Temples of Desire: The French Pavilions of Art Deco

Architecture of Commerce

Selling Art Deco

From Spring to Fall of 1925, The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris captured the attention of Europe and visiting dignitaries from America. Like the decade itself, this Fair was both forward looking and backward glancing. After the Great War, there was a general desire to return to normal, to “order,” as Jean Cocteau put it. What the writer, and other commentators who shared his sentiments meant, was a turn towards conservativism and caution. The Twenties was a decade of consolidation in the French art world, a digestion of the troublesome avant-gardes of the pre-war that had to be tamed and recycled as “modern art.” Designers, however, faced more complex challenges. Their bête-noir was Art Nouveau and its now old fashioned elaboration. After a terrible war, such decadence seemed obscene and such exuberance became unbearable in a new age of machines. Kenneth Frampton described Hector Guimard’s famous Métro entrances, which marked the Paris subway stations in these terms: “Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture…Guimard’s system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic ‘dragonfly’s wings’—to quote a contemporary critic—received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris colour of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.” Frampton was describing one of the three types of entrances designed by the artist–the delightful “dragonfly.”

By the 1920s, the time of such flights of fancy had passed. Art Nouveau and its attachment to nature were simply out of step with the Machine Age. Guimard himself noted, “Nature is a great book from which to draw inspiration..Having myself undertaken this study, I discovered three principles which should have a dominant influence on every architectural work: logic, harmony, and feeling.” When he spoke in 1902, a naturalistic design for the Métro entrances was precisely what the Parisians needed. As Marianne Ström noted in her book, Metro-art in the Metro-polis, “The underground has long been synonymous with anguish, fear, and repulsion. It evokes images of funerals, the dead, and hell-fire, sanctuaries (Lascaux and Altamira) and sorcerers.” She could have added the fact that, in Paris, the underground was an ossuary, the graveyards of millions of unknown city dwellers from hundreds of years. Guimard’s entrances were a welcome touch of beauty that would have welcomed tentative visitors to the new mode of travel. But after the war, such superstitions were stripped away and the public accepted the mechanical and technology, even under the earth. Slowly, one by one, Guimard’s one hundred forty-one lovely passages between light and darkness were removed and it was not until the late 1970s that their artistic value was recognized. Only eighty-six remained after the frenzy of modernizing in the 1960s and 70s.

In Architecture of France, David A. Hanser noted that “..Guimard created a new style in which modern, unconventional materials (iron, steel, brick, glass block, glazed tiles) were used openly and mixed with traditional materials, and in which asymmetry predominated..To some, Guimard’s ‘Metro Style’ was modern; to some it was nightmarish; to others, it represented bad taste..” Also very modern in 1901 was the fact that “Guimard’s entrances were made from a kit of relatively few prefabricated parts of cast iron that could be assembled in a wide number of variations.” Despite the advanced materials and building techniques employed, the entrances, as the author pointed out, caused controversies. Guimard was from Belgium, and the French took a dim view of such a foreign invasion and the architect bowed out of the project by 1902. The Art Nouveau stations themselves continued to be built until 1913, but after the Great War, in ten years, the world had changed and a new style, a rejection of Art Nouveau–Art Deco–arrived.

It should not be assumed, however, that Art Deco was a wholesale rejection of the past. Far from it, Art Deco philosophy rejected its near relative, Art Nouveau, but looked back to a very specific time period for inspiration. As Jared Goss, the historian of French Art Deco noted, the Art Nouveau artists were themselves not particularly good craftspersons and did not understand the relationship between art-for-art’s-sake and mass production. The style became a statement of luxury for the few but could not be easily refitted for broad consumption. According to Goss, “..the commercial failure of Art Nouveau was a national embarrassment, as other nations seemed able to succeed at expanding into a wide consumer based without sacrificing quality. Art Deco Designers rejected the sacrifice of quality for the sake of “art” at the expense of execution and “looked back to the preindustrial past, when guild-trained artisans, with their combined mastery of conception and execution, set international standards for excellence in the applied arts. Because the last generation of artist-craftsmen lived during the reign of Louis-Philippe, many designers chose to relate their own work to that style, although some looked also to the earlier eras of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Directoire, and the Empire. Indeed historical connection became central to the mission of the Art Deco designers.”

