brian carroll on Thu, 19 Aug 1999 14:02:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> ae fragments/venturi

| working on 'the architecture of electricity' (ae) thesis to be
| finished near 2000 Common Era. just finished writing this piece
| today, which i propose is an archaeo-architectural (mis-)
| reading of the architectural text by Robert Venturi, Complexity
| & Contradiction in Architecture. the upper-case letters will
| be of a smaller font size than the lowercase letters, and
| these words will be hyperlinked to their definitions, as will
| the numbered footnotes with the bibliographic information. of
| the concepts in this piece, most all have been established in the
| the thesis prior to this text (this is at the end of the thesis).
| thus, a concept like the E-INFRASTRUCTURE has a whole section
| detailing how electricity is produced and consumed, and that in
| turn has another section about what ELECTRICITY is, etcetera.
| feedback is welcome. bc
 a r c h i t e x t u r e z : an online community for hacking |
 and cracking the architectural code - |

 R O B E R T   V E N T U R I

Robert Venturi is a teacher, architect, and author whose work has helped to
prepare the way for recognizing the ELECTRICAL ORDER as an ARCHITECTURAL
ORDER within our everyday BUILT ENVIRONMENT. In the "brilliant and
liberating" 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture Venturi
is said to have provided ARCHITECTs with "more realistic and effective
weapons" for breadth and relevance in the ARCHITECTURAL dialogue. (122n) We
recontextualize Venturi's argument and reasoning herein with respect to

Venturi begins with "A Gentle Manifesto" which proposes that "an
architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation
toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of
totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the
easy unity of exclusion. More is not less." (123)

We propose this "difficult unity" refers to including the ELECTRICAL ORDER
within the realm of ARCHITECTURAL theory and practice. Doing so would allow
for a complex and contradictory understanding of ELECTRICAL SPACE-TIME,

Venturi believes that, by excluding important considerations from
ARCHITECTURE, that ARCHITECTURE becomes separated from the experience of
life and the needs of society. (124) Indeed, this is the condition of
ARCHITECTURE today as it excludes and denies the phenomenal influence of
embrace CYBERSPACE to extend their ARCHITECTUREs of TRADITION.

In fact most ARCHITECTURAL historians intentionally exclude the ELECTRICAL
INFRASTRUCTURE from their photographs of "great" buildings, thus denying
the context of an ELECTRICAL ORDER within their "Architecture."

Venturi does not do this, for even the book's cover-photo of Michelangelo's
Porta Pia building in Rome has an ELECTRICAL subtransmission line in the
background with wires splaying above the building. At least fourteen of the
photographs in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture contain images
of the ELECTRICAL ORDER in the form of ELECTRICAL wires, streetlights,
DISTRIBUTION POLEs, and TELEVISION transmitting and receiving ANTENNAs.

Venturi intuitively foresees ELECTRICITY as an ARCHITECTURAL ordering
device in the BUILT ENVIRONMENT- standing between the infinitely consistent
and infinitely inconsistent. This is evidenced in the book's comparison of
two photographs- of which ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION POLEs carrying
POWERLINEs, TELEPHONE LINEs, and streetlights occupy the focal center in
both images, each rhythmic and linear order receding to the central
vanishing point. (126n) These photographs obviously portray the ELECTRICAL

Venturi states the need that "...the medium of architecture must be
re-examined if the increased scope of our architecture as well as the
complexity of its goals is to be expressed." And that "...the growing
complexities of our functional problems must be acknowledged." (127)
Likewise, if ARCHITECTURE is to design and build with ELECTRICAL tools,
such as COMPUTERs with ARCHITECTURAL software, for our present-day
complexities (as they are evidenced in building programs) then we need to
consider the inclusion of ELECTRICITY into the visual and visceral "scope"
of ARCHITECTURE so that these goals, such as building holistically in
CYBERSPACE, can be fulfilled.

For example, COMPUTER NETWORKs can be utilized in building a functional
ARCHITECTURAL program linking telecommuting and onsite employees into a
local area intranet, business partners by a wide area extranet, and
customers by an Internet domain on a SERVER.

