Robert Venturi was at the forefront of one of the most important architectural movements of the 20th century, the Postmodern Movement, and The Guild House was its starting point. A counter-revolutionary movement against modernism, the Postmodern movement, was a reaction against Modern architecture’s “dry expressionism” and austerity.
Architects: Robert Venturi, John Rauch, Cope and Lippincott
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Commissioned by the Quaker organization, Friends Gremiales del Barrio, the Guild House is a housing apartment for seniors with low incomes. Vastly contrasting to its significance, the edifice is located in an ordinary urban environment, and a passer-by would admit that it has nothing grand or extraordinary. A massive column of polished black granite rests at the entrance of the otherwise flat façade. Adorned with a huge sign on the front announcing GUILD HOUSE in bold red letters, and a representational TV antenna sculpture on the roof, the structure could be rightly classified (even by Robert Venturi) as ugly and ordinary.
If that is the case, why is the Guild House so significant –worthy enough of an addition to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, barely 40 years after its completion?
The answer lies, not in the built form but its context – the Postmodern movement itself. In their book, Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour detail this out by contrasting the building with its modern counterpart—another housing for the elderly, The Crawford Manor designed by Paul Rudolph.
They propose the theory of the “duck” and the “decorated shed”; the duck is the building that is the symbol, and the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols. Arguing that the duck pervades Modern architecture, they cite the Guild House as an example of a decorated shed. Contrasting the implicit connotative symbolism of orthodox modernism with the explicit denotative symbolism of the Guild House, they write, “Crawford Manor is ugly and ordinary while looking heroic and original”. Contrastingly, Guild House has symbolism attached to it. Such a point of view insists that the use of explicit, denotative symbolism is not superior to the abstraction of modernism — it is simply more relevant. In the light of this conceptual framework, the building transforms.
The design of the 6-story structure is characterized by well-proportioned symmetry. The stepped facade respects the line of the street, although the building is retracted on the sides. Dark red bricks are applied to match the smog-smudged ones of the neighborhood. A column of black granite greets the visitor in the middle of the entrance portal, contrasting with the stripe of the white glaze coating. The stripe divides the building into three uneven stories – the basement, the principal story, and the attic, contradicting the scale of the six equal floors on which it is imposed. Thus, it contradicts the machine-like divisions of modernism, and instead, suggests the proportions of a Renaissance palace.
The stepped façade allows for maximum windows on the southern side, paving the way for sunshine and views of the street. Architects have used double-hung windows slightly unconventionally, changing the shape, size, and context of the window. An arched window adorns the top floor. Unlike other purely ornamental elements of the façade, it serves the function of the activities at the top. Its arched shape allows for a large opening in the wall for the lounge.
The interior spaces are defined by complex mazes of walls that fit the frame, allowed by flat slab construction. The irregular aisles are formed by the varied residual spaces and are different from the usual tunnel aisles prevalent at that time. The building has 91 apartments, mostly with double-hung windows that bring in outside light.
The entire structure is enclosed by a chain-link fence, which later inspired many architects, including Frank Gehry, who used it for his Santa Monica house. The most intriguing aspect of the design was the symmetrical TV antenna sculpture, constructed with gold anodized aluminum. An element of pure ornamentation, it was a friendly symbol to the leisure activity of the elderly. Unfortunately, due to a cynical joke by Venturi, it was later removed.
The Guild House was renovated in 2009 under Venturi’s guidance and that of his successor firm, VSBA. Several technical facilities were updated, including heating, cooling, security, fire prevention facilities, and electrical upgrades. To keep the housing in operation, the renovation was completed in three phases, taking advantage of unused basement space.
After the renovation, VSBA carved out a new wellness room in the basement. Including various facilities such as fitness, recreation equipment, and lounge-spaces, it later became a favorite among its residents. An additional laundry facility was also added on the ground level, although each floor already had a small laundry room along with trash disposal.
The Guild House is an example of a building that is a scaffolding of ideas, and not the other way round. Years later, looking back at the construction, Venturi remarked, “I remember passing it many years later when someone who was sitting next to me looked at it and said, I don’t get what all the business was about this building. And I took that as a compliment”. Nonetheless, even with its reputation of being ugly and ordinary, it has a waiting list of over 5000 people. It remains a widely cited structure and a stepping stone to the Postmodern movement.