It turns out irony can be exhausting. Perhaps this is why Venturi's project, as smart as it is, failed to produce a consistently interesting, popular architecture despite a thriving sense of irony in other areas of culture (namely literature and skinny jeans). When writing Complexity & Contradiction, Venturi bemoaned that architects had missed the "vivid lessons of Pop Art" which seems a bit dated in the wake of Silodam and the wave of other projects aspiring to Dutch Collage. A more careful analysis of how Venturi & Scott Brown's writing was perverted from a rallying cry against orthodoxy into a mandate to rummage through history will have to wait for later in the course of this study, but for now we can concern ourselves with a more fundamental question.
The manner in which a building communicates visually to the city is of prime importance to this topic of populism and for the moment we will limit ourselves to a discussion just of the surface. It's an unlikely mix, but I would like to use four projects to begin developing a catalog of ways in which buildings use their exterior surfaces to develop meaning within the city.
OMA's China Central Television building
Using image to explain the interior
Although Arup's clever articulated diagrid has been much debated, I've heard little discussion of the proposal to decorate CCTV with images and text that pertain to the contents of the building. The rhetoric of the project is based on a desire to unify the production of TV content into one continuous loop and to then expose this process to the people of China by inviting them on a tour through that loop. In a building of this scale the architects have given up any hope that the building may communicate its internal workings through means of actual transparency or abstract formal manipulations. Instead, the text and images on the exterior of the building would serve as a broadcasting version of what will always remain a closed, interior tour. Despite being consistent with their work, there is a slightly gross air of facetiousness in this approach coming from OMA. The building, looking now like a newspaper, is further than ever from being a clear read.
Klein Dytham's Heidi House
Using image to charm
The vitality of Klein Dytham's work stems from their unabashed use of cutting edge graphics. They are not ashamed of the two dimensional. Although the Heidi House is a rather clever formal and tectonic response to Japan's strict fire regulations, its most striking feature is the graphic treatment of the facade. Here, the Austrian motif cut into the facade is literally the only thing keeping the building from blending into an otherwise very skillful but undifferentiated collection of Japanese minimalist projects. The detailing of the facade is important in establishing the acceptability of the building. Had the cut panels formed the exterior surface of the wall assembly rather than the interior one the cuts would perhaps read as needless decoration. By swallowing the perforations into the depth of the wall they become mixed with the interior, the traditional realm of decorative indulgence, and thus inspire a sort of coy charm. In the architects' own words, "the important thing is everyone seems to smile when they walk past!"
Robert Stern's 15 Central Park West
Using image to blend in
As Goldberger points out, Stern is no longer in the territory of historical pastiche, he has moved on to something more akin to time travel. Regardless of the rhetoric he may use to defend the project, there are two things that the image of history achieves for Stern: his building blends in rather well with its neighbors and the sale prices are stratospheric. The price Stern pays for his time travel is that his building contributes nothing to architecture as a cultural endeavor. Even the plans are developed in a highly cellular manner that is foreign to contemporary ideas about domestic space. This is no bait and switch: it's a true historical artifact! Nevertheless, it's interesting to note that the sales video for the building discusses the historical quality of the building in terms of image and icon--how natural it will be in the central park skyline and how dignified the stone looks. Even the urban scheme (a low building on the park side of the block and a tower along the avenue separated by a courtyard) was driven by a desire to ensure that both masses would fuse into a phenomenal whole when seen from the park, akin to the optical flattening of the dome at Palladio's Saint Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.
FAT's Islington Square social housing
Using image to seem familiar
Familiarity is the most nuanced aspiration of those in question here. Eschewing mimesis, the familiar must parody, distort, multiply, abstract or otherwise evoke a known prototype. The happiness of Islington's residents attests to the fact that abstraction can be populist but the question is what makes this sort of abstraction palatable whereas VSBA's more graphic projects seems so lackluster? At Islington, the street elevation is comprised of various traditional housing silhouettes merged into one strip as if Marey had turned his eye to architectural evolution. Although there were certainly pomo experiments that attempted to merge multiple fragments into a new whole, what makes Islington successful is a level of formal abstraction and graphic savvy that creates an exciting ambiguity in the part-to-whole relationship. Elements like the thin concrete trim around the edge of the facade and consistent balconies and window boxes act as constants which reinforce the overall wholeness of the elevation while the variegated roof line and brick patterning are freed to lend differentiation to individual units. Although FAT's practice has clearly learned a lot from VSBA they are contributing a new level of graphic sophistication (a skill which architects, though they rarely admit it, seriously lack) which gives the work an integrity beyond the signboard experiments of their intellectual forbearers. Whereas VSBA lets the rest of their building be comfortably 'generic,' FAT favors a much cleaner, simplified architecture that allows the graphic elements to stand in higher contrast.
And then we come to this, which shatters our assumptions about FAT simply evoking familiar imagery. A box in a land of boxes; smokestacks that mark the skyline but also form part of an iconic representation of factory; abstract, iconographic, and real trees cohabiting; modernist allusion; a riot of color... what is it?
Overwhelmed, I attempted to neuter the image by de-saturating and flipping it so as to get a more objective look at things. Still, the transition of the floating, modernist sheet metal box into a skyline illusion, into an iconographic allusion, into a pragmatic announcement of identity is an extremely nuanced development. Beyond a simple both/and ambiguity, this roof line approaches a condition of multiplicity that refuses to settle into any condition of dominance. The autonomy of the architectural element's participation within the ensemble (floating box on top of grounded box) is deflated by being forced to operate in multiple modes at the same time. This has some nice resonances with foamspace and demands a new way of considering part-to-wholeness.