One of the foremost designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), who, by 1920, shook off the heritage of the past and moved out of Art Nouveau and into Art Deco. While he had been influenced by the arts and crafts movement in general and Art Nouveau in particular, he criticized its mode of production, saying, “A clientele of artists, intellectuals, and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” In other words, despite the apparent luxury of Art Deco objects, each object was designed for mass consumption, or, at least, for educated consumers. In addition, it should be pointed out that Art Deco designs, with their simple lines and geometric aspects, were far better suited to being manufactured than the complex configurations of Art Nouveau. The straightforward shapes of the “moderne” also lent themselves to a “downgrading” of materials used so that the Art Deco “look” could move down the economic chain, so to speak, and attract the vast and lucrative middle-class market. Ruhlmann pointed out that “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” In other words, the designers and the objects in the various French pavilions were intended to educate the public, advertise a new style, and sell merchandise. The Fair was an opportunity to educate the French public–potential customers–on the superiority of Art Deco as modern “taste.”

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The organization and arrangement of the Fair’s shops, holding an extensive range of merchandise, were laid out in vertical lines, suggesting, to the contemporary eye, an outdoor shopping mall. As the Panorama of the Place des Invalides suggests, a magic carpet of shopping meccas, spread out at the feet of the Fair goers, all to tempt them to shop and to be informed and to learn about the latest styles from famous designers. Christopher Green explained, “In 1925, as in 1900, the middle class were the dominant force in French society; it was they, especially the lesser middle classes known in the 1870s and 1880s as the ‘new strata’ who brought back to power the Radicals in the 1924 Left coalition, the ‘cartel des gauches,’ after half-decade of right-wing dominance in the Chamber from 1919, and brought back with them the rationalist libertarian values of 1900-1914. Indeed, the 1925 Exhibition is one testimony to a mid-twenties desire to remake the image of a new modernity the Belle Epoque, imagined as a time of realized ambitions and sated appetites..” The importance of the “lesser middle classes,” who “worked with their hands” and “aspired socially” was the consumer base for the Art Deco artists. In Art in France, 1900-1940, Green explained that the pavilions appealed to “..the lesser middle classes (who lived in) scaled-down versions of the comfortable households of the bourgeoisie rich. It was its lavish appeal to this kind of social emulation that made of the 1925 Exhibition a popular as well as élite success.” The major sites of desire were the pavilions of the leading department stores of Paris–each structure dedicated to the targeted consumer, females with discretionary income, considered the prime customers of these temples of fashion, art, and design.

In their book on Art Deco, Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl discussed the extensive layout provided for the French buildings in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.“The French section comprised two main areas, almost perpendicular to each other, one of them marked by the Seine between the Pont de la Concorde and the ALms Bridge, the other one, leading alongside he Avenue Nicholas II, the Alexandre III Bridge, and the alley bisecting the section cutting across the Esplanade des Invalides from north to south. On the quays of the right bank of the river and the Cours-la-Reine, the visitor would successively encounter the foreign and the French pavilions, then the French Village and the colonial pavilions. On the left bank, some more pavilions, miniature toys presented in a model village, the transport gallery, and the amusement park. On the Esplanade, symmetry, and variety, order and life, obtained by an extremely considered arrangement of buildings, predominately assigned to France. Lastly, in order to connect the two parts of the Exhibition, separated by the Seine and for fear the public would not be tempted to cross from one bank to the other under the summer sun, the Alexandre III Bridge was transformed, from two lines of shops into a kind of Rialto. It was, like certain bridges of the Middle Ages, a street spanning a river..”

The four pavilions of the four great departments stores of Paris were wedged into four corners of the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pavilion for the Printemps department store celebrated the fame of the establishment which had arisen from the urban renewal project of Baron Georges Haussmann in the 1860s. In 1865, the founder, Jules Jaluzot, surveyed the new terrain of Paris and selected the 9th Arrondissement as the site for his new enterprise. A former employee of Le Bon Marché, Jaluzot understood the importance of foot traffic and recognized the convenience of being near the Gare St. Lazare and the covered “passages” or mini malls of the Grandes Boulevards. From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Printemps would be the huge display windows, reminiscent of the old fashioned markets on the streets. The “store” was really an assortment of buildings, starting with a building on Boulevard Haussmann and expanding to several other adjacent structures, all of which were destroyed by a fire in 1881. The original “stores” were expanded when rebuilt, rebounding to greater elegance. Under Jaluzot, the newest department store in Paris, became the most innovative, initiating the idea of a “sale” (les soldes) of older merchandise. Customers were offered a bouquet of violets on the first day of spring and, in the windows, elegantly dressed mannequins–an art form in and of themselves–wore the latest fashions. With the new owner, Gustave Laguionie, who purchased the store in 1905, came more innovations. Laguionie topped the main building with a stunning dome, complete with a terrace. Today it is still possible to sit on the roof terrace and have a meal while surveying all of Paris. The famous dome of the original Printemps roof was made with reinforced concrete, which incorporated glass creations by the artist Réné Lalique. In 1912, another much-copied innovation for Printemps was begun when René Guilleré, the founder of the Société des Artistes décorateurs, suggested the firm initiate a department dedicated to displaying and selling artisanal objects and unique furniture pieces. These art works would be designed by the most fashionable designers of the day, including Guilleré’s wife, Charlotte Chauchet, who would go on the design the interiors for the Pavilion in 1925. Faced with a second fire in 1923 that destroyed the Art Nouveau façade, spiral staircase, and mosaic tiles with their flower motifs were destroyed, Laguionie rebuilt the famous dome, reconstructing it as a stained glass masterwork, again by Lalique. And the “Printemps Haussmann” had another innovation to present: special displays for Christmas in the windows, which were now thought of as sites for installations of merchandise arranged with the care of a museum curator. The notion of holiday window displays was quickly copied by New York department stores.

The Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 had to be a celebration of the survival and renewal of Printemps, rising like a phoenix from the fires, an advertisement for the first department store to display furniture and design. The architects were as famous as the store itself: Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and his collaborator Georges Wybo, was was the chief architect of the store itself. Sauvage had been one of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture but also excelled in functionalist architecture and in decoration. He and the architect of the Le Bon Marché Pavilion used the cast iron support columns of the station at Les Invalides which was under the building to support the structures above. As the book, The Architectural Drawings of Henri Sauvage: Architectural works, c. 1905-1931, reported, “Given the fragility of the Invalides Station roof on top of which the building was erected, its was necessary to bear the load on the existing supports by means of reinforced concrete girders carrying the cantilevered pavilion posts.” The Pavilion was dominated by a remarkable frustoconical “dome” that expanded outward from its clipped-off top, enabling the architects to encompass the entire template allotted to them by the officials of the Fair. In fact, as Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl pointed out that the architectural use of “..reinforced concrete dominated the event.” They added that while architects had used concrete in a utilitarian mode, it could “assume, on the contrary, a certain elegance. Even if the Exhibition did not help the new concept of construction progress on a technical level, the date is marked in the history of its diffusion. It accustomed the eyes to its bond spans, its simple shapes, and its large cantilever overhangs. It established its recognition.”

The dome, which quoted the one on the store itself, was built by the Etablissements Perret Company and made of vitreous cement, manufactured by Jean Séailles and his partner Eugène Freyssinet. This kind of cement was a relatively new product, used by Séailles to coat the sides of the Printemps swimming pool in the store’s Salon d’Automne. L’architect magazine of 1925 described the process: “In order to occupy the maximum volume, the architect has ultimately been required to completely fill the imposed template. The result was a very simple envelope which was very richly coated with precious materials. Indeed, all the bases are executed in vitrified cement called “Lap d’Or” of which we have already seen a first application in the Spring Pool. The cement designs are nipped with filaments of gold drowned in the mass and crowned by a cornice with a mosaic of black and gold sandstone. The reinforced concrete roof lined with straw compressed in its lower part, to maintain the freshness of the premises in summer, it is covered with large glass lenses cast, executed by Lalique and giving a little impression of big pebbles with a general tone light chamois. Light hidden concealed fireplaces throw their fires on the facades and the cover.” The magazine elaborated further adding that René Lalique, the artist-decorator, designed “the reinforced concrete roof lined with compressed straw (solomite) with colored glass lenses resembling pebbles.” The effect, as the magazine suggested, was as if colored stones were shining from a journey tumbling down a stream of rushing water. The book on Sauvage described the “gold and black mosaic tiling cornice” made by Gentil and Bourdet and that the wrought iron main door was made by Mozer. The author and editor, Jean-Baptiste Minnaert, noted that “at night the facades of the pavilion were spot-lit.” The book’s section on the Pavilion continued, “The Pavilion did not always get good press. Criticism was leveled at the lack of harmony between the openings requested by the Primavera studios and the interior decoration, decided upon later. The interior layout program, the home of a great artist, was a disconnected suite of juxtaposed rooms. The Pavilion has since been demolished.”

As is evident, the Pavilion was the work of many hands and many designers, all brought together to create a striking and controversial building which, if nothing else, had been created to attract attention. The design or designs were exquisitely elaborate and it is doubtful if any of the artists were familiar with the idea of ornament as a “crime.” Alphonse Gentil and François Bourdet, who designed the elaborate tiles for the cornice were architects, classically trained at the School of Fine Arts in Paris and yet they were also entrepreneurs, who created their own company in 1901, Gentil, Bourdet et Cie, creating exterior embellishments in sandstone and ceramics. Their intention was clearly architectural elaboration and the pair began as Art Nouveau designers, as did many of the other designers, who worked on the Pavilion. Although Gentil was Algerian, Bourdet hailed from Nancy, the capital of Art Nouveau, where both artists were well-known crafters of Art Nouveau vases. With the greatest of ease, after the Great War, they shifted their designs towards Art Deco. The point is that the department store pavilions were all small jewel boxes masquerading as architecture. Given that all the artisans, who collaborated on this and the other structures for les grands magasins were veterans of Art Nouveau, they were not part of the new generation which eschewed ornament. The outsides of these glittering gazabos of shopping promised rooms full of the most fashionable and desirable wonders—a lure that the plain white walls of Le Corbusier were incapable of achieving. Fabrienne Fravalo wrote in 2009 in an article entitled, “Primavera, the Art Shop of the Printemps Stores,” that the theme of the Pavilion was the “house of an artist.” He noted that, in comparison to the contributions of other department stores, this pavilion was very original, so much so, it was disparaged as being a “hut,” because of the cone shaped roof. But this “hut” was encrusted with precious decorative coatings, not to mention the huge planters overflowing with draping flowers. As Fravalo wrote (in translation) for L’historire par l’image:

