Some paradoxes of colonial cultural landscapes
I once overhead the following conversation on a bus:
First woman: “I can tell from your accent that you’re from Home.”
Second: “Yes, I left Home 30 years ago.”
Third: “I’ve never been Home but one day I hope to go.”
This exchange, in Johannesburg, South Africa, was not an expression of sentimental nostalgia, but the affirmation of an alliance among members of a caste. By tracing their origins directly or at one remove to England, these women reassured each other of their social status in the South Africa of the 1940s. Their jingoism goaded my patriotism for local landscapes and cultures. As a child I wriggled uncomfortably when English visitors likened views of the low veld to “a little piece of Surrey,” and I pondered the incongruity of black children in French West Africa reciting lessons about nos ancêtres les gaulois. As a teenager, I joined an art class where we were exhorted to paint what was around us, to see the landscape of veld and sun and the life of Africans in the city as our most important inspiration if we were to produce vital art, if our art was to be “African.”
I have long since realized that my teacher’s formulation was too simple. After all, we spoke English and the roots of our culture were in Europe. European, and particularly English, culture pervaded our intellectual lives, conditioning our perception and appreciation of our African world. But this orientation toward outside influences limited our ability to use local experience as material for our art and perhaps constrained our creativity.
The South African writer Dan Jacobson defined this colonial artistic condition in his introduction to The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.1 He observed that Schreiner’s un-English, African setting, “her snowless, woodless, lawnless Karroo,” seemed implausible, even in South Africa, as a background for fiction because it had never been seen in literature before. Jacobson, when he first read her novel, had to struggle with his own incredulity “that the kopjes, kraals and cactus plants she mentions were of the same kind as those I was familiar with; so little experience had I had of encountering them within the pages of a book.”
“This is not to deny,” he added, ‘that The Story of an African Farm is a very “literary piece of work; the fruit in places more of reading than of life.” Although Jacobson found this literary quality damaging to the novel, it may have played an important part in the unlocking of colonial artistry. Perhaps Schreiner’s conversion of African sources to ‘literature’ was key to making them artistically available. Her tale of the veld was told, not in voortrekker prose, but in the style of the author’s literary contemporaries in England. By making the work comprehensible in London, Schreiner may have rendered the African landscape visible for the first time to her audiences in South Africa and England.If so, then, in an artistic sense, she invented the African landscape.
When, in the late 1960s, Robert Venturi and I tried to do something similar in Las Vegas, it was relatively easy to transfer my African attitude to an American one, suggesting that for the sake of cultural relevance and artistic vitality, American architects look at the landscape around them and learn. In that sense, mine is an African view of Las Vegas. Yet our analyses of the American suburban landscape were based in large part on European modes of scholarly inquiry; we defined the Las Vegas Strip by comparing it with historical European architecture, using categories set up for the study of traditional European urban space.
These paradoxes beset societies and cultures whose origins are in another place. As problems, they are different although surely no worse than those of more settled societies, but they persist as tensions between artistic dependence and independence long after political freedom has been won.2 In America the paradox is fourfold:
- The United States is a diversified nation, differentiated regionally and ethnically, stratified socially, and culturally pluralistic; yet it is also a mass society that shares symbols and systems to such an extent that Americans are accused by outsiders of being a nation of conformists.
- Many if not most Americans left their lands of origin because they were different from those around them. They were poorer, more oppressed, different racially or religiously, more adventurous or maverick. The cultures they took away with them were not the same as those of the people they left behind, and in the ensuing years they diverged even further. America is far more different from Europe than most visiting Europeans realize. This is in part due to the emigrants’ search for a new world, which they defined as the counterform to the unsatisfactory old world. American morality, polity, governance, social structure and culture, and a physical container expressive of American aspirations were all to be invented. This invention was a great experiment and high adventure. Nevertheless, most immigrants brought their old worlds to the new, carrying landscapes and mores in memory and reasserting them, mutatis mutandis, in city or farm. Some Elizabethan English and nineteenth-century Italian customs that were lost in their countries of origin are preserved in Kentucky and South Philadelphia. Landscapes transported from England to New England resettle uncomfortably in Arizona.
- We Americans, like other former colonials, are xenophobes, yet in some areas of life, we clutch the apron strings of our mother cultures. We are proud of our indigenous styles, yet at times we still require European endorsement to validate them in our own eyes.
- The United States is artistically both precursor and follower, and the pendulum swings quite rapidly. But in architecture, discovery by latter-day European “colonizers”–a Reyner Banham for Los Angeles, a Charles Jencks for postmodernism–is still needed to dignify for Americans those artistic forms that originate in America.
