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Relearning from Las Vegas: Robert Venturi and the Politics of Postmodern Architecture

Abstract: This paper examines the writings of the postmodern architectural theorist Robert Venturi. Unlike most examinations of his ideas, however, this essay analyzes the political meanings and implications of Venturi’s works. In essence, this article considers Venturi’s preference for Las Vegas’ fun and fantasy-style architecture to be an important critique of the political and social ideas that dominated the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Venturi’s ideas are considered relative to the criticisms raised by opponents of postmodernism, especially those arguments which contend that postmodernism is socially and politically complacent. Ultimately, this article favors Venturi’s rejection of aesthetic modernism and asserts that modern architecture is undemocratic because it ignores the values, desires, and opinions of common citizens.

Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas continues to engage both its critics and supporters nearly thirty years after it was first published. Venturi’s 1972 manifesto in favor of Las Vegas’ fun and escapist architectural style challenged the doctrines of architectural modernism by asserting that architects should be more receptive to the values and tastes of “common”people. He challenged architects to pay closer attention to the popular architecture styles that were coming to dominate not only Nevada’s largest city but also suburbs throughout the United States. In doing so, he argued that modernism’s penchant for heroic and abstract forms should be replaced with an architecture that is “ugly and ordinary” (Venturi, 1994; 90).

Las Vegas has grown and changed considerably since Venturi first penned his defense of the city’s architecture. However, the city’s devotion to amusing and fantasy-like architectural styles and Las Vegas’ popularity as a tourist destination remain as strong as ever. Moreover, Las Vegas’ once unique brand of non-serious architecture seems to be appearing and reappearing in cities and locales throughout North America.

Given the increasing “ordinariness” of these types of forms it seems wise to revisit Venturi’s ideas and to consider their ramification beyond the realm of mere architecture. Venturi framed his argument as a battle between the views of elitist architects and common citizens. Moreover, architectural modernism was commonly dedicated to connecting the design and creation of built spaces with the attainment of mass socio-political goals. Hence, within this highly politicized context this work seeks to consider the political and social impact of Las Vegas-style architecture.

Robert Venturi: A Postmodern Urbanism

The roots of postmodern architecture are generally traced back to the writings of Robert Venturi.1 Venturi’s 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction, provided a scathing criticism of modern architecture, while Learning from Las Vegas, which he co-wrote with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in 1972, established many of the principles upon which the soon-to-emerge postmodern architectural movement would be based. In critiquing modernism, Venturi replaced Mies Van Der Rohe’s famous modern dictum “Less is more” with his own pronouncement that “Less is a bore” (Venturi, 1977; 17). He argued that modern architecture impoverished itself by rejecting ornamentation and the rich tradition of iconography in historical architecture and by ignoring the connotative expression it substituted for decoration. When it cast out eclecticism, he maintained, modern architecture submerged symbolism in favor of expressionism. According to Venturi, to replace ornament and explicit symbolism, modern architects indulged in distortion and overarticulation. As a result, according to Venturi, modern architecture became too planned, too architectural, too dry, too boring and in the end irresponsible (Venturi, 1994; 103).

In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi argued that architects should be more receptive to the tastes and values of “common” people and less inclined to erect heroic, self-aggrandizing monuments. He called on architects to replace modernism’s preference for rational, functional buildings with structures that emphasize “playful”, non-serious, and eclectic styles. Venturi argued that a “messy vitality” should replace modernism’s “obvious unity” and that “hybrid” elements should be used to replace modernism’s “pure” ones (Ibid., 53). He also criticized modern architecture for attempting to achieve progressive social and political aims that were simply impossible to attain in reality (Ibid., 103). This perceived “failure” of modern architecture was a major aspect of Venturi’s critique of modernism and in the decades to follow would become one of the central arguments used against modernism by postmodern architects and theorists.

Like Disneyland, Venturi viewed Las Vegas as a “pleasure zone” where visitors are engulfed in a new role in order to forget the hostilities of the outside world. According to Venturi, such pleasure zones require architecture that is “light”. He argued that the Las Vegas “Strip” shows the vitality that may be achieved by an architecture of inclusion and in contrast reveals the boredom that results from too great a preoccupation with tastefulness and total design. For Venturi, the Strip “shows the value of symbolism and allusion in an architecture of vast space and speed and proves that people, even architects, have fun with architecture that reminds them of something else” (Ibid., 53).

