Context - Winter 2015 - (Page 7)
By DaviD B. Brownlee, FSAH
Context gueSt editor
Venturi and rauch, Vanna Venturi house, 1959-64
Mitchell/giurgola, Walnut Street garage, university of
I hate the term "Mid-century Modernism." When was mid century?
What is modernism? It's hard to answer those questions, but that difficulty is, in fact, one of the defining characteristics of the fascinating
architecture that we explore in this issue of Context. Nowhere is the
complicated, hard-to-categorize richness of mid-century architecture
more apparent than here in Philadelphia. We're the home town of the
"Philadelphia School," which Jan Rowan christened and defined (loosely)
in a famous article in Progressive Architecture in 1961.1 The Philadelphia
School is arguably the quintessential architectural expression of the
period, and, fittingly, it's hard to define.
"Complex and contradictory" is one way you could describe the architecture built here in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. And, indeed, this year is
the fiftieth anniversary of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,
the epochal book written by Robert Venturi, one of Rowan's Philadelphia
Schoolmates, and published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. In
his "gentle manifesto," Venturi suggested looking carefully at all sorts
of architecture from the past, and then famously ended by declaring
that the ordinary architecture of Main Street and of the commercial
strip was "almost all right." Subsequently, when anyone has tried to
blame him for inventing Post Modernism, he concedes that "the modern
movement was almost all right," too.
What was created during the mid-century years in Philadelphia seems
to live up to Venturi's embracing, tolerant vision. But is it more than just
complex and contradictory? What thread can possibly tie together all
the inventive architecture that was built in Philadelphia during that era?
What connects the comfortable domesticity of the Mother's House, the
romantic San Gimignano allusions of Louis Kahn's Richards Building,
the boney power of Romaldo Giurgola's Walnut Street Garage, and the
slick pizazz of the everyday commercial strip? Those buildings don't look
alike, which is how we normally define architectural styles and epochs.
But if you close your eyes for a moment, you can see that, at a
time when modern architecture seemed to have stalled and become
formulaic, Philadelphia's architects shared the vision of making it less
artificial and more real. They did not agree about how to do it, however. Those who were working with the everyday reality of the suburb
and the commercial strip undid some of modernism's remoteness and
abstraction to create a new vernacular architecture. Kahn reattached
architecture to history and rooted his designs in the realities of particular
traditions, functions, and materials. Giurgola reinvigorated form making with ardent geometry and structural expression. And Venturi and
Scott Brown tapped into the "languages" with which ordinary people
communicate in architecture.
This creative diversity makes Philadelphia's mid-century architecture
a little hard to define, and that may be the reason that we have been
slow to appreciate and protect its landmarks. But understanding and
appreciation are now growing, as the following articles make plain. ■
David Brownlee teaches architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania
1 Jan C. Rowan, "Wanting To Be: The Philadelphia School," Progressive Architecture 42
(April 1961): 140-50.
AIA Philadelphia | context | WINTER 2016
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Context - Winter 2015
Philadelphia’s Everyday Modernism
Truly and Unobtrusively Modern: Chestnut Hill Architecture of the Twentieth Century
2015 Design Awards
Index to Advertisers
Context - Winter 2015