Is the American architectural experience a colonial experience? Can it be termed colonial after 1776? Assuredly not in all spheres. Although I use the terms “colonial” and “colonizer” here to discuss attitudes toward artistic sources and artistic identity in American architecture, I have not attempted a general analysis of relations between colonialism and architecture; nor have I investigated the expression of colonial power through architecture–either in colonial America or by America today. Where I describe colonial architecture, it is as the architecture of settlers rather than rulers; and I have seamed settlers and immigrants together, viewing the colonists, architecturally, as early ethnic groups with problems of adjustment not wholly different from the problems of those who came later.
Inventing America and inventing the landscape
What are the effects of immigration on the artist? If the earliest stimuli, the sights and scents experienced when the infant first comes to awareness, are in some way linked to future creativity, what is the artistic prognosis for immigrants or refugees removed, probably forever, from the environment they knew when two feet above the ground? What of the immigrant group and its group artistic culture?
In most group migrations to America the first generation was lost, in an artistic sense and indeed in most senses. They heaved their young above their heads and saw their reward as the success of the second generation. “Culture,” when there was time for it, was internal to the group. It lay in Little Italy or in the Yiddish press and theatre. Subsequent generations turned to “face America.”3 Yiddish poetry began to read like Walt Whitman, house decorations in Italian neighborhoods included the American eagle. Yet later, immigrant descendants, speaking and writing in English, have shared in the artistic life of the dominant cultures and have added to the vitality of what is called “American.” They play a leading part today in the inventing and reinventing of America. Perhaps their off-centre starting point lends intensity to their art.4
How does this generational sequence of adaptation, invention and reinvention tie in with American architecture and the making of place? Only fitfully perhaps, in a literal sense–most architecture is not designed or developed by actual or metaphorical immigrants–but perhaps rather well in the artistic and cultural sense of “inventing.” European colonists took their architecture with them and adapted it to conditions they found in the colonies. Dutch farmhouses in the Cape Colony developed porches and pergolas. To English houses in the United States were added porches and jalousies in the South and clapboard in the North. The two major colonial heritages in the United States were the English and Spanish, with the Anglo predominating and forming the basic matrix of architecture in this country. The English heritage itself was bifurcated, containing on the one hand a rural cottage and romantic landscape tradition and, on the other, a classical tradition derived from English Palladianism.
High culture grafted other strands to this matrix.5 Classical influences from antiquity and republican France accompanied the birth of the new republic, symbolizing republican virtue in furniture, architecture and urbanism. A later classical influence from Haussmann’s Paris gave expression to civic pride and served commercial boosterism in the turn-of-the-century American city. European borrowings included nineteenth-century eclecticism, the international style and the art deco moderne. There were also reactions against European influences and toward non-European ones, by Frank Lloyd Wright and others, in the name of Americanism.
Ethnic groups, facing the basically English character of the everyday realm, sought to express identity through a melding of ethnic and dominant group symbols, but ethnic symbolism receded as subsequent generations allied themselves to taste cultures related more to their socioeconomic than to their ethnic status. The social movements of the 1960s and the interest in roots in the 1970s brought renewed expressions of group identity, both ethnic and racial, although usually at the level of home decoration. House styles, whether “French Provincial,” “Cape Cod” or “Contempo,” are assigned greater importance in the American suburban environment than in equivalent European housing areas. Styling represents perhaps one final resting place of American pluralism–although during the Sun Belt migrations of the 1960s and 1970s, a further layer of complexity was added to house styling as new residents (in Houston, for example) sought highly decorated, eclectic townhouse precincts to serve as stage sets and symbols for a new way of life in a new city.
In sum, social and physical movements to and within the United States have been paralleled by a process of architectural invention and reinvention that started with the inception of the nation and continues today. Has this process educed spaces and places that are different from anywhere else?
What’s American about American Place?
Such a question is typical of the colonist’s search for identity. Given the paradoxes, the multiple influences and the newness of the culture, the answer will be found, if at all, in slivers of evidence that lie between borrowings and inventions, as insinuations rather than firm statements.
