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Our take on Modernism


Basurama and using waste (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] I had to define my terms and I had to show them that, for example, there’s a class basis for waste. Upper middle class people define lower middle class peoples’ product as waste, as pollution.

People talk about visual pollution, Las Vegas as visual pollution. I said, ‘Where is the scientific measurement of that pollution – the way we can measure chemical particles in the air?  If you can’t, you can’t call it pollution’, and so on. So, I took the terms that professional people use to express distaste and I deconstructed them to some extent. I started out with an illustration of a talk I once heard of a woman, a gardener, who came to give us a lecture at Penn. She had done time lapse photography of the blooming of roses and you saw this beautiful bud and then it bloomed and then finish and the next bud to beautiful bloom and so on. And I suddenly thought, where is the other half of the cycle, where’s the deterioration and death? Well, that wasn’t pretty and that was waste that was actually called wasting. And I said, ‘Ignoring half the cycle is wrong and if you’re a planner it’s very wrong because there’s many’, you know, they think of re-use of waste.  Composting, in that case, is a re-use of waste but we have to think of cities in those terms too, and I began talking about that. And then I also… I shifted to… I talked about the Freudian aspect of waste and of toilet training and I had to… it was funny, I wrote them a letter and I said, ‘To be really scholarly I have to deal with some of these aspects of waste… I will be very delicate’, I said. And they sent me a little note back saying, ‘Your lecture is going to be fantastic’. And so, I very nicely put this whole thing that an intelligent mother must be very tactful and she must stop… I said, ‘If a baby messes in its diaper, if you don’t catch her in time’, and I use ‘her’ because I’m a feminist, ‘You will find her playing with the faeces, she loves them’. And I said, ‘But the mother will not survive and nor will the society. So, a very tactful mother will, will gently redirect the child to playing in mud’. And I said, ‘We must be careful because in fact our creativity depends on this. And a child that has been too controlled in its toilet training will be an uncreative person’. And now I was being… I don’t think Freud has managed to prove this, but nevertheless. And I said, ‘So, it’s very important to us to think about waste as part of creativity. So, that’s why the creativity and waste is what I’m talking about’.  And then I gave examples about Africans who use old tyres for sandals and the inner tubes for the straps. And I showed beautiful examples I have in Africa of, of use of beadwork, for example, and of other examples of using abandoned scrap iron for making toys and things like that. And then went from there into why we looked at Las Vegas and how we tried to take this unloved effulgence from another society and understand it from another culture.

[RV] Did you explicitly refer to the aesthetic idea of objet trouvé?

[DSB] Yes, I referred to that too and I said, ‘Las Vegas and Levittown were our objets trouvés’. I traced the history back for the objets trouvés from the early 1930s - rather the early 1920s – notion of things. And then I took them on a walk along our canal and I showed all the waste there, these old industrial buildings, and told them how I’d move on if they were ever prettified. And so on, just related the whole thing and talked about Basurama’s work. But again, we’re very flattered and very happy, and we could lead a life now where we just gently went and saw our architectural family all over the world and were welcomed warmly and gave a lecture, and had a nice dinner with people and were shown the sights and all of that.  And that would be a lovely world, a lovely way to walk toward the end of your life and I think academics have that privilege – it’s called emeritus. But, we’re addicted to practice and we gave up teaching, much though we loved it, because practice was even more thrilling and we don’t think that this is necessarily a time to leave practice. We have to think hard about how we will continue.

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, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010