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Notes from an Architect's Desk – Sixth in the Series

The author Bhaskar Barua is a Guwahati-based Architect and a founding member of Six, an organisation that works to generate public awareness about Architecture.

Notes from an Architects Desk – Sixth in the Series

Sentinel Digital Desk

The Modern Movement started enveloping the globe from the beginning of the 20th century. Towards the 1960's, people realised the serious socio-cultural and environmental consequences of this movement. The built environment has varied influences on the psychological well being of individuals.

As people were in a way forced to live in new high rise apartments in cities, traditional social and community based practices were broken apart. An apt example of this is Chandigarh, Modern India's first "planned" city. Laid out in grids, with wide roads, separate residential, commercial and institutional areas and with adequate scope of expanding, Chandigarh has absolutely no resemblance to a typical North Indian town or city. The character of a Punjabi mohalla is just not there. Vernacular architecture of a place is always best suited for the climate, not necessarily concrete.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) exposed the failures of Modernism profoundly. While Jacobs was critical about the destruction of the social fabric, Venturi strongly felt that Modernist buildings lacked richness in design. Taking on Mies's famous "Less is More", he cheekily declared "Less is a Bore".

1972 is an important year in the history of this shift away from Modernism. The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis, Missouri, a massive development of several 14-story apartment blocks was demolished only 20 years after being built. Many other buildings in Europe and North America followed suit, these Modern buildings being regarded unlivable. Also in 1972, Venturi (with his wife Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour) published his second book Learning from Las Vegas. Here he suggested the playful architecture and billboards of the Las Vegas highways as a possible inspiration to reconnect man with a more humane scale and experience of the built environment, contrasting with the cold, sleek, glass and monotonous glass facades.

Venturi referred to historical elements in his buildings. These were scaled down to human proportions and often in a humorous way. At his mother Vanna Venturi's retirement home in Pennsylvania, he first put his beliefs into practice. The house is a composition of rectangular, curvilinear, and diagonal elements that may seem to combine with each other just as much as they stand out from one another. The entrance placed at the centre creates a sense of symmetry, which however is broken by the placement and design of the windows. These windows are again based on the functions inside, a Modernist ribbon window for the kitchen on the right and square windows for the bedroom and bathroom on the left. The Gable or pediment roof which is generally placed along the shorter side of a house, was along the longer side of the building thus giving it a distorted look. Inside, spaces were irregular with whimsical elements. Historical elements were used to break the house's plain surface. These included an arch that did not frame the entrance door and an oversized chimney which for Venturi was actually a big middle finger to the established norms. The Vanna Venturi House influenced an entire generation of Architects like Philip Johnson, Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves and Frank Gehry.

In Learning from Las Vegas, he stated, "Some buildings are what they are. Others are only what they appear to be. The former are ducks (referring to the Big Duck, a duck meat and egg shop in the centre of Long Island's well established duck farming industry). The others are decorated sheds." He meant that buildings either derive their form from their usage without a need for signage or external embellishments, or are decorated sheds, where the functions are proclaimed with signage, like in most Modern buildings.

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York City (1978–84) and Michael Graves's Portland Public Service Building in Portland, Oregon (1980–82) are other note-worthy Post Modern buildings. Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans (1975–80) is a colourful building that encourages the public to reclaim their cultural identity.

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971–77), by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers was received with a lot of criticism and disgust by the Parisian public. The exposed circulation, services and structure of the building, the latter two painted in primary colours, was regarded as an outrageous joke in a historic location of Paris. But the design of this Post-Modern building is steeped deep in context. It acknowledges the beliefs and works of the great French Architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) who felt that Architecture should be should be a direct expression of current materials, technology, and functional needs. It is also in alignment with the Modernist ideology of exposing the structure of a building.

Near Paris, the scale of Ricardo Bofill's Les Espaces d'Abraxas in Marne-la-Vallée, a massive housing development in prefabricated concrete, pushed the language of Classicism to its limits.

Critics feel that postmodern architecture is characterised by superficiality, excess, and derivation. But at a more informed state, these designs are deep rooted in historic as well as local design contexts.

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