Denise Scott Brown, “Learning from Pop,” 1971.
In his introduction to Denise Scott Brown’s fearsome essay, Hays provides background on architecture’s relationships with pop culture, which he dates to 1956 and the publication of the Smithson’s essay “But Today We Collect Ads” and London’s “This is Tomorrow” show. Then we have Scott Brown’s essay from 1971, chosen for its inclusiveness of themes individually explored in her other essays and in place of Learning From Las Vegas (1972). Scott Brown combines Pop Culture and Populism in a misleading essay that is both a powerful double-pronged critique of architecture’s old regime as well as a proposal for a way forward for architecture. (Her populism and ability to throw shade are deeply inspiring.) Importantly, Hays tells us this essay marks “a shift that would become fundamental to much of architecture theory after 1968: (…) the affirmation of the preexisting context in all its messy heterogeneity and informational flux.” Note the similarity between this wording and the holistic “Totality” mentioned in the introduction.
In the face of a stale functionalist and scientist architectural climate (late modernism), Scott Brown believes the “messy heterogeneity” of pop culture provides new “sources for a changing architectural sensibility.” Pop culture is “more relevant to people’s diverse needs and more tolerant of the untidinesses of urban life.” It is “our own context.” It is hard to deny such a view when considering the industrial learning machine that is Price’s Thinkbelt, for example; one can hardly think its cold rationalism tolerant of any kind of untidiness.
“Mass media, movies, soap operas, pickle and furniture ads”—these are the sources for new ideas because they are more truthful, more candid, and less economically constrained, and are therefore more likely to explore new aesthetics the market would otherwise not allow. I imagine the urban skyline backdrop of the new Star Wars episodes as a contemporary example: CGI frees architecture from the cost of building while also giving us a vision of contemporary architectural tastes. Scott Brown notes these ads may also be biased—a reference to the Mad Men agencies and their agendas—but at least this bias brings something to the conversation other than what may be achieved by pure architectural contemplation. She calls this “the architectural navel contemplation” and questions how anything new can come from this.
Hays’s analysis is that this essay has two fundamental proposals for architecture, one being “that the communication of social values across space has superseded mere function and even space itself as the primary substance of architecture.” This is certainly clear from the text—“[The pop landscape] is one of the few contemporary sources of data on the symbolic and communicative aspects of architecture…”—but Scott Brown would probably respond that such a situation was always the case and that she is simply calling a spade a spade. Either way this communication echoes Baird’s semiological architectural theory, predicated on architecture as a communicative system. As it is, Hays’s assertion prompts a slight eyebrow raise by its very establishment topos: ‘post-modern architecture is about communication.’ This is the historical narrative we are already familiar with. (As RuPaul and Ke$ha would say, ‘Your [interpretation] is, in a word, blah, blah, blah.’) (Yes I just mediated architecture theory and RuPaul, and Denise Scott Brown would approve.)
And while me must note that we are currently witnessing the rise of Communication, Meaning, Comprehensibility, Symbols, &c., in post 1968 theory, I proffer that Scott Brown is making another proposal for architecture of which we must be aware: analysis and methodology blatantly concerned with form. We could even say she is implying a formal history of modernism, in spite of their best attempts to deny formal concerns. But the pop landscape “was untouched by the Modern movement’s purist reduction of architecture to space and structure only,” and frees architects from depending solely on inherited forms. She also realizes that, given new urban and commercial developments in ads and city space and readability, new types of formal and graphic analysis might need to be developed, taking into account things like video and diagrams that can more accurately capture larger scale impressions over time.
But the importance of this formal critique—critical to the future of architecture—is equivalent to her critique of late modernist disregard for the state of the poor and the real in the name of hollow utopias of taste—critical to the history of architecture. In fact, her investigation of pop culture as the contemporary aesthetic gauge is prompted by the inability to trust the formal straightjacket for the poor provided by developers and planners. And she notes that the low art of pop ephemera is ignored by those members of the ancien regime who can effect change: “There is an irony in the fact that the ‘popular’ culture and the ‘popular’ landscape are not popular with those who make decisions to renew the city and rehouse the poor.” Indeed, the famed liberal John Kenneth Gilbraith is quoted as being more concerned with eliminating visual pollution like gas stations and billboards than with housing for the very poor.
Summarily, she proposes architects temporarily suspend judgment of “low art” until a thorough, even headed analysis of its forms can be conducted—not a blanket acceptance of those forms, just a “deferral of judgment.” Form and populism are her weapons—synonymous with Baird’s “shimmering metonymic surface” and the “messy” reality of cultural life.
Some quick thoughts: deferral of judgment need not exclusively apply to aesthetics and “low art.” We can also see it applying to our views of extra-architectural fields of investigation when problems for design and production. Eric Klarenbeek’s Mycelium Chair comes to mind. I also suspect that, in light of advertisement’s ability to provide architectural projects free of market constraints, we could consider Dubai to be a curious alternative reality in which market constraints were temporarily lifted by extreme wealth and therefore is an actual built snapshot of archi-pop cultural projections. I’m not sure if that paper has already been written—keep an eye out for it here on M|P. Scott Brown also offers a fascinating alternative method for observing needs and trends: examining “what [poor] people do to buildings once they are in them”—oddly echoed by Iwaan Baan’s recent TED Talk. Also let me just quickly note the irony of Scott Brown’s obvious relevancy to contemporary practice considering the Pritzker Committee declined to retroactively extend Robert Venturi’s award to her last year.