In a book titled Learning from Las Vegas published in 1972, Venturi et al cited two categories in their evaluation of their Las Vegas strip and these categories were in description of structures in relation to the people observing them while passing in an automobile. The authors explored techniques used in architecture and design and found that architectural ornamentations that were commercially motivated had the capability to generate interest even in structures that were not very promising (Venturi & Brown, 1978 :pg 45). That is why Venturi saw that it was desirable to reimport ornamentation especially the ones that were socially allusive. This reimportation into the architecture of the ornamentation would bring back the old architectural designs that had been phased out by the Puritanism of modernism.
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Ducks and decorated sheds
In his categories, Venturi had Ducks and decorated shed, and this were terms that he used to refer to different types of structures. According to Venturi, ducks are structures that are more formal than functional and their image overrides their importance. These types of structures are not common in the modern world. In fact, Venturi never found any duck while he was in the city of Las Vegas (Goldberger, 1991; pg 2). However this did not stop him from developing the category as a way of making a point. Decorated sheds are modern structures and most gas stations, casinos and restaurants can fall in this category because of the scale of aesthetics that have been used as symbols (Brown, 1998; pg 78). Decorated sheds have the capability to generate enthusiasm because they have these decorated boxes that warm the product creating a positive emotion that cannot be aroused by the building alone. This book titled Learning from Las Vegas argues that watersheds are the best and the most reliable techniques of ornamentation.
Differences between the ducks and the decorated sheds
Though there are more structures in architecture than just the two aforementioned types that Robert Venturi and Dennis Scott brown proposed, the two models are basically the most outstanding in this field. The difference between these structures is that one bases its representation through an object while the other one uses a surface. Also color can be used as a distinctive parameter. Decorated sheds are structures where there is a rhyme of spatial patterns and functionality and the ornamentation is applied independently.Architecturally; a decorated shed is functional in nature because its priority is to serve the prime purpose of the structure (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 75). It is the additional features that serve other purposes in a decorated shed. These peripheral features are not included in the main design of the building and this means that the functional aspect of the building is given priority while the formal aspects are not given this priority. The main point made by Venturi et al in the concept of the decorated shed is that function overrides form in a decorated shed. Decorations are only put where they are required and they are put in an explicit way that is detached from the main architecture of the building. Most buildings in the world today are decorated sheds. The moment an observer casts their eyes on them, what strikes first is the function of the building before the decorations and the ornamentations catch ones eyes. For example, the moment an observer sees a church, what comes first to the mind of the observer is the function of the church before noticing the aesthetics. The observer will be able to tell the difference between a church and a mosque based on their functions and not on their formal qualities. The difference between a school and a hospital is more functional than formal. This is because the two are decorated sheds and what strike first are the functions. This is because in a decorated shed, it is the function that matters and the form may even go unnoticed. Petrol stations, malls and supermarkets other forms of decorated shed. Their architecture is distinct from the ornamentation that they have. They may even lack aesthetics because during construction, the primary focus of the builder is the function that the buildings are going to serve. This means that a mall cannot be constructed as a tourist attraction building because this kind of building would tend to focus on form rather than on function. Everyone knows the functions of a mal and it is only a second thought that manages to focus on the formal details.
However, a duck is an ornamental building. The decorations are part of the building and they are put in the original design. There is no detachment of the spatial, structural and program in the architectural set up of a duck. All the aforementioned aspects are merged and distorted into a form that has symbolic implication. It has a duck shaped drive in and that is where it derives its name. (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 99). This building is more of a sculpture than a functional set up. The aesthetic elements of a duck are usually embedded within its structural framework and as opposed to the decorated shed; functionality does not matter in a duck. It is the formal aspects that are more noticeable and the functional ones take backseat. In short, a duck is a building where form overrides function. The key aesthetic details are usually concealed within the architectural program meaning that is hard to detach the aesthetics from the main frame. The best example that Venturi gave to illustrate a duck is the building in New York that is called the long island duckling which he referred to as sculptural buildings. He says that this is the best form of a duck and looking at its picture, Venturi is right because what meets ones eyes is ornamentation and it is very hard to tell the function of that building. Without any additional details, it is very hard for an outsider to tell the function the building serves. This is one factor that downplays functionalism in a duck because the image overrides the importance of the structure.
