Monday, March 16, 2009

The Odyssey--Part 2

The saga of Robert Venturi's Lieb House has very seriously been one of the single most important events I've had the pleasure to witness in my entire lifetime. As I said to Andrew Sarnoff, the brother of the new owner who was extremely nice and helpful to me throughout the process, I consider it to be like the opposite side of the same coin as the World Trade Center attacks.

I was standing outside a TGIFridays on Broadway with a TV in their front window when the first tower fell. My stranded coworker and I had settled into some too-early-in-the-morning but we-can't-believe-this-is-actually-happening consolatory cocktails at Ellen's Stardust Diner a few blocks south when we saw the second tower fall on their large screen TV. As for most New Yorkers, I will never forget that until the day I die.

The move of the Lieb House was about preservation rather than destruction. It's a terribly humble little shack rather than a towering colossus to world finance. But both events, to me, are representative of how our architecture symbolizes our American sensibilities and the incredible lengths to which people will go to acknowledge that.

As mentioned elsewhere, my approach to the Arts for many years has been linguistic, by way of Semiotics. I believe one of the last remaining things that can tie together such disparate cultural phenomena as, say, a John Deere tractor by Henry Dreyfuss and a Stravinsky violin sonata is that each, in their own distinct language, is a form of communication.

This is why I consider Robert Venturi to be such a profound legend. I consider his contribution every bit as significant as the alpha/omega of Minimalist painting I've discussed elsewhere, which, coincidentally, was going on around the same time. For countless thousands of years, architecture concerned itself first and foremost with providing shelter, making sure structures stood and stayed standing, and not long after, infusing those structures with some aesthetic philosophy. Simply put: post and beam, wall and roof, and the attempt to make the whole of it "beautiful" by some criteria or another.

Venturi, almost single-handedly, divorced the forms of architecture from their utilitarian use, and by so doing, transformed architecture from an applied art into a sophisticated formal language. One linguistic theory says that if a system is to be considered a "language," it must have the capacity to lie (one reason the communicative limitations of Music are so hotly debated). Venturi lied. The best example, and one which I've had heated arguments over its legitimacy, is in his Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London:
--Photo courtesy Public Lettering.
The arches may at first glance appear to perform a structural purpose, but then, one of them is positioned over an interior window, meaning it can't possibly serve any utilitarian function. With one simple maneuver, by using it to lie, Venturi has turned that arch into nothing more than a architectural symbol, what maybe I should dub an "architeme." He'd been doing things like this from the very beginning, as with the stairway to nowhere in his mother's house.

One may argue that Mannerist architecture had already accomplished this 400 years earlier. I submit, though, that the Mannerists were first of all subverting only the formal rules of Classicism--even poking some fun at them--and secondly, creating a sense of folly, mystery, fantasy, and wonderment with their architectural shenanigans. Essentially, it was still merely a matter of aesthetics. The revolutions in linguistic theory didn't really start to appear until the middle of the last century, anyway, and would have been unavailable to them. Furthermore, Venturi much more completely took on the idea of architecture as an entire structural/visual system.

I can only imagine how the folks directly involved must feel; for me, it was a long and completely exhausting experience. For that reason, I'd like to break up this story into a series of smaller posts.

I'd been watching the architectural press on the event from the beginning, but my first real entrance into it was the celebratory talk at the Storefront for Art & Architecture on Kenmare Street. Gathered there were Venturi and his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown; their son and documentary filmmaker Jim Venturi; the Ellmans, who lived in the house for the past thirty years; and the new owners, Robert Gotkin and Deborah Sarnoff.

Storefront isn't a huge gallery, anyway, and the place was absolutely packed full of people, not all that surprisingly. I unfortunately got stuck all the way in the back, creeping forward inch by inch as individual people intermittently left.

With the door opening and closing to street noise right next to me, it was difficult to hear everything being said at the front of the room, especially and distressingly what Robert Venturi himself was saying. Sheila Ellman told some amusing stories about having known of and admired Venturi but not that the house she'd bought was designed by him. She spoke about finding out that it was a Venturi house and being told no doubt incorrectly by "someone" at his offices that blueprints no longer existed (Venturi asked her who'd said that, but she refused to rat him out, saying that's not her style). Then about all the people who'd come to see the house over the years, including Philip Johnson, who'd remarked somewhat comically on the prominent location of the washer and dryer.

Deborah Sarnoff talked about how she'd had her eyes on the incredible Glen Cove property for years, had become obsessed by it and the Venturi-designed house on it, and missed the opportunity to purchase it not once but twice. She said that when she was phoned and asked about the prospect of purchasing the Lieb House and moving it to her property, she'd thought it was a joke.

In response to an audience question, Scott Brown discussed her contributions to the team, saying she's comfortable in the knowledge that she and her husband have differing skills and talents. She said she believed her great asset to the firm was foremost conceptual, giving birth to various projects. She also conceded that some of the firm's works were mostly Venturi's, without much of her input, while others were products of predominantly her own brain.

I'd have loved to have gone up front and spoken to some of the people involved, but as I said, it was ridiculously crowded, so I hoped the opportunities would come later and returned home. The Storefront event was merely an appetizer for what was to come. I left filled with a sense of excitement and a little anxiety about what I'd face the following morning.

Stay tuned for Part 3.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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