Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Building as Brillo Box (or, An Excursion to Two Philly Architectural Landmarks)

Before anyone takes me for a more devoted student of architecture than I am, I'll go ahead and admit if I hadn't moved to the Philadelphia area in the mid '90s, I probably never would have become fully aware of the Guild House's existence.

I first saw it in some Rizzoli coffee-table book in '95 or so.  A little black and white photo in a chapter on postmodernist architecture.  I'd just moved to Bethlehem, about an hour north of Philly, for grad school at Lehigh, and the Guild House's nearness put a hook in my head.

That and the fact it seemed to be one balls-out weird piece of architecture.

Within a year or two of seeing it in that book, I was riding around North Philly with a couple friends on an evil-hot summer day when all of a sudden there it was, gliding by us in the rippling July sunlight: the GUILD HOUSE, austere and naked and aggressively ugly in its sea of concrete and asphalt. 

The hook settled deeper in my brain.

Seeing occasional mention of the building over the years in books and on websites (inevitable if you're studying postmodernism) strengthened my resolve to go, like, see it one day.  

Or confront it, rather, since that's what it seemed to demand. 

That day finally arrived a couple weeks ago, in summer 2012, when I set out from whitebread Buckingham, Bucks County, to go dig on not only the Guild House but another Philly landmark I'd too long neglected: Lescaze and Howe's PSFS building, the 1932 international-style masterpiece at Market and 13th.

The skinny on the Guild House is it's a city-subsidized old-folks' home on Spring Garden Street (not the shady grove the street name would suggest) designed in the early '60s by American super-starchitect Robert Venturi.  It was one of his first buildings, and lots of architecture scholars and critics point to it as the founding moment of postmodernist architecture in the U.S.

Here's a photo I took of it when I confronted it that day a couple weeks ago:



Here's another:



And here's another, closer still, of the famed sign over the door, which you bet Venturi designed:



When I pulled up to the building in my Yaris hatchback, there was a one-armed old guy leaning against the white wall there, stage left, smoking a butt, looking mean as hell.  I wish I'd had the courage to hold up my iPhone and photograph him, but I didn't.  

It did occur to me, though, that Venturi, who's still alive, might have been paying the dude to loiter there, so perfectly did he complement the building.

Below is one more picture someone took of the place when it was nearing completion in '64.  It attests to how little the House has changed over the decades, though if you look carefully, you'll note a now-AWOL sculptureI'm not jokingatop its central facade:



Let me reveal at this juncture I love this building almost more than I can say.

I'm not shocked, though, some other folks (this blogger, for instancehit page-down when you get there) don't feel the way I do about it. 

We don't need, I don't think, to get into what postmodernism is to note what's conceivably interesting about this building: it's relentlessly plain and dismal (not only is it symmetrical, for love of Christ, but the chain-link fence is part of the design) in ways that should make it as invisible to us as any of a hundred thousand other relentlessly plain and dismal American buildingsexcept we're all of us (you, too, if you've read this far) privy to a key fact not revealed by the building itself:

It's by Robert Venturi The same Pritzker-Prize winner who, about the same time he was creating the Guild House, came up with this house for his mom:



And, some years later, this art museum for the city of Seattle:



Once we put the Guild House in this contextthe oeuvre of a highly trained, highly accomplished (whatever we may think of his work as individuals) starchitecta weird likelihood emerges:

The Guild House's plainness and ugliness are intentional.

It's a short hop from there to the reason, I guess, I love the building so much:

It isn't, as it turns out, a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.  It's a meticulous copy of a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.

Or, better, it's a simulation of a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.

Or, better still, it's a simulacrum of one.  A copy, that is, without an original.

Venturi seems to have decided, upon starting his first highly visible public project, to create an artwork so cleverly disguised as a dull, urban old-folks' home that the vast majority of people walking by it, visiting it, or even living in it would never realize it was, in fact, an artwork.

What an audacious thing for a young upstart architect to do.

Now, the building does hint, for sure, at its own art-ness.  There's that big, semicircular crowning window in the center facade.  There's the irregularity of the square punch-out windows' sizes.  There's that white-brick line running around the building's top half, right through the fifth-floor windows.  And the building has a somewhat more interesting footprint than it probably needs to, with those 45-degree angles in the corners breaking up the perpendiculars.  ("Irregular" and "complex," the contractors who poured the House's concrete call its frame.)

