The Duck Rules!!! (From Venturi to BIG)
Who’s familiar with “Learning from Las Vegas”? Well, there is something hidden between the lines of the book that is actually playing a crucial role in contemporary architecture. Let’s find out what!
In 1972 Mr. Robert Venturi (Pritzker prize in 1991) , with his associate-wife Denise Scott Brown and associate Steven Izenour, published the first edition of one of the most controversial theoretic works of the time. The book was a collection of the authors’ studies and theories on the value of symbolism in architecture, with direct relation to the city of Las Vegas. With a series of drawings and references to the whole history of architecture, Venturi and his colleagues tried to build a critique of the modern movement, that had turned architecture into a non-understandable language .
One of the most known concepts expressed in “Learning from Las Vegas” is the definition of Decorated Shed and Duck. The first one is used to represent a positive model proposed by the architects: an architecture made in a cheap and functional way, where innovation is limited to conventional architectural elements, and an independent layer of decoration is added to achieve a universal symbolic value. The second is instead a “ridiculous” metaphor of the Modern movement, that was trying to generate “meaning” with form in highly sculptural and unconventional buildings.
“ 1. Where the architectural system of space, structure, and program are submerged and
distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building-becoming-sculpture we call the
Duck, in honour of the duck shaped drive-in, The Long Island Duckling.
2. Where the system of space and structure are directly at the service of program and
independently of them, this we call the Decorated Shed.” ( Venturi & Scott Brown & Izenour, Learning p. 87 )
Subsequently a comparative analysis is used by the authors to make their position more clear. The buildings compared are the Crawford Manor by Paul Rudolph, and the Guild House by Venturi.
Comparing the two definitions with their architectural manifestation something doesn’t work. The Decorated shed and the Guild house present in fact the same features, but the Duck and the Crawford Manor absolutely not. Their difference is not so much in the way structure is transformed for an overall symbolic purpose, but in the symbolism itself. The Crawford Manor generates meaning with form, ending in an absolutely abstract communication, while the Duck adopts an almost universal symbolism , is easily understandable and is connected to the function and the identity of the building. Therefore the Duck and the Crawford Manor cannot be considered the same thing and Venturi’s definition can be rejected for the adoption of the Duck as a model in its original and more honest meanings.
This misinterpretation can be understood if contextualized in the time when Venturi was writing, when a duck-shaped building couldn’t be considered architecture, but nowadays things are very different. The principle of the Duck had not only been accepted, but it had become a very common model, especially between northern European architects. To make this assumptions more clear I will just mention a few projects from some well known offices.
1. University building “Minnaret” by Neutelings Riedijk Architects (1997)
As declared by the partner Michiel Riedijk in a lecture at the Delft University of Technology, we are currently experiencing the “triumph of city branding.” For the Dutch architect, generic buildings are generating a “paradox, by articulating the identity of a particular place with the same kind of icons all over the world.” (Delft Lecture Series on Architectural Design, 2012)
To face that crisis Neutelings and Riedijk propose a new monumental style, local and explicit, capable of revealing something about the nature of the building. In most of their projects this is materialized in massive volumes and a broad use of ornament, but in the building proposed in the article there is a singular feature that makes it a perfect candidate to be a Duck. In the University building Minnaret in Utrecht (The Netherlands) part of the structure is transformed into letters to compose the name of the building and therefore convey a universally understandable symbolic value.
2. Glass Farm by MVRDV (2013)
In the second world war the market of the small village of Schijndel (The Netherlands) was damaged and the space that used to occupy have been vacant since then. This project is the last of seven proposals from MVRDV to fill the unusually big village square. It is a 1600m² building which is entirely covered by a glass facade and consists primarily of a series of public amenities such as restaurants, shops and a wellness centre. Both the shape and the outlook have been developed with highly symbolical intentions.
In fact after measuring all the existing local farms, a first average volume was scaled to fit with the requirements and then a textured picture of a farm was fritted printed all over the glass envelope of the building to give it special translucency and transparency. A semi-transparent out-of-scale farm. A perfect Duck.
3. Danish National Maritime Museum by BIG (2013)
This is probably one of the smartest projects by the Danish office and it happens to also be a very good example of a Duck: a maritime museum in Helsingor (Denmark), shaped as a boat. Self explanatory.
4. The Phoenix Observatory Tower by BIG (2012)
The Bjarke Ingles group seems to enjoy the use of overall symbolic forms more than anyone and this American project is the umpteenth proof. What’s better than a Google Maps pin to create a landmark? Such as the digital symbol, this tower wants to show your place in the world both physically and symbolically. Another clear Duck.
In February OMA unveiled their plan for a Community Farming Facility in Kentucky. Checking the Food Trucks square I noticed something familiar. Can you recognize it? It’s the pin! Apparently BIG has generated a new trend.
In conclusion, it seems that the Duck is losing its ridiculous connotation and becoming a popular model in contemporary architecture. A universal, symbolic communication is characterizing many famous projects. Does it mean that architecture will evolve in that direction in the future? It is really hard to tell. For sure everyone loves Disneyland, but what if the city became our theme park? If you want see how it would look like you can check this video that collects a bunch of presentations from projects all around the globe. It is quite long, but don’t worry, the first couple of minutes will be enough!
Author: Luca De Stefano