I was pleased and surprised when Venturi Scott Brown Associates agreed to have me to their office – Bob Venturi had recently retired from interviews but I was welcomed by Jeremy Tenenbaum, Director of Marketing, Graphics, Et Alia. In the past year what was VSBA has become VSBA LLC and the leadership of the design and planning firm has been taken on by president and principal Daniel McCoubrey with the help of principal Nancy Rogo Trainer who have been working in the firm for some years and are forging ahead with the values and ideas of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as a backbone. Jeremy’s various roles mean that he is a veritable walking archive of the firm’s projects and theories over the years – the ideas behind which are less rigid and more conversive and playful than often comes across in architectural critiques. I hope you enjoy our discussion and look out for the cameo by Bob Venturi 🙂

 

DD: My study for the trip is about the interface between architecture and signage. I have used Venturi and Scott Brown’s duck vs. the decorated shed as a title for the study. I’m not necessarily presenting it as a theory, which is right or wrong, but rather using it as a metaphor for people to understand, or to catch on to – it’s certainly been very successful. People like cute metaphors.

JT: Well yes, but every so often we are contacted by students who say ‘this building that you designed in 1983 – is it a duck? Or is it a decorated shed? And I say I don’t know – it’s an abstraction, it’s a way of formulating an approach to conceptualising architecture. It’s not a literal checkbox on the list of data about a building. So many of our buildings could be defined as decorated sheds, and some could be defined as ducks, and some, as you formulate it, might be thought of as both as these concepts intersect, connect, and overlap in different ways. Are you wondering about this distinction in terms of particular VSBA projects or are you just interested in the intellectual framework ?

DD: I am interested in how your work incorporates graphic elements as an integral part of the building. For example, the way the Linceowitz House utilises an oriental style façade or the external signage on Guild House. I am interested in how the theoretical principles of the duck vs. the decorated shed frame your current work.

JT: Ok, I am going to try and describe what we do. Now that you have told me your thesis, I’m going to try and put that out of my mind completely so at no point do I say ‘unlike what you think!’. I am going to ignore what you may postulate.

Almost all of our buildings incorporate theories of decoration and the space, or could be thought of in those terms. Not necessarily explicitly, sometimes very muted, sometimes very traditional, sometimes much more prominent and Pop – but these basic concept can be applied to almost anything we do. Or, perhaps, anything anyone does.

We don’t say ‘this is going to be another sign building’, because in some ways the sign is not necessarily a “sign,” written across the front. It might be like the Chippendale chairs over there in which you have decoration applied to generic form. And the form is not quite so generic and the decoration is not just two-dimensional – there is play and give on both sides. So the decorated shed does have a little bit of shape and the ornament is not just flatly applied – both conform and become perverted. Incidentally, the chairs are incredibly divisive. I love the chairs. Many people love the chairs. But I know a graphic designer who says ‘If I ever get my hands on Bob Venturi for those chairs….’

Our proposal for that Disney Building (that was never built) is a very clear example of a generic building with signage very literally applied across the front. Bob has often said, quotingly, not to build decoration but to decorate buildings. I don’t want to misrepresent Bob and Denise’s theories, but I believe they disagree with signs that have become buildings, producing not-necessarily-good architecture that that often doesn’t allow for flexibility. Ducks can be beautiful but they don’t easily become anything other than ducks. They are always ducks. And that is a problem if you want your buildings to stick around for years. Like this area’s mill buildings that are basically decorated sheds,which initially housed factories and now house nightclubs, and could house condos – it is an incredibly useful form that will last.

DD: Do you think Philadelphia has influenced VSBA’s architecture much?

JT: I think there is a Quakerly conservatism. Bob was raised Quaker and Denise loves to say “Bob and I are dour functionalists”. But she says it with slight tongue and cheek. It’s true – functionalism is important – but their definition of functionalism is much more varied and complex than most would normally allow.

Functionalism means functionalism tomorrow and different things amongst different groups and different cultures — and functionalism may be a very different thing depending on which group is using a building and in what era, for what purpose, what technology.