These are all pretty subtle hints, though, that the building is, in fact, High Art.  So subtle I'll bet north of 99% of human beings who see the place never do really see it.  Not even the art lovers. The people with memberships at the Barnes or the Kimmel or the Philly Art Museum.

The Guild House is a massive artwork hidden in plain sight.  It's secret art.  How many non-schizophrenics, after all, would ever guess the TV antenna atop the building in that old photo was, in fact, a sculpture?  (Come to think of it, wouldn't a schizophrenic be more likely think a sculpture was really an antenna?)

The building is a portal, in a way, to a realm so purely symbolic, so unmoored from ontological reality (a simulation without an original), it doesn't seem possible it could coincide with anything as utterly banal as a municipally funded home for old people. 

But there it is.  Doing just that.

It's a forceful reminder of what's best about our big cities.  They're percolators of the quantum mechanics governing the interplay of history, signifiers, and concrete infrastructure.

It struck me the day I visited the Guild House that it's remarkably like another famous artwork from almost the exact same American cultural moment.  This one:



It's a Warhol, of course.  A hilariously faithful copy of something we might find even today on the shelf at Costco or Sam's Club.

He made hundreds of them.  All exactly alike.

The Brillo box's lesson, like the Guild House's, is that art, in cultures as symbol-laden as ours, leaks out of the museum and gets all over everything.  It oozes into the supermarket.  It creeps like invisible ivy up the sides of the apartment house.  It broadcasts out over the land (from fake TV antennae, possibly), making every mundane thing as famous as the Mona Lisa or Versailles.  It usurps everyday life's real-ness, replacing it with image-ness.

Warhol's Brillo boxes were intellectual dynamite in the early '60s, to be sure.   

It's one thing, though, I think, to be an artist exploring these ideas in cardboard and acrylic paint and another to be an architect exploring them in projects involving fat stacks of cash.  (Even a humble municipal project like the Guild House had to cost hundreds of thousands of 1961 dollars.)   And that's before we consider that public architecture enters people's lives whether they want it there or not.  Try, once it's towering over your neighborhood, avoiding a Venturi building the way you can, say, an Andy Warhol artwork, if he's not your thing.

It's Venturi's audacity I guess I'm circling back to.  A secret audacity, maybe.  But an audacity nonetheless.  And while we're on that subject, I'll quote something Venturi himself said about the Guild House in his famous book Learning from Las Vegasor, rather, about its now-AWOL sculpture.

The golden "TV antenna" atop the Guild House was, he said, "a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV."

This was, in its willful dumbnessits eff-you ironicismsuch a Warhol thing to say it's hard to believe the two weren't somehow in cahoots.  And maybe now is the right time for me to say my love of the Guild House might be predicated on my not having to live in it.   I'm not sure how I'd feel if I knew my abodemy damn homewas an expression of a maybe slightly mean-spirited irony.

Would the consolation of knowing I was living in a secret artwork, a secretly famous building, be enough?

I don't know. 

But I will say it wounds me, as someone who doesn't have to live there, that the Guild House's TV-antenna sculpture is AWOL.  It wounds me, at least, to think someone who knows it for what it is (or was?) opted to take it down.  And to diminish Venturi's secret project.  The only way I'd be totally cool with its absence is if some roofer patching leaks found it toppled up there one day, mistook it for obsolete technology, bent it in half, and dumpstered it.

If the TV-antenna sculpture is sitting in a landfill somewhere, or if it's blended into the bodies of a hundred new Toyotas, that's fantastic: its power as a secret artwork is still growing.

I guess I really hope, though, that it's down in the building's basement, in some dark corner, surrounded by mouse droppings, forgotten, waiting for a 22nd-century resurrection.

I guess I'd also like to think I'm the only person on earth who's noticed the secretly famous Guild House's hood ornament is missing.  That not even Robert Venturi knows or cares.  That the antenna and I are psychically connected on some quantum-metaphysical level.

Ohthe PSFS Building.

Here's a picture of it in its heyday:



Here's a picture someone else took of its prettiest face(s):



Here's a picture I took of one of its many palatial interiors:



It's hard to know what to say about the PSFS Building except that it's pulverizingly beautiful in all the ways you'd expect.

It's sure no secret artwork, though. 

And since I'm interested, I guess, in quantum-level irony, I'll take the Guild House any day of the week.