context (Quondam thinking?)
Whenever I read about architecture and context I can't help but automatically recall my architectural education at Temple University, Philadelphia, 1975-81. Temple's architecture program was then in its infancy (begun 1973), and the faculty were largely either/and/or students of Louis Kahn, former employees of Louis Kahn, current or former employees of Romaldo Giurgola (Mitchell/Giurgola Architects), or employees at Venturi and Rauch Architects. Besides that 'august' lineage, what impressed my design thinking most was the issue of designing with respect to context, indeed I'd say that that notion was the touchstone of my entire formal architectural education. [I also have a strong independent streak when it comes to continually self educating myself architecturally, and my subscribing to Oppositions throughout the late 1970s through the early 1980s--I have all 26 issues except nos. 1 and 3--is just one example of that. Oppositions was never required reading at Temple U. while I was there.]
I now want to make a bold statement regarding (the evolution of?) contextualism and architecture:
What is probably the best example of Philadelphia architecture from the 1990s happens to not be in Philadelphia at all, rather it is in London, namely the Sainsbury Wing addition to the National Gallery by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Philadelphia.
I have never been to London, but I know the Sainsbury Wing fairly well via publications, plus, and here's the beginning of my point, I almost viscerally understand all the 'contextual' design idioms and eccentricities because they are, and the building as a 'whole' is, a consummate example of (questionably labeled post-modern) Philadelphian contextual architectural design thinking. I'm not suggesting that Philadelphia has some sort of propriety when it come to designing architecture contextually in the late 20th century, rather that there is a uniqueness to Philadelphia's 'brand' of contexturalism (indeed retrospectively related to Rowe's thinking, but clearly distinct nonetheless mostly because of Giurgola and Venturi who both taught at the University of Pennsylvania at the same time that Kahn taught there). What's wonderful about the Sainsbury Wing is that as a program and site it boiled down to being almost entirely about designing in context, and, with Venturi and Scott Brown as the competition winners, they were given the opportunity to do, in a sense, a 'hyper' contextual building, i.e. dealing with both London (and even royal) contexts as well as Philadelphia's theoretical architectural 'contexts'.
I'm going to be even more bold by suggesting that the Sainsbury Wing is not so much 'post-modern' design, rather very good 'post-imperial' design. Isn't the UK still more specifically operating within a post-imperial milieu (as a childhood stamp collector of the 1960s I'm very aware of exactly how and when the British Empire ended) and isn't Philadelphia the foremost post-imperial city when it comes to the British Empire--site of the Declaration of Independence and all that? I actually think the world of architecture is extremely fortunate to have an iconic post-imperial building in a post-imperial capital transplanted there by architects from the Empire's proto post-imperial city.
[Earlier, when the discussions here centered on evolution versus invention of style, I wanted to introduce the notion of Venturi's role vis-à-vis POMO, specifically the publication of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which is based almost entirely on the early 1960s architectural theory course that Venturi taught at the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin). Essentially, I wanted to raise the question as to what influence the Philadelphia 'context' had on 'Post-Modern Architecture'. If you asked me, I'd say the influence was indeed seminal, and Venturi's Mother's House (Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, a 15 minute ride from where I'm presently sitting as I write this) had a great deal to do with the earliest manifestation (dare I say invention?) of what has come to be labeled Post Modern Architecture.]
I'm going to table the issue of what exactly Philadelphia contextualism is in specific terms of style, and instead ask all you that can readily visit the Sainsbury Wing to go there next time with the thought that you are going to a truly Philadelphian building because the style you'll see there is, like I said, an example of Philadelphia architecture at its best. If you don't know Philadelphia itself, and/or are not too familiar with Philadelphia's indigenous architecture, I'd suggest concurrently looking at (any book on) the architecture of Frank Furness (1839-1912), the sort of ur-architect of Philadelphia uniqueness and perhaps Venturi's strongest stylistic influence.
Like Venturi and (almost) Kahn, I am a Philadelphia native (although I'm also the only member of my immediate family born in America), and I've sort of made Philadelphia context an integral part of my life, e.g., I've been living in the same Philadelphia house for almost 43 years, all but the first 20 months of my life). As much as Philadelphia is often called the cradle of democracy, a kind of New World Athens, at base (i.e., literally infrastructurally) Philadelphia is a Roman colonial camp reenactment (and you might even put camp in quotes, a la Learning from Las Vegas via Philadelphians). Philadelphia's original plan is a Roman grid complete with a real cardo and a real decumanus, and the plan is still very much intact today. Indeed, Broad Street, the north-south axis is the longest straight street (in an urban context) in the world, an ultimate cardo, primary axis if there ever is one (and Stauffer Hall, the site of Temple University's architecture program from 1973-1980 was right on Broad Street). I don't have to tell all of you how much I look to/at Rome, but I should mention that the main reason I started redrawing and studying Piranesi's Campo Marzio (and all the subsequent ancient Roman studying being done like on St. Helena) is because I was inspired by the fact that Louis I. Kahn, throughout his mature years, had a copy of Piranesi's Campo Marzio plan hanging on the wall over his desk at his office (on Walnut St. in downtown Philadelphia, and no I'm not suggesting that Kahn was some kind of 'wall nut'). After Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi next published a group of essays under the title A View from the Campidoglio, and just a few years ago it dawned on me that when one is actually standing at the Campidoglio in Rome, the view being taken in is literally Rome's Campo Marzio. I'm going to make one final bold statement here, and that is to ask you to now trust me when I say that I continue to see what some of Philadelphia's best architects looked at.
I just found out yesterday that the Rape of the Sabine Women (one of Rome's inaugural 'urban' events) occurred on 18 August. I was somewhat stunned when I read that (in Plutarch's Romulus) because 18 August is also the Roman Catholic Church feast of Saint Helena. Yes, I subsequently smiled a lot yesterday.
Palais des Congrès scale changed into mega hotel proportions plus collaged with other Le Corbusier models (that are scale distorted as well).
..... language [and innuendo?]
The current discussion on architectural language reminds me of a small exhibit at Quondam online earlier this year--innuendo. In a general sense, the display deals with the 'language' and meaning of architectural planimetric forms, while specifically the display deals with the 'master key' that unlocks the longheld mysteriousness of Piranesi's Ichnographia Campus Martius (i.e., the large plan of the Fields of Mars). And in hyper-contextual terms, the display refers to the two rapes that generated Rome: the rape of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia by the god Mars, which in turn produced Romulus and Remus, and then the rape of the Sabine women, an attack planned by Romulus in order to further populate his newly founded namesake urbs. That's rape, then rape reenacted, then Eternal City! What better way to institute a 'place' then with the notion "like father, like son."