Venturi maintained that architects who find middle-class social aspirations distasteful and prefer uncluttered architectural forms recognize the symbolism in places like Las Vegas but do not accept it. For them, he argued, the symbolic decoration of the split-level suburban home represents the “debased, materialistic values of a consumer economy where people are brainwashed by mass marketing” (Ibid., 153). He claimed that by rejecting these forms, modern architects have promoted the role of the social sciences in architecture and rejected whole sets of “dominant social patterns because they do not like the architectural consequences of those patterns.” (Ibid., 154). Moreover, Venturi argued that in dismissing the architectural value of the Strip modern architects also discount its simple and practical organization, which meets the needs of the sensibilities in an “automobile environment of big spaces and fast movement, including the need for explicit and heightened symbolism.” (Ibid., 153).

Venturi called for an “ordinary” and less socially coercive architecture to replace the heroic and monumental architecture of the past. He also argued for a return to symbolism in architecture and maintained that Las Vegas is in fact the victory of symbols-in-space over forms-in-space. According to Venturi, to find symbolism one must go to Las Vegas and to the suburban edges of existing cities that are “symbolically rather than formalistically attractive and represent the aspirations of almost all Americans”. (Ibid., 161). Venturi cited the fact that people take pleasure from sprawl and the suburbs as a sufficiently compelling reason to learn from these forms (Ibid., 154).

It is important to note that Venturi did not, however, reject modernism as an entirely irrelevant or insufficient architectural mode. What he did object to, however, is the notion that modernism signifies the teleological culmination of built spaces and as such represents the “end of history” for architecture. He saw Modern architecture as a beginning, not an end – and a beginning interpreted in the context of history”. (Venturi, 1996; 94).

As would be expected, Venturi’s opposition to architectural modernism has itself received considerable criticism. Opponents of Venturi, and of postmodern architecture, in general, have described postmodernism’s penchant for popular attitudes and tastes as “complacent”. Critics have similarly argued that Venturi and the postmodern aesthetic’s uncritical stance simply work to reinforce the hegemony of capitalism and capitalistic institutions and the immense power that they already have over all aspects of contemporary society. These criticisms, among a variety of others, have been levied against postmodern architecture by a number of different theorists, including, perhaps most notably, Frederic Jameson. Through examining the arguments of Jameson and other opponents of Venturi and postmodern architecture, the remainder of this work will attempt to ascertain the political and social ramifications and “meanings” of Venturi’s ideas about Las Vegas.

Venturi, the Frankfurt School, and “The Masses”

One of the more controversial aspects of Venturi’s writings, and of postmodernism, in general, centers on postmodernism’s tendency to embrace popular tastes. The debate between modernists and postmodernists over the extent to which people’s desires should be considered in architecture can be seen as merely a continuation of the long debate among intellectuals over the true moral character of the masses. Moreover, it recalls the debates between early Marxists and the Frankfurt school over their respective assessments of the working class and popular culture. Throughout the twentieth century academics and intellectuals, particularly among the political left, incorporated into their theories conceptualizations of the masses that have varied greatly. Not surprisingly these interpretations, whether negative or positive, tend to change in such a way as to reinforce the particular political arguments made by those who created them. For example, the early Marxists tended to idealize the masses by viewing them as the noble and brave leaders of the impending revolution to come and of the new society to follow. Later, the Frankfurt School altered the general Marxian view of the masses by arguing that popular culture and social conformity had led the working classes, now negatively viewed, away from their revolutionary destinies and towards the development of a false consciousness that reinforced the authoritarian structures of modern society.

