Venturi’s revenge, or how architecture went ‘pop!’

Roomer van Toorn recently stated that matters concerning architecture are no longer about being popular but about creating the popular.

But, to that proposal I would add the idea that architecture has been already absorbed by the popular. Architecture is now a part of the scene, a part of what we call popular culture. That is, architecture is now part of the media scene.

Indeed popular culture is more and more identified to what is displayed in mass-media such as MTV, life-style magazines or daily newspapers. Popular culture is also more and more entangled with consumer culture.

Today, the popular is what is popularly consumed. As such, even craftsmanship exists only to fulfill an exotic consumption.

And because, by now, architecture has spectacularly entered both the field of mass-media and of popular consumption, architecture has indeed gone ‘pop!’ But I wouldn’t restrain the idea of architecture going ‘pop!’ to it being part of popular culture as we now know it.

Architecture went ‘pop!’ because it entered the vein of pop art, and architecture went ‘pop!’ because its autonomy bubble definitely burst out.

The first part of this proposition is easily understandable. As we know, architecture follows on the steps of art with a variable degree of delay. There are moments in which architecture seems to catch up very closely with art – like when Archigram were exploring their own version of Pop Architecture by the end of the Sixties. And there are moments in which the delay between art and architecture becomes truly tedious – like when minimalism is stripped out of its sense and pursued like some sort of ascetic boredom.

So, after exploring the vein of minimalism for what it seemed as a painful eternity, architecture now decided to go ‘pop!’

After all, with its star-system all over the place and its popularity rocketing to the skies, architecture truly couldn’t resist going more and more ‘pop!’.

As politicians and celebrities know, popularity is addictive. As such, well-known prior priests of the strictest minimalist economy – like, for instance, the very calvinistic Herzog & de Meuron – are now pursuing the delights of ornament and extravagant science fiction shapes.

How much more ‘pop!’ can you go?

This drives me to the conclusion that the opposition I have drawn in some of my previous writings between minimalism and diversity was somewhat wrong. I should have had the immediate insight that what historically opposed minimalism was, obviously, pop.

Both art movements came up at about the same time. And both questioned art’s autonomy as represented by the institutionalization of abstract painting. Both proposed that art somehow escaped the privilege of the unique artistic object and its corresponding museum context.

But they had different approaches.

Minimalist art created objects that focused the viewer’s attention on the industrialization of manufacture and on the surrounding spatial experience. Pop art directly reconnected its production to the outside world of popular culture and mass consumption.

Later, architecture’s delayed appropriation of minimalism totally inverted the art movement’s premises. Retaining only minimalism’s formal aspects, minimalist architecture contributed, firstly, to maintain architecture’s autonomy principle and, secondly, to focus the gaze of the user on its beautiful boxes.

Now that architecture has decided to go ‘pop!’, on the other hand, it is to be expected that its autonomy bubble will burst out quite quickly.

This will happen not only because the pop approach is the one that more effectively breaks down the barriers between high and low culture, but also because circumstances now help making that move highly attractive.

As I suggested already, being popular – and creating the popular – is something tremendously attractive.

When Venturi proposed that architecture may draw from the popular visual culture of the contemporary urban landscape, I think he was truly unaware of the potential of what is actually happening today. In fact, at the time and later, he was even accused by its detractors of only using the idea of popular culture to reinforce architecture’s position at the high end of the cultural spectrum. By absorbing popular forms and images onto its vocabulary, architecture would thus regain its role as the determinant of popular taste.

This is partially true, and this is also what is now partially happening. In fact, part of architecture’s move towards ‘pop!’ is related to the desire to reposition architecture, most notably put forward by Rem Koolhaas.

Naturally, that yearning installs a predisposition to create the popular. But some external circumstances and demands are also needed and those are set by the fact that architecture has become truly mediatic.

Never before has architecture been in the mass-media as today. Never before has architecture’s establishment been so popular and well-known.

Although architect’s still complain, never before in its history has contemporary architecture been so warmly welcome in its own time. By way of its hyperdiffusion in generalist media, architecture not only returned to the public sphere of (consumer) society, but it became also a very visible part of its (popular) culture.

Architecture is now what affluent western societies acknowledge as an interesting cultural and economic asset. With its symbolic capital amply recognized, architecture has thus definitely entered the realm of mass consumption.

But, the logic of mass consumption – as that of the mass-media – imposes that one corresponds to the popularity you have created. Architecture has, by now, created expectations that have to be fulfilled.

The need to correspond to this fulfillment leads not only to populism, but also to architecture going ‘pop!’. As such, architecture is going back to the vault of popular visual culture and re-offering its forms and shapes to the people in all possible versions.

Iconic architecture, colorful architecture, DIY architecture, manga architecture, monumental architecture, science fiction architecture, silk-screened architecture, Tupperware architecture, typographic architecture… there they all are to confirm the tendency.

And, simultaneously, architecture also becomes a shared popular language from which other urban practices – such as artists or communication designers – are free to draw. This is what I have been calling open-source architecture.

Open-source means only that the code of architecture is now shared and, thus, architectural autonomy is impossible to maintain. As such, architecture happily burst out onto popular culture.

Architecture went ‘pop!’ and was finally freed from itself.

Pedro Gadanho, February 2007. Published in Konrad, Daniela (ed.), Interrogating pop in Architecture, Wasmuth Verlag / ADIP-TU, Berlin.