural Graphic Standards, but rather activating the building at the scale of ornament to create a penetration in an otherwise continuous surface.
The second category, the perfor-namental, is less discussed in CNC, though Venturi’s discussion of dual-use ornament is somewhat relevant. This category has a considerable amount of contemporary research behind it, and so in some ways is the more interesting of the two because of the wealth of contemporary precedents. Historic precedents might include flying buttresses on Gothic cathedrals or some of Nervi’s concrete waffle slabs, to name only two. Contemporary firms such as Reiser and Umemoto have written extensively about this at the level of form-finding and material articulation, but stopped short of talking about ornamentation. Much of Toyo Ito’s work contains elements of this category – to some extent the Sendai Mediatheque but especially his Tod’s department store in Tokyo, with the network of columns that echo bare tree branches. To classify this formal expression as ornamental immediately begs the preamble “merely ornamental” – as if that immediately precludes any performance beyond the semiological. It is usually preferable to demure with “merely functional”, while talking on the other hand of swan wings and soap films.
Examples of perfor-namental architecture in the last decade or so have largely been laundered through the instrumentalization of the Diagram and through engineering. By inoculating the ornamentation against conscious, willful design (in the case of the diagram), or by finding them in the drawings of engineers we can safely classify them as merely functional, though a Hollywood set designer not burdened by our taboos might be confused by the self-delusion.
What separates the perfor-namental from merely expressive formalism or Modernist expressed-structure? Admittedly, the distinction is unclear. The category could cover more than just structural expression – after all, contemporary buildings are advertised as performing in all sorts of extraordinary ways, from sun-shading to rainwater collection to solar. When the element in question could not be easily replaced with a less extraordinary by similarly functional one or hidden – say, replacing the columns of the Sendai Mediatheque with a Maison Domino column grid, or covering one of Nervi’s coffered ceilings with sheet rock – without changing the building, I would submit that the decorative qualities of the element are at least as important as the functional ones.
Venturi’s discussion of “Both-And” in architecture is valuable here. That something as solid and rational as a building could be so slippery seems counter-intuitive. Writes Venturi, “Most of the examples [of Both-And in architecture] will be difficult to “read”, but abstruse architecture is valid when it reflects the complexities and contradictions of content and meaning. Simultaneous perception of a multiplicity of levels involves struggles and hesitations for the observer, and makes his perceptions more vivid.” It is important, though, to disabuse ourselves of ornament as something that is merely applied, and that is not fundamental to the design.
Digital techniques have lead to a growing wealth of research in formal expression. Without admitting the existence of ornament, this research ends up as either competition entries, follies or weird sculptural walls – where architectural problems of fenestration and connection are either avoided, or solved within the same minimalist/Modernist vocabulary of the past century . By focusing some of this research at ornamentation that solves architectural problems, we may begin to wrest some direction from the suburban housing market that keeps stamping out Neo-Georgian, Shaker and Craftsman patterns to feed the hunger for newer and larger houses.
The important lesson from CNC is that gray areas exist, and should be encouraged rather than smoothed over.. Architecture has enough pedagogical structures and rigorous processes that it should be safe with ambiguity and contradiction. It is these gray areas which allow multiple readings of a building, and perhaps prolong its importance through more than one ideological paradigm shift.
I do believe that the best buildings bear traces of their design and construction, not just their original concept, but ornament should be our ally in this, not something that is used to hide our flaws. An architecture profession that wants to stay relevant to society should look to other design disciplines before it looks to philosophy – introspection and self-delusion may make for interesting competition entries, but it will never make very good buildings.
Venturi, Robert. “Complexity and contradiction in architecture. With an introduction by Vincent Scully”. New York, Museum of Modern Art 1966.
 Venturi, pp 54, 74, 104
 ibid, p.98
 ibid, p.100
 ibid, p.38
 ibid, p.121
 ibid, p.112
 ibid, p. 25