Philadelphia is a complicated place with a complicated history. There is a certain red brick sedateness about some of it. Row homes were shockingly demure to European visitors who first came to Philadelphia. New York has a Baroqueness that Philadelphia generally does not. Philadelphia has always essentially been working class and even its opulence is a working class opulence. 19th century iron maker Samuel Yellin completed and inspired much ironwork throughout the city. It’s beautiful wrought iron, black, doorways and ornaments and so forth – but it’s not gold and gilded. It’s a recessive opulence.

Bob and Denise’s backgrounds are different. Bob came from a much more Philadelphia, working class background, not quite old Philadelphia…but he went to Princeton, he went to Episcopal Academy, where we designed the chapel. Denise came from South Africa and was educated in London and was much more of a world traveller. In some ways I wouldn’t read too literally into it – ‘Philadelphia is working class town and we build working class buildings’ – it’s not quite that way.

We have actually not had many major building commissions in Philadelphia – Aside from work at Penn, the Curtis Institute’s Lenfest hall is one of our first. Probably every city likes to bring in big architects from somewhere else .

DD: On a macro level, is VSBA’s architecture mainly motivated off the ideas that were formed by Denise and Bob in the 50’s and 60’s or have there been new influences brought in by your new directors?

JT: Well, the work was never a literal interpretation or expression of the theory. The theory accompanied the work and was developed alongside the work and as long as there has been theory there has been work and vice versa. The two went hand in hand and moved along together and grew overtime. And both changed to some degree overtime.

Let me give you some idea of the current firm. Bob is essentially retired, he’s in the process of retiring – he’s 86. [Note: Since the interview, Bob and Denise have retired from practice; VSBA, LLC. is the current successor firm.] He was designing buildings up until a couple of years ago. He is still healthy, he comes into the office every day. You’ll probably see him around somewhere. He’s retiring partly because it was always the plan to hand on the firm to another generation. And so, for some years now, they have been working on the continuity in which the next generation of principals have been designing, have been running the firm, have been essentially doing everything for about 6 years.

Denise has retired from design work but not from writing and publishing and lecturing. She’s doing most of that from home. I think she’s turning 80. So everything in the firm is now lead by Nancy Rogo Trainer and Daniel McCoubrey. Dan and Nancy certainly share Bob and Denise’s theoretical basis, and they share an ethic – but Dan and Nancy are very much practicing their own architecture – they haven’t written theoretical books, but the new firm’s theories are being discovered project by project.

I’ve been here ten years. Even years ago, young architects would come to the firm to intern with us or visit with us and they would get me alone for a few minutes after working here for two or three weeks and say ‘I thought it would be different’ and I would say ‘Well, how did you think it would be?’ and they said ‘Well, I thought it would be more conversational, more intellectual, more theoretical – I thought we would go to lunch and we would discuss the theory of such and such architecture’. And I said ‘they’re practising architects – the theory gets done because the work has to get done’. And yes there is a time when you are reflective, you sit alone and think to yourself – but we are first and foremost architects and planners. I am not trying to divorce theory from practise, but the theory is produced as a by-product of working through the praxis. But, that said, you are coming from a theoretical background to begin with.

DD: So your official title is ‘Whatnot’?

JT: Yes, I gave myself that name. My official title is ‘marketing’ – but I also do graphic design, I do website design, I do a little bit of exhibition design, I design the storefront windows…. [Note: In the new firm, Jeremy has now been elevated to “Director of Marketing, Graphics, and Et Alia.”]

DD: I saw you got an award for the windows.

JT: We did, we got an SEGD [Society for Environmental Design] Award. Given our interest in graphic design and graphics and so forth, you would imagine that we would be more awarded, but we’ve just got the one SEGD award for the windows. I’m not quite sure why that is. You look around the room, you see a lot of signs or a lot of things that can be interpreted as signs..

Often we think of the building facades themselves as being signs. Bob and Denise have often spoken of the ‘buildingboard’ in which a billboard becomes a building. Almost everything we do could be thought of that way.