A literature has grown up around the question. John A Kouwenhoven, in search of “what’s American,” observes that one characteristic landscape is the “interminable and stately prairies,” as Walt Whitman called them, ruled off by roads and fences into a mathematical grid. They have become, as Whitman thought they would become, the home of “America’s distinctive ideas and distinctive realities.” Among a dozen such landscapes that Kouwenhoven lists, the first three are the Manhattan skyline, the gridiron town plan and the skyscraper. Their particularly American quality, for him, is their “fluid and ever changing unity’ and the state of being ‘always complete but never finished.”6
Vincent Scully perceives “a kind of uneasiness; a distrust of the place, a restlessness” that emanates from the American experience of “a vast landscape, a more or less scarifying contact with the Indian population, certain racial crimes, colonialism, a sense of distance from centers of high civilization, a feeling at once of liberation and of loss.”7
Ronald Lewcock, writing about nineteenth-century colonial architecture, claims that its character derives from limitations of the conditions in which it was built: “amateur designs, semi-skilled or unskilled labour, and restricted building materials transformed the intricacies of fashion into fortuitously subtle and restrained statements… enforcing by simplicity the impact of the lines and forms of the styles.”8 Scully describes American colonial architecture in the same terms, seeing architecture of both Spanish and English origin as “simplified, clarified and primitivized. These qualities… become positive ones, like the beginning of something which though deriving or degenerating from a more developed style–had worked its way back to first principles, from which a new kind of growth may well be possible.” In America the English or Spanish original was “distilled into a more rigid order, less compromised by variety, less rich in modulation… the virtues sought were now the elemental ones of strong obvious shapes and plain surfaces.”9 Lewcock adds, “Excessive copying may have produced stereotyping, but it also ensured a familiarity with the true meaning of ‘style’ which is one of the strongest attributes of the best colonial work.”
George L Hersey suggests that there is a particularly American way, different from the European, of borrowing from artistic sources.10 He defines “replication” as the copying or adaptation of “some principal work of art” in various ways for different places and times. The work of art, for example the Roman Pantheon, becomes an “artistic signal that is picked up by lesser transmitters, which extend and modify the original signal.” Replication was the rule rather than the exception during the nineteenth century. In Europe, Hersey claims, architectural borrowing followed the original with respect to siting, relation between inside and outside and relation between scale and building type. For example, the European pantheons all contain large, “impressively scaled” single spaces that house chapels or civic spaces, and they are sited as in Rome. But in America, a shift accompanied the borrowings; the rules broke down and improper adaptations occurred. Jefferson’s Rotunda is pantheonic on the outside only; a Romanesque style is used by Richardson for other than religious architecture; public buildings have Second Empire outsides and high gothic insides; Eero Saarinen builds village hillside architecture on the flat, urban Yale campus; and whereas the English architects of the new building for Caius College, in following Le Corbusier’s monastery, “properly” relate college idiom to monastic tradition, a Boston firm replicates La Tourette untraditionally as the Boston City Hall. In the same way, type and use collide at the roadside, as in the names “Dog City” or “Frank Palace.”
The “not necessarily undesirable” effects of such free replication are, in Hersey’s words, “jarring stylistic dissonances, the impermanent look of having been transferred from some other site, and weird scale.” This is an illuminating interpretation of an essential yet difficult-to-define difference between American and European architecture.11 Although Hersey does not mention it directly, shifts in symbolic meaning cause the collisions in several of his examples–an ecclesiastical style is used for commercial architecture; royalty is associated with hot dogs.
I have culled these writings of the late 1950s and the 1960s from a larger body of assessment of American urbanism because they highlight the importance of invention and tradition in the making of place. Across the broader spectrum of urban thought from about the same period, a theme carries through a range of disciplines. The writings of Melvin Webber, J B Jackson and Herbert Gans suggest that what we perceive as chaos in the urban and suburban landscape may be an order that we do not understand; that simple nostrums to complex problems may make the problems worse; and that the concept of “organized complexity” should be understood by architects and planners working in the social and physical realms. During this period, Tom Wolfe responded to the same notions in the arts with an apotheosis of Las Vegas and the pop art movement, and Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture called into question some simple nostrums of modern architecture. In delineating the anatomy of complexity in architecture, Venturi grounded his analysis in historic precedent seen in a new light.
Something caused these parallel inquiries by separate individuals to be undertaken and brought to fruition at the same time. In my opinion, the common influence was social change. Shifts in American society spelled a shifting of sensibilities among perceptive scientists and artists. Changing sensibilities induced changing perceptions. These in turn called for a reassessment of tenets and philosophies, particularly in disciplines concerned with urban life. The social turmoil of the 1960s demanded the reinvention of American architecture.
The process of reinvention
In the arts, change in sensibilities signals impending aesthetic change, which is in turn a precondition for innovation and invention. When the time is ripe for aesthetic change, a chance perception–even a sideways glance at the familiar–can set the process in motion. At first sight, the new and meaningful may not appear beautiful; it may appear ugly, but we feel it is important.
