(This is Part 2 of a three-part series. See Part 1.)

“The fallacy of contextualism,” wrote former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “the masquerade of matched materials, the cosmetic cover-up of architectural maquillage meant to make a building ‘fit’ surroundings that frequently change, are a trap into which many architects jump or fall.”

Or, I might add, are pushed. Last time we talked about how the design review process has entrenched itself in the bureaucracy, so that it’s now all but accepted that your city government has the right to define “correct” architectural taste for you. Today we’ll examine how contextualism, the sacred cow of design review boards everywhere, has come to be used to throttle architects and homeowners alike.

In architecture, “context” refers to the greater physical and social surroundings in which a building will exist. Architect and gadfly Robert Venturi was among the first to plant this notion in the minds of architects and planners. In his 1950 master’s thesis, Venturi argued that architectural meaning was not derived by designing from the inside out, as the modernists fervently believed, but rather that it sprang from the context in which a building was placed. This was a revolutionary idea in a time when modernist architects routinely designed buildings as precious, self-contained objects existing in a contextual vacuum.

Alas, Venturi’s premise–among the early critical salvos that would eventually topple modernism–has now come to be tyrannically misapplied by design review boards across the country. The idea of design deriving from context has been bowdlerized to imply that new buildings should defer to, and even mimic, their surroundings, while the enforcement of this dogma has become a bureaucratic end in itself.

As even the most cursory grasp of architectural history will make plain, however, there has hardly been an important work of American architecture–let alone a revolutionary one–that has kowtowed to its surroundings in the way design review boards now widely insist upon. On the contrary, breakthrough works from Sullivan to Wright to Venturi to Gehry have invariably drawn criticism, ridicule, and public disdain for their “otherness” before ultimately advancing the cause of architecture.

But so-called serious architecture isn’t all that suffers under this make-it-match brand of contextualism. Few of the quirky roadside icons Americans treasure–whether dairies housed in giant milk bottles, water towers shaped like pineapples or ketchup bottles, or motel rooms in stucco teepees–could withstand the crushing conformism of today’s design review process, which invokes contextualism to throttle such unruly ideas to a uniform level of inoffensiveness. Had America’s architectural past been subjugated under this kind of leaden rule, we would now find ourselves in an infinitely more boring nation.

As for Venturi, in his recent book with Denise Scott Brown, “Architecture as Signs and Systems,” he writes, “My approach [to context] has been much acknowledged, but also much misunderstood and simplistically exploited, especially by bureaucratic design review boards who don’t understand that contextual harmony can derive from contrast as well as from analogy.”

Venturi further brands the reflexive insistence of design review boards “[making] the new look like the old” as “perverse” and, in terms one wishes might resonate through city halls across the country, cites the misuse of contextualism “at a time when hundreds of bureaucratic design review boards and committees pervade our Kafka-esque era, persecuting architects and stultifying architecture.”


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