The Allentown Art Museum expansion is a good example. The expansion is meant to be deferential to the original building. It should not be confused with the original. It should be modern. Not to contrast for the sheer sake of contrasting but as an honesty, as an ethic. ‘This is a 2011 building and this is an 1890 building’. They reflect, connect, and get along together well. But the expansion doesn’t pretend to be an 1890s building any more than the 1890s building pretended to be a 1790s building. Building’s get to be of their era almost as an ethic. You could read the façade almost as a billboard in that sense. It has a modern component, it has a classic component – they refer to each other. The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, London, is another notable example in which you can almost literally narrate this façade as it works its way over to the original building. It’s not literally like a billboard but it could be thought of as a two dimensional textual space.

DD: I remember going to London and not even noticing the building, I don’t remember it. It was before I studied architecture.

JT: In some ways that is a great complement — well it’s not the best compliment, but in some ways it is a wonderful compliment. You never want to hear – oh I remember that outfit you were wearing last week – it was crazy! In some ways you want to say ‘oh I don’t remember at all what you were wearing – but you sure were well dressed.’

Jt: Shall we do the general tour?

DD: Great.

JT: Let’s start with the Curtis Institute. Philadelphia is laid out in a grid pattern with five squares that William Penn arranged. The centre square is city hall and then you have major parks on the other squares. The original Curtis Institute building is on the southwest of these squares — the rich one, Rittenhouse Park. Their original building is gorgeous.. At some point they decided they needed more performance and residential space. The way that we have provided that is by creating a new building down the block in place of a not particularly historic building. We kept two neighboring historic facades ; we couldn’t keep the interiors because they didn’t easily lend themselves to new uses and their floor levels didn’t align. We kept the historic facades because they were very pretty and because they help to maintain the streetscape. It was also important to maintain the rooflines of the neighbouring townhouses and not to overshadow the street or historic St. Mark’s church across the street.
So we were clever. This is a five-storey building, which more or less matches the 4 or 5 storey buildings along the streetscape, but there is a 15-storey tower towards the back of it, and you just see the barest hint of it up there. It is given a different colour, different materials, and it is set back from the street so that visually it is like a different building. You don’t notice it at all when you are passing by on Locust Street. You don’t see it on the street level but even if you do manage to get a view of it – it seems vaguely distant and blends in with other tall buildings in the area.

Across the front, and again it is a kind of pop art , is the name of the building. This does a couple of things: it identifies the building, it creates an institutional identity among the townhouses, and it helps connect the building to Curtis’s original home on Rittenhouse Square.

DD: It is interesting how important basic identification signage on buildings can be. We have visited a number of ‘iconic’, where there is no “signage” because the building is meant to be recognised for its own architecture. The staff in these buildings have generally said that people still don’t know it or can’t find it, even when standing out front.

JT: I mean signage doesn’t necessarily have to be language or text, I’ll put it that way. But it’s still the best way to get ideas across in a condensed way.

A good example of this is the Lehigh Valley Hospital, a new building designed in 2005, about an hour from here. They had an existing hospital campus but they wanted to reorient it. This is a beautiful example of signage that makes a real world difference. We created a new building that becomes the new face of the hospital campus. An important symbol for hospitals is a big blue ‘H’ and this symbol becomes the entry for the hospital itself. There is a pathway that runs right up to it. It’s not just a big sign that helps you identify the building it is also an entrance and it also reorients the campus.

Another project for the same client involved a ground floor lobby and concourse with moving information across a variety of coloured signs that makes a very public space. Information serves so many purposes but wayfinding is sometimes not only useful and helps accessibility, it also exudes friendliness. It welcomes you into a space. It gives you a place to make your own to some degree. Being in a hospital is a scary confusing time for many people and they need to not get lost. There is also a chapel in the hospital. Many of our projects, like the chapel, have what we call graffiti – logos, sayings and phrases written across the walls.

