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Art of self-promotion

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review - Architecture as Signs and Systems By Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Harvard University Press, 2004. 251pp. £22.95

The real subject of this book is the careers of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

To a degree, it is the acknowledged subject, but it is also the subject in ways not planned or intended. The invitation from Harvard to give the lectures on which the book is based apparently suggested a backward look on their lives in practice, and this called forth from Venturi an unhealthy interest in his place in history.

His extremely valuable books of the 1960s and early 1970s, Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas (written together with Scott Brown), become bugbears, tormenting the reader of the present book. They are frequently mentioned by name, and their titles are also buried as phrases in the text which pop up in a conversation about something else. Looking at present architectural confusion, Venturi wonders if it could all spring from a misunderstanding of the ideas promulgated in Complexity and Contradiction.

Talking about writers who articulated his ideas before he did, like Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he calls them precursors. Elsewhere he refers to 'the idea he introduced over 50 years ago which dominates architectural thinking and practice today'.

Scott Brown is not given to such exaggerated claims on her own behalf, but asserts that Bob taught Louis Kahn all the older man knew about history, contrary to what you may hear outside this book. Her account of growing up in South Africa and bringing a non-Western perspective, first to the Architectural Association in the Smithson years and later to Las Vegas, casts a new light on the populism of the firm's work - a populism that has previously seemed primarily aesthetic, not conscience-stricken. Here she links it to the civil rights movement, a connection that may mean more to her than it does to her husband.

Venturi's half of the present production comes first and constitutes a kind of rolling advertisement for the work, not just the books, but the ideas borrowed from them and distorted by others, and the buildings that embody them. For many people who liked the books, the buildings were a stumbling block from the start. Work like Guild House in Philadelphia did not seem to contain the richness advocated by the criticism, but rather to offer a two-dimensional and jokey travesty of the ideas.

I have not traced the first appearance of the idea of the billboard in Venturi's writing.

I do not think it loomed large in Complexity and Contradiction; in that book, the author had the tact to save his own work for a later chapter. Now this work clamours for entry from early on and seems to rely more and more on oversized graphics, advertising not a product in the normal sense, but the name of a university building or the badge of the institution. It is as if the ideal client would be a corporation with a logo it wanted to smuggle into everyone's head.

Late in the book a fulfilment is reached with a McDonald's in Florida by the Venturis, more fun than usual, but larger and more obtrusive than usual too - the price you must pay for architecture.

Billboards surface repeatedly in Venturi's skating-trips through architectural history. Egyptian pylons are pre-Information Age billboards; Gothic cathedral facades are 3D billboards in the middle of cities;

Elizabethan prodigy houses are billboards advertising their owners; and if only medieval stained glass artists had had neon, what couldn't they have done? His prose style has come under the influence of the billboard;

now he turns to bullet points when he has something important to say - bullet points enhanced by lots of capital letters for important and unimportant words alike.

The new book is self-consciously Advertisements for Myself and Setting the Record Straight, but it also, unwittingly, shows a progress from lively curiosity about the world and responsiveness to it toward defending the old perceptions as intellectual property and personal identity.

Now the old Las Vegas they described in 1972 is good and the new Las Vegas that replaced it is bad. Now he tries to formulate a theory that will get the world back on track following those ideas he laid out so many years ago, that everyone else has been thoughtlessly deviating from ever since.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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