That feeling often (perhaps usually) precedes rational reassessment and may lead to it. For example, although my move to the West Coast in 1965 was part of an intellectual migration, and although I had for more than ten years joined in reasoned reassessments of architecture and the environment, nevertheless my first response to the landscape of Las Vegas and Los Angeles was not an analytical appraisal; it was an aesthetic shiver. The shiver was composed of hate and love; the environment was as ugly as it was beautiful. It shrieked of chaos, yet it challenged one to find the whispered order within it–because this order seemed to hint at a new architecture for changed times.
“Towards a new architecture” had been the slogan of an earlier process of architectural reinvention, based on social change. In the first decades of this century, a liberating aesthetic shiver induced by industrial architecture and engineering goaded and guided the development of modern architecture. “Eyes which do not see,” Le Corbusier cried in 1923 against architects who could not perceive the beauty-in-ugliness of grain elevators, steamships and airplanes.12 Forty years later, when some cities were literally in flames and when a hundred voices railed against architects who could not see, the modern rhetoric of industrial process and the old vision of glass towers seemed irrelevant to the social problems at hand. There was also no shock value left for factory architecture; it could produce no galvanazing aesthetic shiver. What horrified in the 1960s was the “urban chaos”: the deteriorated inner city and the signs, strips and tracts of suburban sprawl.
Facing America through Learning from Las Vegas
We selected Las Vegas and Levittown for study because they were archetypes of the landscape of suburban sprawl that surrounds all American cities. Analysis of the extreme forms would be easier than analysis of more typical ones, which were usually overlaid on earlier patterns. However, the intention was to throw light on the everyday. We aimed to document the characteristics of American place that were alluded to by the writers of the 1960s and also to teach ourselves, as artists, to be receptive to the mandates of our time.
So we faced the desert Strip of Las Vegas, the winding roads and curving greens of Levittown and, later, the traditional nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American city. The forms we chose for analysis were new and undeniably American. Although scorned by architects as vulgar distortions and malformations of urbanism, they were the quotidian of the landscape; we sensed that they contained important lessons for architecture in the latter part of the twentieth century.
We tried to carefully define the components of strip and sprawl and to consider the factors that caused them to be as they were–primarily the automobile, the geometry induced by its motion and the ability of the human brain to react to communication from the environment while the body is traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour. We described the nature of the communication conveyed and the methods used for conveying it. We compared the constituents of American suburban architecture with those of traditional European urban architecture, matching the vast space of the A&P parking lot with the expanses of Versailles and the pace of movement on the medieval market street with that on the Las Vegas Strip. We evolved a taxonomy of the forms of the everyday landscape and endeavored to set these within a broader taxonomy of the traditional elements of architecture and urbanism.
What did you learn?
In sum, our aim in studying suburban sprawl had been to push the growing body of thought on American urbanism in directions interesting and useful to us as practicing architects and theoreticians. We sought a new open-mindedness that would enable us to act sensitively and receptively on social questions in architecture and lead us to a new aesthetic: a formal language or languages less restrictive than that of late modern architecture and tuned to the social and creative needs of our time.
When asked, “What did you learn from Las Vegas?” we were at first at a loss for an answer. An early reply was, “What did you learn from the Parthenon?” By this we meant that aesthetic ideas that engage the minds of architects are not always, or in their most important aspects, definable in words. Later we suggested that what we learned would show in our subsequent work, and indubitably it has. However, more than ten years away from these studies, it is perhaps possible to discern some areas of learning more clearly than we could at the time.
The forgotten symbolism of architectural form
The primary lessons that we learned as architects from Las Vegas and Levittown were about symbolism. We started our study with investigations of the character of the symbols that could best communicate over the vast space of the American strip; we continued with analyses of the buildings behind the signs and what they could communicate symbolically at different scales. Finally, we turned to symbolism at the traditional scale of architecture for pedestrians. Here, ornament and decoration become a major interest.
In the succession from strip to buildings our methods of analysis completed a full circle. In 1968 we suggested that ‘we look backward at history and tradition to go forward’. In 1975 we recommended that “we architects who went to Las Vegas and Levittown to reacquaint ourselves with historical symbolism should now return to Rome; it is time for a new interpretation of our architectural legacy, and particularly for a reassessment of the uses of ornament and symbolism in architecture.”13 Our initial analyses comparing strip phenomena with historic European architecture–the A&P parking lot with Versailles–we defined as going “from Rome to Las Vegas.” We said we went “from Las Vegas back again to Rome,” when we applied categories learned from the Strip to the study of conventional and traditional buildings–seeing the front of Chartres Cathedral, for example, as a type of billboard. The journey from Las Vegas back to Rome allowed us to learn again from historical architecture through a reappraisal of its symbolism and decoration. Although these had been there in the first place, we had ignored or forgotten them. Under the influence of modern architecture, we had interpreted them as texture and pattern alone, not as symbolic communication.