Evoking a temple, this unusual building houses an interior that is both modern and refined, designed according to the wishes of Spring and that of an artist. Its design made by the different workshops of Primavera contrasts rather strongly with the exterior aspect, as shown by the view of the vast living room. All the furniture in this room meets a spirit of modern comfort: the wide divan, the carpets with geometric motifs, the small coffee table with clean lines, the piano on columns where a large lamp with the shade pleated. Inviting to contemplation and aesthetic reverie, the art objects arranged in this reception room accentuate yet the elegant and refined atmosphere. The interior layout of the Primavera pavilion, a true demonstration of the creative possibilities of the Spring workshops, also clearly reveals the guiding principles of the department store: to offer guests a harmonious, comfortable and designed as a whole. Thought differently according to whether it is addressed to a man or a woman, the decoration also takes into account his profession: the 1925 pavilion thus corresponds to the dwelling of a male artist. The decorators pay as much attention to the furniture as to the accessories: from the wallpaper to the lamps, to the glassware, ceramics and statuettes, all the elements are important.

The conceptual juxtaposition of Le Corbusier’s all white undecorated Pavilion at the Fair and the fully dressed and “clad” department store pavilions pointed to a contradiction in terms within the practice of architecture itself. If one follows the reasoning of Mark Wigley in his famous book, White Walls, Designer Dresses. The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, the color white, which “dressed” the walls of “modern” architecture, was related in concept to the reform dresses and to the simplified designs with sharp edged cuts by radical designers, such as Coco Chanel. But in rejecting ornamentation and decoration and period styles, the radical architects also insisted that they were rejecting changeable fashions. But Wigley, following the trail of references dropped by the architects in their writings, saw a “psychosexual economy of fashion” buried in the subtexts. In addition to refusing to use ornamentation and decoration and references to the past, the modern architects were rejecting color or polychrome exteriors as form of “clothing” or a “cloaking” of the surface. As is known, the unadorned surfaces of the modern buildings of the architect Adolf Loos shocked the Viennese public with their “naked,” meaning unclothed or “undressed” exteriors. For many observers of the older generation, a “naked” building was obscene and scandalous, akin to a nude body walking down the street.

Le Corbusier preached the superior “morality” of white as a chaste and pure color but Wigley commented that the “..whole moral, ethical, functional and technical superiority of architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces.Although white surfaces were put forward by modern architects as superior to decoration and polychromy, Wigley argued that the insistence upon white was a “very particular fantasy. it is the mark of a certain desire, the seemingly innocuous calling card of an unspoken obsession.” If one accepts the notion that white architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillion L’Espirt Nouveau at the Exposition, was the architectural the equivalent to putting on a plain but beautifully tailored crisp white shirt, then the Pavilion of Printemps was a statement of fashion and decoration and other marvels that appealed to (female) fantasies of accumulation and acquisition of adornment. While the architect dons a white shirt and wears a black suit, the female consumer changes her outfit every day and follows changing styles devotedly. The contrast in attitudes towards fashion is a gender dialectic that was played out in the built environment. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by the excesses of Fair architecture and the unbridled decoration of Art Deco that he wrote L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) in protest, putting forward his opposing philosophy. But these four department store pavilions at the Paris Fair had to be “clothed;” it was necessary for them to be wearing the latest styles. In contrast to the wealth of display on the outside–the contributions of many designers and artists–a white building displays a prim hygiene.

As Wigley noted, “The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath… Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one’s membership of a social class rather than the state of one’s body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.” The Printemps Pavilion wore its exterior decorations like a collection of metaphors, all signifying the interior contents which collectively were advertising a modern way of life for a very modern and aware individual, the artist who is always on the cutting edge, a denizen of style.

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Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory

COMPARING MODERNISM AND POSTMODERNISM

The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:

Modernism

Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence

Postmodernism

Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).

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The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.

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Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]