Most of our buildings have unambiguous entries and entry signage — large, partially decorative elements. Here is the Baker Library at Dartmouth, where we were hired first to do some campus planning. They had acquired new land off to the north for expansion . As the first increment of this growth, wee created a major new library expansion — a loft-like generic structure for their new library. Where the old building meets the new building, the exterior of the old building is built into the new building in this corridor. And this is the ‘street through the building.’ It has a light frieze that is not digital but looks digital. It’s fake digital. It riffs off of digital. This is interior signage that identifies the various components along the street – like a main street where every shop has its own sign above the door so you know where to go. This welcomes you, it tells you you are in Berry Library, there is a café as soon as you enter which is a common amenity now in libraries. There are a lot of visual connections between all the elements and as you walk along – there are giant pop art books serving as display cases. Abstracted. It’s funny because there is an older project we did in the Seventies that had a very literal giant book and I didn’t notice it for years because I only saw it from one view. Over the years VSBA Pop Art-ness has gotten more and more abstracted. Now you see it – it’s not a mystery – but it’s not the first thing you notice.

DD: I notice VSBA often use a similar font.

JT: That is Franklin Gothic. We slip Franklin Gothic in every goddamn place we can. It’s the font of the firm partially because it is incredibly readable. That is why I think we settled on it many, many years ago. It’s funny because I have made bold attempts to break away from Franklin Gothic. I’ve said ‘alright we are doing something else’ and then 5 times out of ten I can’t read it. And then, over and over again, I come back to Franklin Gothic. It’s just a big fat readable font.

Personally I’ve got some theories on that – which are that legibility is important, very important – but not the only important quality in graphic design. There was this whole movement in the eighties where not being able to read it at all was a sign of good graphic design. The current shop window has a see-through double thick font. It shows off our Synagogue project and I was worried that the big vinyl lettering would be so readable that it would obscure the beautiful backgrounds so I wanted it to be less readable. I wanted it to be there but not THERE.

DD: You have done a few buildings for religious institutions? Do you have a particular way to approach these?

JT: This was the first synagogue we had designed. Clients will often want to say before you design a church for us we want to see that you have done twenty other churches. But that’s not always a sign of either competence or creativity. Denise says that the first building of a type that you do is often the best because you come at it with completely innocent eyes and you sometimes correct faults that people have been doing for years.

Here is the Episcopal Academy Chapel project. Bob went to the Episcopal Academy when he was young. It’s a prep school. When he was studying architecture at Princeton he did a thesis project designing a chapel for the Episcopal Academy. That was 1950. Then in 2000 Episcopal Academy moved its campus from one place to a whole new campus and wanted a new chapel on the campus green and they came to Bob, just coincidentally. Bob said “fascinating” and designed it completely differently. It is not at all what his thesis was. The building has Pop Art qualities – I don’t think it can be denied. The steeple is not a three-dimensional steeple – it is a two-dimensional play steeple or cut-out. Even the bell is a cut-out – a 3-D two dimensional bell.

DD: In some ways it seems to take the idea of Pop Art quite seriously but not seriously at the same time.

JT: And what I think is interesting is that Bob and Denise and our current principals never said ‘You must take pop art as your source of inspiration and aesthetics’. The lessons from ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ and ‘Complexity and Contradiction’ are you can take whatever you want to as your source and here’s one way you might use whatever it is that turns you on and turn it into an architecture that works for today. And if that is not pop art, that’s okay – it could be Baroque. But there are ways to make Baroque work today as opposed to slavishly recreating the Baroque. This doesn’t slavishly recreate Pop Art – it takes it as a point of departure.

We designed another building that used Kandinsky as a point of departure for a mural. It was for the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is a gateway building and lab that VSBA designed, and for years they had this big empty wall space and they knew they wanted something there – a mural or something. There was so much debate and discussion and it went on forever. . This is an interesting example of where signage is problematic because when it contained words, no one could agree on what the words would be. Simple words like ‘collaboration’ and ‘discovery’. The content was so divisive. Relatively innocent words – it wasn’t a list of the best scientists of all time. Eventually it was decided that abstraction was better and the there was a big argument about what abstraction. Finally they came to us and said ‘Can you do a mural by Monday? Just do it – we’ll put it up.’ It is meant to suggest Kandinsky. It is based on a real Kandinsky. I don’t necessarily love Kandinsky but it had to be Kandinsky.