The qualities of BEING "complex and contradictory" are described by Venturi
in a CHARGED statement :

"Ambiguity and tension are everywhere in an architecture of complexity and
contradiction. Architecture is form and substance - abstract and concrete -
and its meaning derives from its interior characteristics and its
particular context. An architectural element is perceived as form and
structure, texture and material. These oscillating relationships, complex
and contradictory, are the source of the ambiguity and tension
characteristic to the medium of architecture." (128)

These qualities are also reminiscent of the ELECTRICAL ORDER: from the
tension and ambiguity between protons, neutrons, and ELECTRONs in ATOMS; to
the form-and-substance and abstract-and-concreteness of ELECTRONIC SPACE
form-and-structure and texture-and-material in the POLEs and TOWERs of the
ELECTRICAL POWER SYSTEM. All of these elements "oscillate" in complex and
contradictory relationships within an ARCHITECTURE OF ELECTRICITY, like an

Venturi proposes a "both-and" philosophy of inclusion rather than an
"either-or" philosophy of exclusion. This "both-and" philosophy allows
"both" ARCHITECTURE "and" ELECTRICITY to co-exist, instead of "either"
ARCHITECTURE "or" ELECTRICITY being the only valid rationale for reasoning.
This philosophy allows qualities such as double-meanings, paradoxes, and
metamorphosis to exist, along with contradictions. (131) It allows
situations where ".. at one moment one meaning can be perceived as
dominant; at another moment a different meaning seems paramount." (132)

With specific regard to the ELECTRICAL INFRASTRUCTURE, at one and the same
moment, traditional ARCHITECTURAL SPACE and TIME can co-exist with the new
ELECTRICAL SPACE-TIME. And thus, as a double-functioning element, the
ELECTRICAL can "involve the phenomenon of both-and at several levels. It
can be at the same time physically structural or not, symbolically
structural through association, and compositionally ornamental by promoting
rhythm and also complexity of scale in the giant order." (133n)

So too, the ELECTRICAL ORDER can be "both" structural "and" spatial at
once, as is witnessed when looking up at an ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION POLE
and seeing "both" the ARCHITECTURAL structure of the COLUMN "and" the speed
of light CYBERSPACE of TELEPHONE LINEs in situ. (134)

new meanings for these forms to reveal themselves:

"Conventional elements in architecture represent one stage in an
evolutionary development, and they contain in their changed use and
expression some of their past meaning as well as their new meaning. What
can be called the vestigial element parallels the double-functioning
element. It is distinct from a superfluous element because it contains a
double meaning. This is the result of a more or less ambiguous combination
of the old meaning, called up by associations, with a new meaning created
by the modified or new function, structural or programmatic, and the new
context." (135)

Thus, for example, conventional ELECTRICAL elements like ELECTRICAL POLEs
can be compared with the Corinthian ARCHITECTURAL COLUMNs of ancient Rome,
while also contrasting the SPACE of the TRADITIONAL ORDER with our

Detailing the paradoxical limitations of this new ARCHITECTURAL ORDER,
Venturi states that "[a] valid order accommodates the circumstantial
contradictions of a complex reality. It accommodates as well as imposes...
It tolerates qualifications and compromise." (136) Likewise, including
conventional ELECTRICAL elements into the theory and practice of
ARCHITECTURE at first appears to be a contradiction in terms.

Yet it is this contradictory ARCHITECTURAL ORDER that we propose is
ELECTRICAL, as does Venturi intuits when declaring:

	"Our buildings must survive the cigarette machine." (137)

Indeed, this ELECTRICAL machine of which Venturi speaks is a part of the
"complex reality" of the ELECTRICAL ORDER co-existing beside the
TRADITIONAL ORDER of ARCHITECTURE in sometimes violent juxtaposition.