The Frankfurt School’s view of the masses contrasts sharply with the one held by the other “schools” of Marxism. The Situationists of the 1960, for example, held a remarkably positive opinion of common people and believed that the masses would be capable of successfully carrying out a revolution spontaneously and without the benefit or support of the communist party. In doing so, the Situationists very much followed in the tradition of Marxist anarchists like the Bakunin and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who inverted the ideas of Marx and Engels by arguing that if the state was destroyed first, then capitalism would soon follow (Ozinga, 1987; 57). Hence, Frederic Jameson, the Situationists, and those associated with the Frankfurt School were all similar to other Marxists in that they took full advantage of the fluidity offered by Marx’s and Engels’ vague descriptions of the events that would occur immediately following the proletarian revolution by constructing their own preferred post-revolutionary scenarios.

Venturi seems to seek a middle ground in his own assessment of the middle and proletarian classes in that his views lie somewhere between the naïve praise and blind faith shared by the Situationists and early Marxists and the perhaps overly critical and negative views held by the Frankfurt school. For him, the masses are neither fully capable nor entirely incapable, they are neither totally righteous nor wholly amoral, and they are filled with neither bravery nor cowardice. Venturi is neutral, or at least engages in no assessment of the values, ideas, and moral character of the masses. However, he does privilege the working class to the extent that he believes that the built environment should be informed by and considerate of the thoughts and preferences of the masses. The argument can be easily made that these views are entirely too complacent to take seriously. Still, when contrasted with those of early Marxism, the Frankfurt school, and a variety of other dogmatic philosophies of the twentieth century, Venturi’s ideas do distinguish themselves for their realistic and flexible nature, their refreshing lack of blind faith or cynicism, and their likely proximity to the truth.

Venturi’s writings do provide the middle class with a tremendous amount of agency in terms of the influence that they will have upon the built environment that surrounds them. However, Venturi’s architecture shares the same dilemma and challenge generally faced by all democratic institutions that purport to represent and carry out the “interests of the people”. Both Venturi and political representatives in a democracy must labor tremendously and engage in a great deal of interpretation in order to truly understand the preferences of those that they claim to represent. However, there are a number of reasons to question the fundamental soundness of Venturi’s rendering of working class preferences.

Venturi’s assumption that the masses enjoy Las Vegas and suburban-style architecture seems foundationless. He implies that the voluntary presence of millions of tourists in Las Vegas indicates a preference for the architectural styles that exist in the desert city. However, there are a number of reasons, other than the architecture, why people might choose to visit Las Vegas. Along with its near monopoly on high stakes gambling, Las Vegas also offers a number of recreational options and weather-related benefits that might be attractive to vacationers. Furthermore, an enjoyable weekend stay in Las Vegas does necessarily indicate a desire to live among fantasy-style buildings on a permanent or non-vacation basis. Venturi nearly acknowledges the short term attraction of such experiences when he asserts that one of the benefits of Las Vegas for working class vacationers is that “for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesar’s Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa, or an architect from Haddonfield, New Jersey.” (Venturi, 1994; 53). It seems that the rather transitory nature of this experience – the key words in this respect being “three days” – might be an indication that there may indeed be a desire on the part of some people to temporarily escape from the routine of their everyday lives and to enter a world of fantasy and wonderment. However, these fleeting inclinations by no means provide a justification for filling America’s urban and suburban landscapes with what Venturi refers to as “pleasure zone” architecture.

Similarly, people choose to live in the suburbs for a number of reasons other than because of the fact that they may like the architectural styles prevalent in these spaces. The development of suburban living can be attributed to a number of factors, including socio-political reasons, the American penchant for home ownership, and a tax system that privileges home ownership and hence spurs continued homebuilding. Furthermore, the lack of variety found in suburban tract homes and in shopping mall-style stores generally makes them both inexpensive and easy to build. Consequently, the predominance of these architectural expressions may be due to their cost-effectiveness rather than to the popularity of their aesthetic features among suburbanites.

Venturi may very well enjoy looking at or even designing these spaces. But there is also the possibility that he chose to privilege these architectural expressions simply because they lie in complete contradiction to the modern and International styles he most vehemently opposed. This is not meant to assert that Venturi should not play the role of the contrarian, for there is often much to learn when theorists assume such positions. However, if he desires to do so then he should have admitted as much or else found other bases for objecting to modernism. Instead, it seems as though he may have attempted to co-opt the opinions of the masses into his theory simply to provide a seemingly altruistic and democratic foundation for his own aesthetic views. Moreover, Venturi’s linking of Las Vegas-style architecture with middle class preferences, rather than claiming that he himself simply prefers these forms, can also be seen as a means of further distancing himself from those intellectual modernists who tend to suspect middle class views.

