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Protests over our use of neon


Learning the difference between 'is' and 'ought'
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] There are reasons why I was… long before I came to America, I was taking pictures of signs, from being in England, and at some point we’ll go into that… but when I got to… I was in South Africa in the ‘40s during political turmoil, in England in the early ‘50s during political turmoil. I got to America in ‘58, and it was… how quiescent could you get? I’d never seen students – like the bobby socks – of quiet decorous students that were around at the University of Pennsylvania when I got there.  And within two years the place was in conflagration.  And so there I was in turmoil again, but it… by… it was very familiar to me.  It felt like what university students should be doing.

Well, the uproar in the School of Fine Arts at Penn was to do – it came out of the Planning School –, and my personal belief is that the New Left really started at the University of Pennsylvania Planning School in 1958. It came out of the Old Left there, and from various uprisings.  And, of course, it’s a centrist view, I’m seeing it from where I stood.  But there it was, before the 1960s, and there were many social scientists at Penn from the New Deal era, and from the University of Chicago, just after World War II, there was a planning program very much based on economics and sociology and very gadfly in its criticism of architecture and planning… very galvanising and brilliant people. They couldn’t plan to save their lives, they were critics, they were not builders.

But, so, then a young activist, Paul Davidoff, and a young sociologist Herbert Gans had a great influence on me, and they basically said you need to differentiate between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. You shouldn’t say things ‘are’, when what you mean they ‘ought to be’. Cities ‘are’ for people. Well, you mean, they ‘ought to be’ for people, they’re pretty well not very well for people right now.

And taking it further, architects proclaim what ought to be for everyone, without really knowing what people want. Now that’s called being a visionary. And there is a place in architecture for proclaiming and for being different and for putting your opinion in the mix of opinions, and valiantly fighting for it, but it isn’t when you’re pushing poor people out of their housing so that you can make a very beautiful set of high rise towers that you think of as housing the poor, but is in fact going to house the rich. And so these social scientists said, you architects have middle class values, upper middle class values, and that’s not a bad thing, those aren’t bad values, what’s bad is that you proclaim everyone ought to have them, and you tend to ignore the people who don’t have them, and when they’re very poor people, you cause their lives to go into chaos. You’re not the only part of the problem, but you are part of the problem when you do that, so you need to get wise. Well, one of the things they said was, watch how people don’t use your spaces. They stay away in droves from the architect-designed places. Where do they go? Well, just look, they go to Los Angeles; seem to like it there. They go to Las Vegas; whole lots of them go there. Granted, middle class people too, but not the same ones, and aren’t you going to look around you and learn from the places people actually go to?

And it was with that kind of thinking in mind, that I accepted an invitation to go teach at Berkeley for a semester, and then moved to Los Angeles, to UCLA, where they were starting a new program. And before ever I left though, Bob and I had known each other since 1960, and we had dated. About every two weeks we’d have dinner together and talk, and I was going around in Philadelphia, taking photographs of popular culture, basically. Ads and signs and buildings I liked, and mainly commercial retail, to go along with the industrial that other people had liked in the ‘30s.  And so Bob was very aware of all of this that I was doing. That was the time that Grands was designed, that’s when the signs happened, when he and I were dating, and talking, we eventually taught together.

[RV] Grands Restaurant.

[DSB] Yes. We both… we taught a class… I taught the first semester of the theories class – theories of architecture, landscape, architecture and planning – and ran the seminars and the papers and the work topics for that class. Bob taught the second semester, theories of architecture, and eventually I ran his seminars, theories and… seminar and work topics and reading lists and stuff like that as well, so I ran both sets of seminars. The seminars were to relate the lectures to studio, a very interesting set of combinations which is worth discussing in itself. I think it’s a wonderful way of teaching, and academe should know about it, but meanwhile, it’s the way architects teach. Well, doing that, we collaborated a lot, and then I would take him into studio at night when we had a date, and get him to crit the work of my students. So some urban design students were very happy that they met Bob Venturi in the very early '60s, before he was well known through this process. I think that, that has a lot to do with the last parts of the book, Contemporary and… Complexity and Contradiction and Architecture, because Bob’s reverberating to all of this primarily through me.  He was hearing about what was happening in social planning, and I should add that of all the architects in the school, he was really the only one who did reverberate in sympathy with all this. Lou Khan said you can’t trust social scientists, they believe in 2.5 people.  And the architects just said, how can you hang out with those churlish people who are so critical of us? But for me, it was a very life-giving criticism, even if it was threatening.

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, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010