Venturi believes that these conventional ARCHITECTURAL elements can be a
"manifestation of an exaggeratedly strong order... general in scope." (138)
And that "[a]n architecture should use convention and make it vivid. I mean
[s|he] should use convention unconventionally. By convention I mean both
the elements and the methods of building. Conventional elements are those
which are common in their manufacture, form, and use." (139n) We interpret
this to mean that conventional ELECTRICAL elements of the ELECTRICAL ORDER,
such as mass-produced ELECTRICAL OUTLETs, wiring, switches, METERs,
streetlights, and POLEs and TOWERs could be used unconventionally by

Referring to these as "honky-tonky elements" Venturi says that their main
justification as being part of an ARCHITECTURAL ORDER "is their very
existence." (140) Venturi continues: "[t]hey are what we have. Architects
can bemoan or try to ignore them or even try to abolish them, but they will
not go away. Or they will not go away for a long time, because architects
do not have the power to replace them (nor do they know what to replace
them with), and because these commonplace elements accommodate existing
needs for variety and communication. The old clichés involving both
banality and mess will still be the context of the new architecture, and
our new architecture significantly will be the context for them." (141)

Venturi all but says that these common ELECTRICAL elements in our BUILT
ENVIRONMENT will create the context for our new ARCHITECTURAL ORDER, which

ARCHITECTURE, Venturi writes, is "both" evolutionary "and" revolutionary.
Recontextualizing these common ELECTRICAL elements as an ARCHITECTURAL
ORDER allows "the organization of a unique whole through ordinary parts."
(143) And "[t]he architect thereby, through the organization of parts,
creates meaningful contexts for them within the whole. Through
unconventional organization of conventional parts [s|he] is able to create
new meanings within the whole. If [s|he] uses convention unconventionally,
if [s|he] organizes familiar things in an unfamiliar way, [s|he] is
changing their contexts, and [s|he] can use even the cliché to gain a fresh
effect. Familiar things seen in an unfamiliar context become perceptually
new as well as old." (144)

This recontextualization of the conventional elements of the ELECTRICAL
ORDER could both create a new ELECTRICAL awareness and a new dimension of
ELECTRICAL meaning within the realm of ARCHITECTURE, and beyond.

As if Venturi was writing of the ELECTRICAL INFRASTRUCTURE and its POLEs
and TOWERs, it is stated that these honky-tonk elements are here to stay,
and that, as a fate it should be acceptable, because "...commonplace
elements are often the main source of the occasional variety and vitality
of our cities, and that it is not their banality or vulgarity as elements
which make for the banality or vulgarity of the whole scene, but rather
their contextual relationships of space and scale." (145)

Indeed, if these POLEs and TOWERs could be recontextualized within an
expressive ARCHITECTURE OF ELECTRICITY, we could establish a new
relationship of CYBERSPACE and the micro- and macro-cosmic scale of
ELECTROMAGNETISM within these common ARCHITECTURAL elements, thus unifying

Venturi then critiques ARCHITECTs attempts and "..elaborate methods for
abolishing or disguising honky-tonk elements in the existing landscape, or,
for excluding them from the vocabulary of their new townscapes. But they
largely fail either to enhance or to provide a substitute for the existing
scene because they attempt the impossible." (146)

An immediate example is to be found in suburban developments which "hide"
POWERLINEs, TELEPHONE LINEs, and TELEVISION cables underground. These
ELECTRICAL services are supposedly "invisible" yet are still accessed from
"honky-tonk" objects which pop-up in the middle of lawns, sidewalks, and
the sides of houses. (147n)

Instead of this denial, Venturi proposes, "[c]annot the architect and
planner, by slight adjustments to the conventional elements of the
townscape, existing or proposed, promote significant effects? By modifying
or adding conventional elements to still other conventional elements they
can, by a twist of context, gain a maximum of effect through a minimum of
means. They can make us see the same things in a different way." (148)
Thus, by recontextualizing the conventional elements of the ELECTRICAL
ORDER through an ARCHITECTURE OF ELECTRICITY we can begin to see a new

Again, paradoxically, Venturi all but "names" the conventional elements of
the ELECTRICAL ORDER as ARCHITECTURE when comparing photographs of a
highway and developers housing in which ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION POLEs are
the focus. (126n)
By utilizing the concept of "superadjacencey" we can include this
than exclude it, as Venturi states:

"[Superadjacencey] can relate contrasting and otherwise irreconcilable
elements; it can contain opposites within a whole; it can accommodate the
valid non sequitur; and it can allow a multiplicity of levels of meaning,
since it involves changing contexts- seeing familiar things in an
unfamiliar way and from unexpected points of view." (149)