Either way, Venturi’s writings inevitably appear to come from a vantage point quite removed from those of the middle classes. Furthermore, they are a perpetuation of the patronizing and simplistic views that intellectuals generally hold of the masses. Hence, although he claims that they are important, Venturi does not come any closer to understanding the middle classes than most intellectuals do. These criticisms are not intended to deny that there is any value to Venturi’s theory. On the contrary, as I have explained previously, I do find his argument to be fundamentally sound and remarkably convincing. However, I do object to many of the justifications that Venturi provides for his ideas and the way that he characterizes the middle class.

Venturi, Frederic Jameson, and the Tradition of the Frankfurt School

The modern critique of postmodern architecture can also be seen as a continuation of the Frankfurt School-style critique of popular culture and the masses by virtue of the fact that there are striking similarities between the patronizing and dismissive tones of those criticisms and the ones levied against postmodern architecture by modernists today. The complete and immediate dismissal of suburban and Las Vegas-style architecture on the part of contemporary modernists is reminiscent of the arrogant and condescending enlightenment-inspired tendency to claim knowledge over that which humanity needs in order to improve individual lives as well as collective societies and polities. Moreover, the automatic dismissal of mass preferences as uneducated and ill-informed, along with the privileging of elite formulations and desires, is also reminiscent of this same attitude in which academics, intellectuals, and professionals assign themselves the responsibility of ascertaining the real needs of the masses and the larger society.

From this perspective it can be argued that many modern critics of postmodern architecture are simply applying a “false consciousness argument” to the masses’ supposed infatuation with Las Vegas and popular architectural styles. Additional support for this claim is supplied by the fact that critics tend to associate postmodernism with capitalism, as in the Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson’s labeling of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (Jameson 1984; 59-92). Furthermore, postmodern architecture has a close relationship to and affinity for pop art, which is well-noted for its fixation with both commodity culture and popular art forms.

Specific arguments in the tradition of the Frankfurt School which have been levied against postmodern architecture, and more specifically against the ideas of Venturi, can be found in the writings of many anti-postmodernists, including Jameson. Jameson has asserted that postmodern architecture acts in collusion with the rhetoric of populism, consumer capitalism, and mass culture, all of which he indicates an extreme aversion to, in a way that reinforces the “commodity fetishism” of the masses (Jameson 1994; 9). He further asserts that people have become immersed in and addicted to images, largely resulting from the dominance of the popular art form of television, which makes attractive to them the alienating superficiality and depthlessness of postmodern architecture. He applauds the works of modern writers, artists, and architects like Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Berthold Brecht, and Le Corbusier for critiquing the world in which they lived while simultaneously offering utopian alternatives to it (Ibid., 6-10; 11-16; 41; and 50).

Jameson’s broad, crude generalizations about mass culture recall those of the Frankfurt School and deny the possibility that others may gain profound insight from certain art experiences that either he does not like or that he simply does not understand. Jameson’s characterizations of mass culture assume a position of authority over the easily influenced masses by purporting to know the bases for their aesthetic tastes and by seemingly characterizing those preferences as misguided, counter-productive to humanity’s actual needs, and inadequate in comparison to ‘high culture’. Hence, by claiming that their aesthetic preferences are based on a system of values that is unsophisticated, ultimately harmful, and artificially constructed, Jameson is ultimately denying the masses the capacity to determine for themselves that which should appeal to them.