This duck that Venturi chose to use as an example because of its architecture was built in the 1930’s during the great depression and it as supposed to act as a retail shop selling ducks and their eggs to motorists (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 105). However, after it was taken over by the Suffolk council authorities, it stopped being a retail shop. Today it operates as a mini museum and a gift shop and what is important to note is that the building started out as a decorated shed, theoretically, because it had a primary function. However, when it was taken over by the council, it lost its original functionalities because its image started overriding its form. What goes to public about this building is its external image and not its original function. Even in Venturi’s book, the author focuses on its form but there are scant details of its function. Even if the function was to be revisited, its primary function has been lost because instead of acting as a retail shop selling ducks and their produce, it acts as a building for selling images. This means that the original function has been totally overridden by the formal qualities of the building. The formal symbolism has already distorted the principle architecture creating a near total take over.
Another example of a decorated shed turned into a duck is the most photographed barn in the USA, though it appears in its fictional description. This barn is a major tourist attraction it was originally meant to serve a certain purpose. People do not focus on what it is and what it was meant to do. This is because its functional elements have been overshadowed by its aesthetic appearance. The external appearance of the barn overrides its original function.
The ducks are the ones that use objects. The mode in which a duck is represented is two fold. This is because a duck has a shape that is a bit overt and it activates the reaction of the public towards the image of the duck. The association of the image with the meaning in ducks is the one that narrows the meaning down(Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 115).. This means that a duck is symbolized by the reciprocal association between the sign and content which is one of the most acknowledged features of a duck. The shape of a duck applies a sort of iconography that is not intentional and this has no relationship in any way with the manner in which the building is constructed. The iconography of a duck has been said to be more of a double agenda because the reciprocity of a structure is not in tandem with the representations or the program of the structure.
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To illustrate the argument of the ducks and the decorated sheds, Venturi gave a description of his retirement house that he built in Philadelphia. The house has very aesthetic ornamentations and to him, the house is a decorated shed. This is because the house has six storeys, built in a box like design in a way that creates a functional theme especially because of the subtle ornamentations which adds a meaning that is historicized (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 95). The house has brick glazes that are white in color and the attenuations of the placed windows and other devices are the ones the makes this house to be a true decorated shed. On the front face of this structure is a huge column which any viewer will have trouble trying to bring the column together mentally because of the intricate designs that have been used to lay it up.
Description of the Vanna Venturi house
The House that venture built for his mother Vanna Venturi could be both a duck and a decorated shed. The building has motley of contradictions that would make it fall in the two categories. To start with, the building is complex in a simple way. It has some complexities that blend with its simplicity. Secondly, the building is somehow open and somehow closed and it is big yet little. It has some generic elements thought its circumstantial nature has some particularities.
The distorted relationships of the shapes in the interior face are complicated though they augur well with the complex internal programs. This makes it more of a duck than a decorated shed. However, the outside has a parapet wall covered by a gabled roof that tends to hide the inner distortions and complications. This is what denotes the simplicity of the house (Venturi & Brown, 2004: pg 105). The doors have been combined in a conventional manner. The windows and the chimneys are the ones that carry the symbolic image that make this house to carry the qualities of a duck.
There is a stark contrast between the inside and the outside though in totality, there is symmetry in the consistency that is there on the outside. There are some perforations in the elevation that are indicators of the distorted circumstances in the house. The original plan of the house has a consistent symmetry with the vertical core that is located at the centre which radiates two other diagonally placed symmetrical walls. The house is both open and closed because the outer wall creates some contradictions that emphasize the aesthetics of the building (Vinegar, 1998; pg 84). The horizontal enclosure on the upper wall makes the house to look as if it is closed because of the parapets that have been laid on the walls. However there is permission for the expression of openness on the upper terrace because of the open way in which the chimney protrudes making the parapets to create a flexible view. The shape of the walls is consistent and this consistency creates an emphasis of an enclosure that is purely rigid. This is the case with most structures that fall into the category of ducks. However, some effects of a decorated shed appear on the methodology used to lay the walls because the openings are big enough despite the existence of the enclosures. This layering for enclosure and punctuation for openness especially at the center create some functional aesthetics that are juxtaposed with different sizes of openings. What makes the outer interface qualify as a decorated shed is because of the layered space instead of a penetrated space (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg119).
