Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi

The Bicentennial Commemoration 1976


"The Bicentennial Commemoration 1976"
Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi
The Architectural Forum, October 1969

See also: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway Celebration for 1976

International Expositions and Fairs offer the world an amalgam of national aspirations, economic boosterism, gaudy self-aggrandizement and innovative architecture. Recently added to these have been high-sounding themes that begin "Man and . . . ," and a concern on the part of city fathers to use these occasions to manufacture urban real estate for later sale to developers. What remains of an Expo after a hundred years is some feeling for an epoch--what 1851 or 1939 felt like--and some landmark structures, like an Eiffel Tower or a Crystal Palace, known for their influence on the history of architecture.

Ours is a different age: non-heroic (the antihero is our hero), non-universalist, anti-architectural. It is significant that Expo 67, hailed as a triumph, produced little innovation in architecture or structure. The idea of Habitat is more than ten years old and Buckminster Fuller's beautiful dome more than twenty. The most successful exhibits at Expo 67 were movies, particularly those in the Czech pavilion. People flocked to them. McLuhan was right. The theme "Man and His World" rang empty, as did the Brussels Expo theme, and it was not by the theme pavilions that the subtle spirit of an age was conveyed.

How much more different at this divisive point in our history for American to talk of Man. We shall be castigated by the nations of the world as Frantz Fanon castigated the Europeans: "They are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them."

House in Order by 1976
This is not the time for Americans to talk of universal aspirations, nor even of great world problems. Too much is wrong at home. It will look like an evasion of the issue. We have a war here against social injustice, poverty and prejudice. Themes for today should be specific, immediate and urgent, like a letter from the front. If by 1976 we cannot present to the world a war half won, then we should be ashamed to commemorate the Bicentennial. If, on the other hand, we adopt the modest theme of "House in Order by 1976" with the stupendous task it involves, the nations will flock to our shores in that year both to see and to help, and we shall earn from the world a respect that no amount of foreign aid or military strength could command. Without fanfare, the universal meanings will emerge: America and the world are "men" not "Man," and it is good to live in a pluralist society.

In such a celebration social innovation would overshadow architectural innovation. Governments would cut their construction costs and send people instead. Major creative effort would go to the design of social happenings, situations and experiences, to bring together people of many nations in memorable discourse. Since we would be inviting people, and hopefully not only "leadership people" and the "masses," we would become sophisticated on the notion of groupings and the nature of pluralism. The word "mass" would become fleshed out to reveal its dimensions; the sociology of groups would receive a great boost and the group therapists and social psychologist might become the great designers.

Now is the time to call for ideas on social innovations. The design of social experience is a new field. Anyone can help. Ideas should be sought from school children, burlesque show producers and garden party hostesses, from labor arbitrators, foundations heads and bus drivers. People throughout the world should be asked to fantasize "Wouldn't it be nice if . . ."

Wouldn't it be nice . . .
. . . if different nations were invited to send a school to the Commemoration, each with all its teachers but half its children, the rest coming from America. We have all had some schooling; we would all enjoy sharing, through our children (and some complex electronic display systems) the experience of education in Nepal or Norway.

. . . if non-convention-going groups, those outside the professions and upper classes, who seldom travel, were invited to the U. S. to meet with their U. S. equivalents: international conventions of fitters and turners, shoestore employees, cafeteria waitresses, institutional janitors, apprentice plumbers, seventh grade school children.

. . . if the nations of the world were respectfully asked to demonstrate the mechanisms they have evolved for dealing with dissension and diversity and for aiding the poor.

Architecture and urban planning
With no more Crystal Palaces, Eiffel Towers, Atomiums and Habitats, where would this leave the architects and planners? Still very much employed and perhaps even more challenged, since now their ingenuity would be taxed to make much out of the little available for building, to make meaningful in built structures the serious aims of the nation, and on top of this to make our show fun, seductive and delightful.

Because our needs are serious, and built commemoration should do as much for the city or cities where it is located as possible. Since most of the commemorative activity and building will probably happen in center city, the caveats against urban renewal as a destroyer of the habitat of the poor apply here. But more than this, alternative schemes should be judged by the degree to which they provide jobs and opportunities for low-income local residents; also, if there is to be an historical commemoration the ghetto should get its share. Its historical buildings and places should receive special attention and the Expo exhibits on black culture should be located in the rehabilitated streets and buildings of the ghetto. Low-income shopkeepers and entrepreneurs should be helped to take economic advantage of the Commemoration as the rest of the city will be doing. Vocational schools for management and skilled positions in the hotel, catering and other tourist-related trades should be opened in ghetto areas of eastern cities now in preparation for the Bicentennial. The Commemoration should serve, starting now, as a major aid to economic development of the black community, otherwise we shall have little to celebrate in 1976.

Other nations should be invited to help the chosen U. S. city or cities with systemic renewal, for example, of public transit: a bus line to the standards of and with the signs and shelters of London Transport, and subway stops renewed by and in the style of famous subway systems--Milan, Moscow, Montreal--could be part of the exhibit. The whole garbage and clean-up system of an eastern city could be overhauled by a European city or by Los Angeles. A whole Expo-related learning system could be introduced, based on coin-operated learning machines where you find other coin-operated machines in and around public transit, shopping centers and waiting places--"Learn while you ride," "Shop and learn."

The 1976 deadline should be used as a goad for the development in U. S. cities of serious housing policies, and also as a means for aiding the black and Puerto Rican populations to leave the centers of old cities and make for the suburbs with the rest of us. This calls for a new look at suburbia, and for an overall strategy for low-cost housing, across city and county lines from central areas to outer edges, related to job opportunities and commuter lines. And it calls for a change of heart in suburban communities. If, in order to build low-cost housing, it must be designated first for Expo tourist, well, so be it.

The present preference among Expo planners for "theme pavilions" over national pavilions--with participants asked to provide theme exhibits within host-designed exhibition space rather than to send national exhibits of their wares for national pavilions--is, we believe, misplaced. We should use our Expo to face our urban problems: in this case the problem of freedom and control in the visual landscape. By admitting rather than excluding the individualistic national and commercial pavilions as part of the traditional excitement of Expos, and incorporating them into a complex order, like that of the city itself, we might learn techniques for the control of the commercial environment less coercive than the controls we now use. Las Vegas (and we are talking purely of the "crass commercialism" of its roadside architecture, not of the pros and cons of gambling) could make an excellent model for a 20th-century Expo.



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