Moreover, in his critique of the postmodern era and in his tendency to exalt modernism, Jameson commits the same error that many who are nostalgic for past eras are often guilty of making, which is to grandly idealize and narrowly define the past in such a way as to advantage their own arguments. Jameson characterizes contemporary culture as synonymous with popular culture while assuming that the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by the great masters of modernistic high culture that he prefers. As a result, he neglects to consider or recall mass culture’s popularity and social impact during that period as well. He seems to assume that music, for example, during the modern era was dominated by modernists like Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and John Cage, and not by more popular musical forms like jazz, ragtime, or the blues. Similarly, as John Docker asks with regard to Jameson’s selective historical memory: “Why for the 1920s should we take modernism as the ‘cultural dominant’, and not Hollywood and the new electronic mass culture?” (Docker, 1994; 126). By ignoring the impact and popularity of mass culture during the early twentieth century, Jameson unfairly demonizes the contemporary arts and postmodern culture and forces comparisons between this era and the previous one that are unfair, irrelevant, and incomplete.

Ultimately, there is much to learn from Jameson and his criticisms of Venturi. The differences between these theorists’ ideas and purported aims helps to illustrate that the contemporary debate between these two architectural approaches can be seen as a simple conflict between those who are intent on constructing spaces based on their perceptions of humanity’s needs and those who are dedicated to building architectural spaces based on their perceptions of the desires of the masses. While Venturi may not truly understand the likes and dislikes of the masses as accurately as he claims, he at least restrains from being as patronizing and condescending towards them as Jameson often is. Moreover, from a political standpoint, Jameson’s critique of popular culture could be extended to form a basis and justification for censorship and the rule of the elite, which seems contradictory to many of the tenets of modern politics. Conversely, Venturi’s arrogance, though at times almost as frustrating as Jameson’s, does not have consequences that are as potentially dramatic or authoritarian. Hence, in the end, it is the politically neutral Venturi, not Jameson, who ironically writes the better prescription for a politicized architecture.

Postmodern Architecture and the Postmodern Architect

Architecture is probably more closely linked to economic concerns than any other art form. Economic fluctuations, the budgetary constraints of the architect’s client, and local building and zoning codes all have a major impact on the planning and designing of architectural spaces. The widespread adoption of a Venturian architectural program would likely deepen the relationship between architecture and economics. Absent a social purpose, a devotion to form and function, and a commitment to decreasing spatial alienation between humanity and the built environment, architecture is left without any goals to accomplish other than to please and entertain people. As a result, the success of architects would likely become inextricably linked to their ability to compete against other architects in the open market. Hence, it could come to pass that an architect’s dedication to middle class preferences could no longer be an option which they are encouraged to choose as much as it might become a near necessity to which they must adhere in order to survive. This does not necessarily imply that many architectural expressions would become inadequate under such a system, however, it is likely that these circumstances would stifle the individual creativity of the architect and fundamentally alter the nature of architecture itself.

These heightened economic considerations, working in concert with the abandonment of architecture’s socio-political mission, might also lead to an environment in which the logic of capitalism could come to fill the vacuous space left by the postmodern rejection of the ethical concerns possessed by the modern architectural and political projects. The absence of such standards for minimally determining acceptable and unacceptable intentions and standards would likely give carte blanche to the market to define social, political, and aesthetic values and norms simply by virtue of the fact that capitalism would likely be the only system still pervasive in all aspects of collective life. However, it can be argued that capitalism is severely deficient as an aesthetic and ethical order as it seems to have no larger goal than its own perpetuity. Hence, the “invisible hand of capitalism” as an agent for determining social and political order would likely generate only self-serving values insufficient for governing collective behavior.

In conclusion, Venturi’s well-intentioned critique of modern architecture could likely lead to an aesthetic Darwinism in which those most able to communicate or spread their own ideas to the masses through merit, coercion, or subtle public relations efforts could come dominate architecture. This hegemony would then be reinforced by a system of aesthetics which privileges those same aesthetic styles and ideas simply by virtue of the fact that they are the ideas preferred by the masses. Furthermore, lacking a basis for meaningful discourse on architecture and devoid of any objective criteria for judging the relative worth of aesthetic works and systems, we are again left accepting and in fact praising those styles which are already or were at some time predominant. This would not only constrict the range of stylistic expressions found in architecture, but also limit the political and sociological possibilities that can be envisioned for and from the built environment. As a result, architecture would become less of a liberating and reconceptualizing force and instead assume the role of merely reiterating popular preferences. Gone would be the efforts of architects and theorists who attempted to rectify humanity’s ills through the construction of the built environment. Utopian efforts such as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or Le Corbusier’s complete redesigning of Paris would be replaced with those far less ambitious efforts which merely conform to the logic of free-market economics or the tide of popular opinion.2