The other contradictions in the house are in its size. The house may be little but its scale is very large. Looking at the house interior, it has a very huge fireplace and a very tall mantle which is too much for the size of that room and the hugeness of the interior side of the house is punctuated by broad doors and the high rails of the chair. The interior looks big because the space inside is minimally subdivided.
Most of these design specifications are in tandem with the design of a duck, but this house cannot be said to be a duck. This is because there are some other extra ordinary features in the building that a duck does not have. One of these features is a window that acts as a hole in the wall.
There are spandrels in this hole that camouflage the window and this is the hallmark of the modern architecture. The window w has also been used symbolically because the mountings that have been laid vertically produce panes that create a conventional theme. The house also has a pediment which is not classical. This is one of the outstanding points in this house and the fashion that has been used in this pediment is mannerist because it represents a composition that is both classical and conventional. The use of the dado molding in the Vanna Venturi house especially on the outer interface makes the house to look a bit more functional and this makes references to classical promotions. The superimposition of the wide opening at the entrance is another outrageous feature of this house that adds to its contradictory complexities especially because it has been put above normal sized doors (Venturi & Brown, 1972: pg 125). The arches that are used in the Vanna Venturi house are not in any way structural and this is a complete departure from modern architecture. In this house, there is a Lunette that has been used to emphasize the scale of this storied house apart fro creating a symbolic meaning. The penultimate detail that makes to depart from the design of the ducks is its symmetry. This house has a distorted symmetry and this is one of the things that was absent in the ancient architecture (Brown, 2009. Pg 34). The symmetry in this house is a rare exception that adds to the functionality of the house.
Finally, the house has wide enclosures and spaces that have been aesthetically punctured into the walls that already have parapets. This is what attracts the eyes of a an observer from a far who recognizes that this is not an ordinary house
The initial descriptions of this house fit the descriptions of a duck but it is the complex contradictions in design and ornamentation that far remove this house from the specifications of a duck. The outstanding features described later are the ones that can be used to candidly categorize this house as a decorated shed because its architecture is separated from its aesthetics. What strikes one when you look at the house are the functional elements of the house. Architecturally; a decorated shed is functional in nature because its primary purpose is to serve a certain function. This house that Venturi built for her mother therefore serves a function and the additional features serve other purposes in the house therefore making it a decorated shed. These peripheral features were not included in the main design of the building and this means that the functional aspect of the building was given priority. The main point made by Venturi et al in the concept of the decorated shed is that function overrides form in a decorated shed. Decorations are only put where they are required and they are put in an explicit way that is detached from the main architecture of the building. This is the same concept that he used while building this house for his mother.
Brown, D. Having Words.Architectural Association, London, 2009.
This book is a review of the various works authored by Dennis Scott Brown and also the ones that he had co authored with Robert Venturi.
Brown, D. Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room, MIT Press, Cambridge. 1998
This book is about the use of icons in the generic and the postmodern architecture. It lays its emphasis on electronic architecture.
Goldberger, P. Robert Venturi, Gentle Subverter of Modernism. Web.
This article in the New York times focuses on how leading architect, Robert Venturi has been able to subvert modernism in his pieces of architecture.
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Venturi, R., Brown, D. Learning from Las Vegas. MIT Press, Cambridge.1977.
This book by Venturi and Brown is about reimportation into the architecture of the ornamentation to bring back the old architectural designs that had been phased out by the Puritanism of modernism.
Venturi, R., Brown, D. Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time, Harvard University Press, Berkeley, 2004.
This book is about signs and systems that are used in the post modern architecture from a mannerist perspective.
Venturi, R., Brown, D. : On ducks and decoration. MIT Press, Cambridge. 1972.
This book focuses on ornamentation and decoration in architecture.
Vinegar, A.I am a monument on learning from Las Vegas. MIT Press, Cambridge. 1998.
This book is about techniques used in architecture and design it maintains that architectural ornamentations that were commercially motivated have the capability to generate interest.