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The building as the decorated shed and the duck


The Byzantine complexity
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[RV] One thing that’s very significant in the profession of architecture today and how you work in it, is how… the kind of, what I call, the Byzantine complexity has evolved. And I’m not referring to the complexity and contradiction that I wrote about in the book, many years ago, which was part of the programmatic quality of architecture and the appropriateness of acknowledging that complexity and contradiction in the… in the design expression of the architecture and the buildings. But here, you could refer to the Byzantine complexity that you’re involved in, in the process of designing architecture. And it has several… several kind of elements that are combined. Very often your client now is more a… a committee rather than an individual, no longer the bishop, or the duke or the millionaire donor, but the committee. And there’re certain advantages in committees, it’s a democratic process, but on the other hand, there is enormous complexities involved from the differences of opinion of people on the committee, which have to be accommodated. But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of that kind of complexity, Byzantine complexity of today, does derive from the need more and more – it’s growing – to accommodate governmental and neighbourhood, if you will, or community elements that connect and inform what you’re doing. You have to go through many more complex governmental problems involving… here I go again, what’s the word? Involving governmental…?

[DSB] Regulations?

[RV] Regulations. And that can be complex. You have to go through design review committees; design review boards. You have to go, in certain areas where you’re designing in historical contexts, neighbourhoods, you have to go through historical commissions. And all of that can be extremely consuming, concerning energy and time. And you find that a lot of your energy is going into, kind of, justifying or selling, so to speak, your design, rather than developing it, creating it and making it effective architecture in terms of program, structure and artistic expression. And that can be exceedingly frustrating and it does find a parallel, I think, in other aspects of life today where there just is enormous… enormous complexity.

I just wonder… I, I was analysing a while back, that when I worked in the office of a famous and prosperous architect… well acknowledged architect, Eero Saarinen, 55 years ago, there were about 45 people in the office. And when… and I figured out that there were only about four or five people out of those, who were not producing architecture, who were secretaries or administrators. Whereas today, if you have a 45 person office, you probably have about 15 people who are having to do a lot of… deal with a lot of the complexities, actually even involving… the people who are involving the… the, all sorts of things. But a lot of them are preparing for these kinds of presentations that you have to make before these Byzantine guys.

And I love Byzantine committees, if you were, boards. I love making the analogy. I love using the word Byzantine, by the way, the Byzantine period of architecture was one that I greatly admire, maybe  my favourite building in the whole history is a Byzantine building, that of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. But it also does remind you that, not to oversimplify but to some extent, the fall of the Byzantine culture, civilisation, did derive from complexities of existence, in… especially in Constantinople. So, I think we are in a perverse Byzantine period, which can have negative effects on creating a great architecture, having the energy to do that and effective architecture. So, I feel rather grouchy about that. I found myself saying the other day, Beethoven possibly if he were… if he had been living in the early 21st century could not have written, could not have composed the Ninth Symphony. He would not have had time. He would have been too tired to make it so effective, and so long. And I do… I do think that’s an important issue today. I’ve written about it to some extent.

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: 6 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010