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Redefining function


How urbanism has made us better designers
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] Bob has made a stream of consciousness through everything we stand for, all in one ball, and maybe…

[RV] Maybe we don’t have to talk anymore.

[DSB] Maybe, maybe I won’t manage to talk very much. We… the question is, whether we de-construct it. I’m sure that’s what we will do here, because he’s moved from a view of functionalism, and form follows function through to our ideas of symbolism and all of that, and there’s many ways to step back to illuminate. My role is often… having the same philosophy, and we developed it together… to set it in a broader context. I say that Bob is a profound person, who’s surprisingly broad, and I am a broad person who is surprisingly profound. I’m not intending to boast for either of us, in saying that I think that that’s the way our minds work.

Having said that, there are some other ways of thinking, and some other takes I have on that subject matter, and if we start with the first, I think if you heard him say the name of our book, our most recent book, Architecture as Signs and Systems.  And then we could add, ‘For a Mannerist Time’, that’s in the title too.  But what do the systems mean? Some people take it to mean it’s a system of signs, but in fact, I put that in there because we are so identified now with Las Vegas, and neon.  And, as if the whole of what we talk about is communication at that level of putting a sign on a building, and that is something we’re thrilled by, and we love it, and we think that the way we thought about that, has led to things for us, and for other architects too, to many, many ideas. It’s funny to see those ideas in China and Japan at a scale that huge corporations do, but we don’t much do ourselves, because we don’t get the opportunity.

But Bob once pointed out that 90% of what we do in the office doesn’t have to do with slapping signs on buildings. And so I set out in this book to write a piece on that other 90%.  Well, I really couldn’t write about the other 90%, that would have been many volumes, but the piece I did write about was how my second career in urbanism has brought us subject matter that I think has affected us as designers, and this is very typical of the way I think.  But it’s hard for architects to understand that these subjects aren’t boring and really can make you a better designer. One of my students once said, studying transportation is like taking a bad medicine, it tastes awful, but you get better. He meant you get to be a better designer. So, I try to show ways in which broadening an architect’s palette of subjects – we architects are used to studying history, and we study structures, and we have theories about how you teach history to architecture students who don’t want to read anything – so how do you get them interested in history or structures? Well, how do you teach them social sciences, and transportation, and some of these other fields that have made us really, better designers and so I talked a lot about all of that. So one of my chapters talked about systems and the patterns they make, and a system could be all the structures on a campus, and you could analyse them by age, for example, and by type.  But they could be all the types of academic subjects taught, and how they relate to each other, and where they sit on campus and where they belong, given today’s patterns of learning and research. That’s another system you could study. The open space system, the rainwater management system; these are all ones, and then the interlocking of all these systems, and how this can lead to really beautiful design.  How you can use the flow of water in a design to give you interesting ideas about form, for example, and about communication too, because you… the pathways that people take as they move about, and the opportunities it gives them for serendipitous meetings… very much tied into philosophies of education today. And then, another… and then the overlap of patterns as I said, is very important.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010