Postmodernism and Complacency

Another concern of Jameson with regard to postmodern theories of urbanism is his allegation that postmodernism is an essentially complacent theoretical system. He asserts that postmodernism’s alleged indifference to capitalism and its abandonment of a social purpose for art have caused architecture to disengage itself from the realms of the social, the economic, and the political. According to Jameson, this complacency breeds conservatism, not only because it does not seek to change the status quo, but more importantly, because it celebrates the dominant culture. The results of this, he asserts, work to broaden the influence and dominance of the existing social, political, economic, and cultural elite (Ibid., 9 and 46).

Postmodernism can be seen as deconstructing the very theoretical bases for such an objection, given the movement’s lack of concern for the relationship between politics and art, its tendency to privilege play over rationality, and its skepticism toward deciphering causal relationships. Hence, a plausible response that postmodernists might make to the allegation that their movement breeds complacency would be one of immediate dismissal on the grounds that such an accusation is irrelevant. However, some supporters for Venturi and postmodernism, like Docker, actually engage Jameson’s argument about complacency and assert that postmodernism merely appropriates the symbolism of capitalism, such as its signs and billboards, in order to enhance urban space (Docker, 1994; 115-128). Similarly, Venturi himself asserts that postmodern works of architecture are analogous to Pop Art, especially to the prints of Roy Lichtenstein, in that they both use images of popular culture to hint at satire, irony, and sorrow (Venturi, 1994; 162).

John Fiske breaks into the two-way dialogue between the defenders and the critics of Venturi and postmodernism to offer a very different perspective. He asserts that the current debate over the subject of complacency merely offers an overly simplistic and altogether incomplete dichotomy of possible conceptualizations of mass culture by assuming that popular culture is either inauthentic and imposed from above, or, the opposite, that is, grass roots in origin and hence free from the realm of cultural domination. Instead, Fiske asserts that people do not receive culture in a passive and indifferent fashion, rather they subjectively transform it in order to construct their own meanings and identities both from and into works of art. As such, he argues that sometimes culture reinforces the dominant social forces, sometimes it opposes them, and sometimes it works to simultaneously denounce and reinforce different aspects of a given reality (Fiske, 1989).

Fiske’s argument implies that the masses can, in a sense, engage with works of art in a manner that is somewhat analogous to the way that the artists who produced them did. In other words, in addition to garnering from art works heavily individualized interpretations, the masses, like the artists who originally created them, are able to infuse the works with subjectively constructed meanings. In this way, those for whom the works are intended are not only the audiences who witness or experience artists at play, but they are also very much involved in and with those very same works. Hence, the audience, the viewer, the voyeur, the reader, and the city dweller, can all be regarded as engaging in play when experiencing music, art, theater, literature, or architecture. As a result, each can also be seen as reaping from those experiences the same benefits as the artist.

If Fiske’s assertion that audiences often transform works of art in order to construct their own meanings is correct, then not only is it possible to formulate rather compelling arguments against the notion that postmodernism is complacent, but such an argument also makes postmodernism’s preference for a playful architecture seem ironically useful toward achieving the emancipatory goals established by the modernists. For progressive-minded modernists who wish to free the masses from the alienation, isolation, and monotony of their daily lives, the playful architecture produced through postmodernism can be seen as allowing such a liberation to occur. The feeling of subjectively interacting with and appropriating meanings upon the seemingly unchanging built environment that surrounds them on a daily basis would likely be an empowering experience for the masses. These feelings of possessing authority over one’s environment in the domain of physical space could also be seen as transferring to the realms of the political and the social and hence could influence one’s actions in those realms as well.