This superadjacencey, for example, allows us to realize our ELECTRONIC
within the juxtaposition of an ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION POLE with an

Venturi describes the important relationship between inside and outside
SPACE, and interior and exterior ARCHITECTURAL elements:

"Designing from the outside in, as well as the inside out, creates
necessary tensions, which help make architecture. Since the inside is
different from the outside, the wall - the point of change - becomes an
architectural event. Architecture occurs at the meeting of interior and
exterior forces of use and space. These interior and environmental forces
are both general and particular, generic and circumstantial. Architecture
as the wall between the inside and the outside becomes the spatial record
of this resolution and its drama." (150)

Likewise, the ELECTRICAL SERVICE DROP where ELECTRICITY enters a building
defines a perimeter between inside and outside. Even moreso, an ELECTRICAL
PLUG and OUTLET make "visible" the ARCHITECTURAL connection between
internal CYBERSPACE and the external SPACE of TRADITION.

For example, a typical streetlight represents the internalization of
ELECTRICAL ENERGY transmitted and distributed via THE GRID of the
ELECTRICAL POWER SYSTEM, which in turn manifests itself externally in the
form of radiated ELECTRICAL LIGHT.

Another example of this spatial paradox is the noticed in the perceptual
wormhole of CYBERSPACE experienced during a typical TELEVISION news
broadcast: The "internal" or "external" SPACE of the newsroom or news
scene, say, is broadcast "outside" via ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVEs through air
and walls, to "inside" the house of a viewer, whose TELEVISION RECEIVER
deciphers and represents the SPACE "internally" in an endless
self-referential loop. The TELEVISION viewer can consider this CYBERSPACE
both "inside" and "outside" at the same TIME. (151n) Integrating this new
ELECTRICAL ORDER within ARCHITECTURE would help to achieve what Venturi
calls a "difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity of
exclusion" as is normally the case. (152)

In the chapter "The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole" Venturi offers
thoughts on how ARCHITECTURAL ORDER works. "Hierarchy" is stated as being
"implicit in an architecture of many levels of meaning. It involves
configurations of configurations - the interrelationships of several orders
of varying strengths to achieve a complex whole." (153) So too is the
"dominant binder" said to be "...another manifestation of the hierarchical
relationships of parts. It manifests itself in the consistent pattern (the
thematic kind of order) as well as by being the dominant element." (154)

We propose that the ELECTRICAL ORDER poetically demonstrates this
"hierarchy of order," from PLUG to POWERPLANT and is a "dominant binder",
"a third element connecting a duality," in a thematically patterned BUILT

This ultimately enables us to "see" the ELECTRICAL ORDER as what Venturi
calls "[a]n architecture that can simultaneously recognize contradictory
levels" which can "...admit the paradox of the whole fragment: the building
which is a whole at one level and a fragment of a greater whole at another
level." (155) Surely, the ELECTRICAL ORDER, physically connected by a
TECHNOLOGY, also exists as fragments of ELECTRONIC SPACE-TIME within the

In summarizing these issues of Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture, Venturi violently juxtaposes two photographs; one of Thomas
Jefferson's University of Virginia campus and the other of a "Typical Main
Street" in the U.S.A.

In the University campus photograph there are neoclassical COLUMNs defining
an absolute and unifying hierarchical ARCHITECTURAL ORDER.

Alike, in the photograph of Main Street there is a similar absolute
ARCHITECTURAL ORDER; streetlights hierarchically dominating as an
ELECTRICAL ORDER marching absolutely into the background, supporting both
ELECTRICAL trolley and POWERLINEs. An even more "typical main street
photograph" would include ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION POLEs. (156n)

In any case, Venturi has photographically compared and questioned the
relationship between the TRADITIONAL ORDER of ARCHITECTURE and the new

The questions Venturi next raises regarding "typical main street" then
become prescient:

"As I have said, our question is: what slight twist of context will make
them all right?" (157)

We propose this new contextual twist involves "seeing" the POLEs and TOWERs
ORDER in the chaos of the everyday BUILT ENVIRONMENT.

