Happy belated birthday (it was June 24) to Robert Venturi, avatar of the postmodern movement in architecture and the self-appointed rebutter-in-chief to arch-modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his infamous dictum.
In the battle of slogans, “Less is more” has beat “Less is a bore” hands down. Mies’s line is pithier, pregnant with meaning and it swept the battlefield. Venturi’s line was reactive – the sort of cocktail-party riposte that you think of moments too late, or in this case not just too late by 19 years and long after the horse has left the barn but just a shade lame.
And too bad, because “Less is more” is wrong.
“Less is more” was wrong before it became a slogan. The kind of architecture embodied by the phrase was a mistake the first time someone thought it up. We were told a machine age required a machine architecture. No plausible reason was given. All we got was an architectural metaphor for efficiency, not efficiency itself. The kind of architecture modernism replaced worked better at pleasing our eye and serving our needs. Traditional architecture developed over thousands of years, its best practices tested by trial and error and handed down by practitioners generation after generation. It failed to maintain its market share because modernism had better advertising, not because it was a better product.
The brief heyday of postmodernism was valuable to the extent that it provided a small opening for a return to genuine traditional architecture. Postmodernists won their argument against modernism but failed to follow up, offering instead a goopy amalgam of cartoon typologies and then leaving the field for the true modernism – modernism with all of its flaws exposed, its ideals abandoned, yet still leaping from peak to psychodelic peak.
Whether modernism’s dependence on oil will bring this truth to light before it brings an end to the earth’s economy and its environment remains to be seen. But the truth is and has always been there to see, and easy to see for those who will only open their eyes. Less is more, indeed. Harumph!