Moreover, playful architecture can also be viewed as possessing the potential to liberate common people by virtue of the fact that the fun and non-serious styles inherent in such works are likely to lie in opposition to most peoples’ experiences in the automated, post-industrial world. This juxtaposition could begin to cause people to consider the construction of alternative realities. Also, the contrast between these two different actualities could be interpreted by citizens as a mockery of the ideas of the existing cultural, social, and political elite. Again, the political consequences that could manifest themselves from this are subversive in nature.

Moreover, if Fiske’s ideas about the transformative tendencies of common citizens are combined with Venturi’s assertion that architectural spaces should truly be informed by and based upon the desires and values of the masses, then postmodern architecture can be regarded as providing the masses with the ability to actually dictate how built spaces will be designed. In this instance, the social and political consequences might very well be deemed almost secondary, since the power of the masses to control and impose meanings is so profound and far-reaching and since this cultural ascendancy, in and of itself, has such a tremendous impact on power relationships.

Hence, in summary, the playful elements inherent in postmodern architecture can be envisioned as possessing the potential to provide citizens with the agency needed to seize control over their lives through giving them the ability to impose their own meanings upon such works. This would, in turn, be a realization of modernism’s belief that architecture can aid in accomplishing social and political goals. These possible scenarios are of course dependent on the assumption that people will in fact attempt to exert their influence upon the meanings inherent in the works of art that they experience. This assumption, however, is based on a further supposition, which is that culture emanates from the masses and hence is free from hierarchical control and relations of domination. While Fiske argues that this situation does often occur, he also asserts that it is not always the case. Instead, he claims that culture is sometimes dominated by and disseminated from the elite and that in these instances culture frequently does nothing more than to reinforce the status quo.

As such, in order for architecture to have a significant impact on democratic social and political institutions a broad range of ideas and values must be invoked by and communicated through the medium. However, the unrealized utopian dreams of many architectural modernists help to illustrate the social and political limits of architecture. Postmodern architects, like Venturi, seemed to have learned from the failures of modernism and its inclination toward totalistic designs and goals. As such, rather than being complacent or conservative, postmodernists like Venturi are simply more aware than their modern counterparts of the limits of architecture.

A similar argument is offered by Charles Jencks, a noted proponent of postmodernism, who in his work, Heteropolis, praises postmodern architecture for its commitment to heterogeneity and pluralism but argues that

architecture, even when pluralistic, is never enough. It is no answer to the lack of effective political pluralism, which can be created only by civic institutions, prevailing customs and concerted willpower. Architecture can accomplish much by accepting and celebrating homogeneity, but it is no substitute for better politics, economic opportunities and community cohesion. (Jencks, 1993; 77).
As Jencks indicates, even politically engaged postmodernists hold onto the realistic notion that democratic built environments separate from legislative, economic, and communal reforms can only have a limited effect upon politics and society and as such must be part of larger and more multi-facetted solutions to problems which may exist in these realms. Furthermore, despite his preference for and emphasis on heterogeneity and pluralism, Jencks contends that postmodern architecture “embraces shared and universal values” (Ibid., 9). For some this assertion might seem contrary to traditional notions of postmodernism and hence be regarded as variation of the approach. Others, however, may view this as consistent with Venturi’s privileging of middle class values and preferences and thus constitutive of conventional postmodernism. Either way, Jencks’s description of postmodernism does show significant and persistent linkages to modernism’s notion of a socially and politically engaged aesthetic.

Similarly, Venturi is not asserting an opposition to politics, as some Dadaists and surrealists did, for example. Instead, he is arguing that socio-political aims should not guide and determine architecture entirely. Moreover, many of Venturi’s ideas and the postmodern aesthetic’s basic tenets, such as the privileging of individual subjectivity and the propensity to reject traditional narratives and aesthetic forms, actually offer strong bases for further exploring the possibilities for democracy and political progress. This helps to further elucidate the potential linkages between political modernity and aesthetic postmodernity as well as the possibility for an agreeable coexistence of these two distinct theoretical positions. Hence, Venturi’s writings should ultimately be regarded as both politically engaged and consistent with the precepts of political modernity.

