(Image: McCulley Design)
This is a photograph of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Las Vegas – an image of an architecture of communication. As the generative elements of communicative acts, sign and symbol attain architectural primacy in a landscape of big spaces and high speeds. Given this speed and scale, it is the bold impact of the Stardust sign-front and not the structure behind it that assigns order and conducts circulation. “If you take the signs away,” argue the writers, “there is no place.”
Like Vegas, Times Square is nothing if not sign. But Occupy Times Square on October 15th was a reversal of the bases of Learning from Las Vegas. Here, the operative scale is human, and the speed is minimal. The protestors are tightly penned in so that their relations regard each other rather than the built space around them. The same police pens mean that there is little movement, or no movement at all. In opposition to the frenetic pace of the automobile – whether in Vegas or Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles – Occupy is here to not move. The clearest symptom of the re-humanised speed and scale is the sea of analogue signs that has sprung up between the digital billboards high above. Their handwritten content is readable by eyes close by. These are signs for proximate bodies.
Using Las Vegas as a starting point, Venturi and Scott Brown carried out a critique of Modern architecture. Their charge was that modernism’s stated refusal of symbol was contradictory in the first instance, and limiting in the second. The accusation of contradiction arose from the disconnect between what was said and what was done. The limitations were due to the blindness and fallibility that resulted from the refusal (or inability) to bridge this disconnect. What was said was manifestly utopian, as evident in the lofty Corbusian definition of architecture as “the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light”. It was also deterministic, placing its faith in the objective technological processes giving rise to the machine aesthetic. On the other hand, what was done was merely celebrate the formal artefacts of this deterministic process. Industrial forms, dropped literally into non-industrial spaces, carried as their payload a statement that these buildings were “symbolically correct”, whereas those of historical buildings were not. The aim of an objective utopianism was substituted by a subjective denial: a denial of the styles of the past in favour of those of the modern.
But the charge is less about dishonesty and more about self-binding limitations. The blindness of modern architecture to its own contradictions produced an architecture of slavish formalism (despite decrying the same characteristic in historical styles) and an indulgence in articulation and distortion. The result was a dry expressionism, all the more tyrannical because it was unreflective. At the same time, the subtle physiognomic language of forms became less and less communicative as speed and scale increased. Las Vegas served as a kind of shorthand for society in the 1970s and its acceleration of human and commercial circulation. Filtered through it, the unstable fundaments of modernism itself were ultimately exposed.
Can Occupy Times Square (and the Occupy movement generally) also serve as an interpretive device for architecture today? Learning read the typology of the “big sign and…little building” on Route 66 as indicative of the importance of symbol over form. But symbolic and formal content alike were of one type only, being commercially motivated. The message presented was a persuasion to buy (petrol, coffee, tanning lotion). The signs of Occupy protestors exhort the opposite: to not buy, to not consume. “Money Talks Too Much,” reads one sign in the crowd at Times Square. The decrying of commercial motivation, incidentally, echoes Rem Koolhaas’ recent statements about the ‘privatisation’ of architecture. (Ironically, his documentation of the last gasp of public architecture in the form of the Metabolists is itself a book-commodity.)
What Occupy arguably presents is an awareness of the wider, second-order system behind signed speech. If architecture is a language, it is a language that is part of a larger system of symbols, one that is manipulated by political and economic ideology. Accompanying this very public ideology is the private set of attendant ethical questions concerning exploitation, inequality and divisiveness. The tents at Occupy camps around the world recognise this: they resist the distinction between the public and the private by placing the symbol of private life, the home, in the civic sphere. The protest tent is the perfect contemporary “decorated shed”, since it trades on the level of appliquéd signs. Its denotative content is completely plastic and open to manipulation. Where it splits from Learning and the old Stardust in Vegas, however, is in the nature of its signs. Unlike the Stardust, its decoration is overt ideology.