By juxtaposing this ELECTRICAL ORDER with TRADITION, we reveal and create

Venturi intuits this ELECTRICAL ORDER: "The seemingly chaotic
juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of
vitality and validity, and they produce an unexpected approach to unity as
well." (158)

Indeed, it should not be forgotten, ignored, or excluded that the unity in
the photograph Venturi refers to is ELECTRICAL.

For Venturi this ELECTRICAL ORDER is not yet obvious in its entirety, but
instead is sensed: "...there is an inherent sense of unity not far from the
surface. It is not the obvious or easy unity derived from the dominant
binder or the motival order of simpler, less contradictory compositions,
but that derived from a complex and illusive order of the difficult whole."

The ELECTRICAL ORDER is this illusive and difficult whole, as it is capable
of BEING perceived as a whole only with hindsight and retrospect, as the
process of ELECTRIFICATION is ever-changing and building upon its past

The book's general thesis ends with the words: "[i]t is perhaps from the
everyday landscape, vulgar and disdained, that we can draw the complex and
contradictory order that is valid for our architecture as an urbanistic
whole." (160n)

This ARCHITECTURAL ORDER Venturi writes of is obviously ELECTRICAL. It is
composed of ordinary and conventional ELECTRICAL elements, such as PLUGs,
switches, wires, METERs, POLEs, TOWERs, and POWERPLANTs. The "complex and
contradictory" relationship between the ARCHITECTURE of TRADITION and the
new ELECTROMAGNETIC ARCHITECTURE is united into an inclusive and difficult
whole in an ARCHITECTURE OF ELECTRICITY. Thus, to begin "seeing" the
ELECTRICAL POLEs and TOWERs is to begin to visualize our new, "invisible"

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi, with an
introduction by Vincent Scully, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Papers on
Architecture, NY, c.1966,1977, 1988 printing, (paperback, 136 pages, 350
black-and-white illustrations), (122n) comments on back cover of the book
by Vincent Scully, April, 1977., (123) p.16, (124) p.17, (125n) this
includes the pictures: #37, 38, 41, 86, 88, 89, 91, 110, 142, 172, 173,
201, 219, 253, 301-304. (126n) pp.54-55, compare the sentences and
photographs with the electrical distribution poles as an order: "It seems
our fate now to be faced with either the endless inconsistencies of
roadtown (88) , which is chaos, or the infinite consistency of Levittown
(or the ubiquitous Levittown-like scene illustrated in figure 89), which is
boredom." (127) p.19, (128) p.20, (131) p.32, (132) p.32, (133n) p.35, This
text was recontextualized, replacing the subject of "the Renaissance
pilaster" with that of "the Electrical Order" to produce a new meaning for
the text. (134) p.36, (135) p.38, (136) p.41, (137) p.42, (138) p.42,
(139n) p.42, Venturi refers to "the vast accumulation of standard,
anonymously designed products connected with architecture and construction,
and also to commercial display elements which are positively banal or
vulgar in themselves and are seldom associated with architecture." (140)
p.42, (141) p.42, (143) p.43, (144) p.43, (145) p.44, (146) p.44, (147n)
this is related to the "disneyfication" of the environment by attempting to
hide the inner-workings of the electrical machine from the observer. (148)
p.44 (149) p.61 (151n) Ideas such as inside-outside, and interior-exterior
space and time are relevant for "traditional space" versus the "cyberspace"
as found in electronic media systems and their space-time machines. Thus, a
television can be "outside" or "inside" space. The traditional room can be
also considered "outside" or "inside" space in relation to television. This
"violent juxtaposition" of traditional with the electronic media systems
creates the vivid multiple-levels of meaning in the electronic space and
time that we experience and inhabit everyday. (152) p.88, (153) p.100,
(154) p.100, (155) p.103, (156n) p.104, pictures #252 and #253 are compared
in terms of architectural order. The electrical order, we propose, is the
obviously 'complex and contradictory' order that links the two
architectures, one of traditional, one of electrical space and time. (157)
p.104, (158) p.104, (159) p.104, (160n) p.104, p.116, Ironically, this
conventional electrical order was symbolized by Venturi with a centrally
placed anodized gold television antenna atop of the "Guild House" building.
Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture : A View From The
Drafting Room, Robert Venturi, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, c.1996,
(160.5) p.15,

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