The Politics of the Architecturally Mundane

Like Venturi other architectural critics have similarly written about the mundane and many have specifically considered the relationship between the architecturally mundane and the achievement of the political goals and ideas associated with modernity. For example, Guy Debord and the Situationist movement in the arts and philosophy worked to link notions of the ordinary with political empowerment. Debord was inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, in which the author explained that the mundane and dull nature of daily life is what leads people to despairingly seek contentment in the accumulation of commodities. Debord contended that everyday life is what humans should have the greatest control over and hence believed that social space should be transformed and reinterpreted in order to change the daily experiences of the masses. To achieve this, Debord argued for the creation of spaces that would allow unregulated, playful activity to occur.

While both Venturi and Debord agree about the benefits of a playful architecture their views on the architecturally mundane contrast sharply. However, just as the far-reaching goals that modernists like Debord sought to achieve should not be regarded as “more political” than Venturi’s objectives, the heroic and symbolic spaces preferred by modernists should likewise not be considered more ambitious than the ordinary spaces favored by Venturi. In fact, his preference for the architecturally mundane is what makes Venturi’s writings most unique. Moreover, Venturi believes that many of the failures of modern architecture were caused by those who ignored both the value of these ordinary spaces and the tastes of those who preferred such spaces. Hence, for Venturi, it is only through embracing the mundane that architecture can once again be made relevant to those persons for whom such spaces were ostensibly designed to serve.

This essay argues in favor of the ideas of Venturi and postmodern architectural theory and calls for the rejection of the modern aesthetic’s meta-narratives. As has been shown, many aspects of postmodernism’s critique of modernity are indeed valid. Moreover, a fully rational aesthetic theory not only restricts aesthetic subjectivity but also is oblivious to the desires and tastes of common people. In this respect, aesthetic modernism actually suffers from the same weakness that modern political ideas hope to remedy as, according to the tenets of political modernism, modern governments and modern political ideas are ostensibly supposed to be concerned with each citizen’s wants and opinions. Due to its indifference toward the opinions of individual citizens, the modern aesthetic is far less democratic than the postmodern aesthetic. Furthermore, as has been illustrated, the ideas of Venturi and of postmodernism, in general, can be regarded as consistent with many of the tenets and goals of political modernity.

Also, Venturi’s writings show that a mundane and, in his words “ordinary” or “boring” architecture is one that is actually quite consistent with the ideals of democracy (Venturi, 1994; 102). However, despite postmodernism’s conduciveness with democratic ideals, postmodern architects would be well advised to not devote their full aesthetic efforts toward pleasing and serving the masses. The highly subjective aesthetic environment in which artists most beneficially produce their works would no longer exist if they were subjected to such democratic restrictions. Furthermore, if they attempted to do nothing other than to appease popular tastes and desires, then the postmodern movement would not only become a variant of the modern approach, but their works would also become as deterministic as those produced by architectural modernists. As a result, postmodernists would then be subject to the same criticisms, of being responsible for producing boring and monotonous buildings that they once levied against modern architects.


1 Robert Venturi was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925. He received both his BA (1947) and his MA (1950) from Princeton University. He continues to reside in Philadelphia. In addition to Learning From Las Vegas and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venturi’s critiques of modernism and his expressed preference for a new style of urbanism are included in dozens of articles written for professional journals and magazines and in the books, A View from the Campidoglio, The Highway, and Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture. Moreover, he has co-written numerous works with his wife, Denise Scott Brown, as well as with other architectural theorists including Virginia Carroll, Elizabeth Izenour, Steven Izenour, and Paul Hirshorn.

2 Although Bentham’s Panopticon is now thought of as tyrannical, Nicolai Ouroussoff provides an excellent discussion of its original intentions as a humanistic means for achieving moral reform in “Locked Into Post-Utopian Design”, Los Angeles Times. December 30, 1996; Section F, 1:2.

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Author: Anthony Rendon, a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Riverside in June of 2000. His dissertation, The Politics of Play and the Playful, examined the way the “play” impulse has been used by contemporary artists and theorists to link the realms of political and aesthetic theory. In addition to serving as lecturer in the Political Science Department at California State University, Fullerton, he is also the Director of Research Development for the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation.

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