Las Vegas therefore helped us to reinterpret traditional architecture and by redirecting us to Rome set us to mending the rupture modern architecture had made with its tradition. In so doing we were able, as well, to incorporate portions of the American suburban landscape into the fold of architecture, where they had not been included before.
The oscillation between innovation and tradition in the process of reinvention
Our analyses of the American everyday environment were part of a continuous process of reinvention whereby tradition and innovation, the historical and the new, are matched and re-matched with changing times. We face America and then Europe, struggling to resolve the paradoxes of those whose culture originated in a different place, to become creative artists in the flux of history.
In studying Las Vegas and Levittown our intention was not to promote particular commercial idioms for architecture, nor did we turn to Rome to find good sources for historical borrowing. In my opinion, the lessons learned from Las Vegas by architects to date have been superficial ones. Stylish postmodernism has picked up the image but not the substance of our quest. And the professions of urban design and landscape architecture, although as involved as architecture in the making of place, seem to have been affected even less than it has by changing times and sensibilities. The built results indicate that social and cultural change have brought about little reassessment by design practitioners of either the emerging American landscape or the traditional roles of the professions.
Lacking this reassessment, some efforts of the design professions tend to make environmental chaos worse. If you see an awkward strip, where wirescape overwhelms imagery and the whole purveys neither communication nor order, look again; if the signs are all 12 feet high, you can be sure an aesthetic ordinance is at work, promulgated by the design professions and intended to produce order in the environment. A more successful approach might be to encourage the erection of taller signs that dominate the rest of the clutter. The fact that this would be dismissed by most design review boards in the United States suggests that urban designers still lack the means to describe, define and therefore see the strip landscape; and what they cannot see, they cannot handle aesthetically.
As designers, we have not yet developed a profound sense of history. “A colonial culture,” says Jacobson, “is one which has no memory.” A colonial heritage makes it “extremely difficult for any section of the population to develop a vital, effective belief in the past as a present concern, and in the present as a consequence of the past’s concerns.” Yet absence of memory may not inhibit the perpetuation of prejudice. Indeed, “precisely because the sense of history is so deficient, these enmities tend to be regarded as so many given, unalterable facts of life… as little open to human change or question as the growth of leaves in spring.”14 Because we designers lack a sturdy grasp on our historical heritage, we lack the confidence to tolerate architectural change. An understanding of the role of invention in historical architecture and of the way the past affects present preferences would help designers and design controllers to conquer their own aesthetic prejudices and therefore to deal more effectively than they do now with the everyday American landscape and the making of American place.
Conclusion: work in progress
In this thesis on colonies and mother cultures I have tried to suggest that the colonial paradoxes are as much opportunities as problems and that they add intensity and uniqueness to American architecture. Two “colonial” heritages, one American and the other African, both set in a European mould, have helped define my argument. Its edge probably derives from the marginal nature of my relation to dominant cultures.
The colonial frame of reference is, of course, not the only applicable one. Indeed, American architects are not alone in looking beyond the border. They are part of an international profession whose philosophy has been avowedly and idealistically internationalist and whose practitioners, in most nations, are eager for outside influences.
However, I have chosen to focus on the colonial aspect here because it is rarely considered, and because it opens up a host of questions that should be understood as part of our artistic heritage. This is particularly so as the architectural pendulum swings now toward regionalism, and as America assumes the leadership in architectural ideas. In addition, relating American architecture to a worldwide diaspora of colonial architectures can broaden our understanding of American architecture, and may bring new insights in the future as the field of colonial studies widens in Europe and the Third World.15
In discussing our own research on American place, I have emphasized the process of invention rather than the nature of our findings, because such a focus seemed suitable to a symposium opening a Center for the Study of American Architecture. In this inaugural venture, we are at the port of entry to a new territory that is paradoxically familiar but unknown. It must be explored and re-explored, and there is a long distance to be travelled. Artistically, we American architects are cultural immigrants who must face the American hinterland yet make our roads return to Rome.
Originally published in David G De Long, Helen Searing and Robert A M Stern (eds.), American Architecture: Innovation and Tradition (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 1958-70. Reprinted in D. Scott Brown, Having Words (London: Architectural Association, 2009) and reprinted here courtesy of the author and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
All analytic drawings are from Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown studios.
Photographs are by Robert Scott Brown, Denise Scott Brown, and LLV studio members.
Further sources of information: VSBA Bibliography at vsba.com and VSBA Archive at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.