The Best Building was a similar idea for creating a façade, although very, very different. This was a big blank box. It’s a good example for your project because it was a big blank box that we needed to design a face for. Best was a catalogue store. They hired various architects to give different looks to each of their buildings and what we did was to create a panelled system that wallpapered the facades. When the building was torn down some years ago the panels were stripped and we got them. We have some up, some in storage, gave some away to staff members, given some to museums.

DD: Tell me about McDonalds in Orlando, Florida.

JT: We have done a number of projects for the Walt Disney Company. McDonalds and Disney have a cooperative relationship – there are numerous McDonalds around Disney World. We designed this McDonalds in the 1980s and then some years ago they came to us and said that they were rebranding themselves – McDonalds rebrands itself every decade or two — adopting new architectural vocabularies, revamping their menus and interior design. So we renovated our original building into much less of an 80s poppy cartoony image – which was their thing at the time – and now has a much more adult image.

DD: We have been taking photos of McDonalds all over the world and the subtle differences are interesting.

JT: We have a large McDonalds sign down there on our first floor.

DD: Yes – that was the first thing we noticed when we came in.

JT: Oh no, no. Not that one – that’s a little one. No – we have a huge one from the building in parts downstairs.

Bob Venturi Enters.

JT: Morning Bob, we have a visitor. How are you doing today?

RV: I’m doing ok. I’ve just been watching the President of the United States (Barack Obama) in Parliament.

DD: How did he do?

RV: Good. Very impressive.

JT: Bob, I don’t think we are having our meeting today if that is okay with you?

RV: I think I just spoke to someone who told me that. I think his name might have been William Shakespeare.

JT: Christian is here from Australia and I am giving her a tour.

RV: That’s our favourite building (points to a photo of the Library at the University of Pennsylvania).

JT: You say that about many of our buildings. Frank Furness, who I am increasingly realising, is not necessarily known outside of Philadelphia, designed that. To me he is like a famous strange architect but I have had people visit from all over and they don’t know him. 19th Century, eccentric but only slightly – a sort of second empire architect and we have renovated one of his buildings – a library at the University of Pennsylvania.

RV: Hi Ming!!

[Bob leaves.]

JT: Bob cries out to someone in the office every morning. ‘Hi Ming’ – her name is not Ming.

…We renovated the outside and the inside. It’s a beautiful 19th century building – it’s a very straight renovation. Many of our renovations are not updates and Pop updates – just a straight, beautiful, complex restoration.

This is an ornamental griffin that sits on top of the entry kiosk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s West Foyer. We were asked to redesign their entry foyer – this is their symbol anyway – we made a neon version of it that sat up there. Also of note on this table – we are one of the few firms that I know with our own postage stamp — this one commemorates the Vanna Venturi House designed in 1964.

DD: I think all the Architecture students in Australia study the Vanna Venturi House.

JT: Again, it was highly controversial in its time. Half the time you get people who love it and then you get people who say ‘I don’t get it – I don’t see what the big deal is – why is everyone talking about it?’

DD: Another controversial building that I am interested in is the Guild House?

JT: That was a building that Bob and Denise designed in 1966. It was a very controversial building for its time. Part of the reason it was so controversial was its unambiguous commercial signage. It’s a home for the elderly. Now it looks old fashioned to some degree. In 2008 we were hired to rehabilitate the building because it needed new building systems. It was a pretty straight renovation. The residents and their kids designed the tiles, which is what they wanted. The door numbers were originally painted on – we photographed them and then I redesigned the font in Illustrator to have quirky paint-like exceptions. Then we reproduced them in vinyl.

It is interesting that most of our buildings have very different signs because they are relating to different contexts. Which seems like such an obvious thing to say but it is still not necessarily done. Especially those who do sculptural buildings think ‘this is this little thing I create on my desk, it has a beautiful purity’. But that’s not life.

DD: What I find interesting is that you are doing a lot of what is termed “environmental graphics”, without needing to classify it as such.

JT: I think so too. I don’t think there is anything that we do that does not take it into mind. We don’t do massive wayfinding systems, we are not a signage company, but we do design signs for buildings that we design very thoughtfully and carefully. Beautiful but utilitarian.