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I was surprised that in your wonderfully complimentary editorial about Loker Commons (Staff Editorial, January 22, 1996) you had qualms about the LED signs and the motives behind them (as well as about the burritos). I think we haven't got the LED signs quite right yet--or I should say, YOU haven't got them quite right.
Robert Venturi, the architect for Memorial Hall renovations, and the great theorist of American Architecture in the second half of this century (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Los Vegas), has had a long-term fascination with American popular culture and with contained excess. He's looking, I suppose, for that distinctive element in American vulgarity that isn't vulgar-and hopes, I think, to create in Loker Commons an architecture that avoids either kitsch or Harvard-Square-trendy good taste. The space has an almost stolid we've-been-here-forever loft-like feel to it, with honest gray columns and a ceiling that have survived since a renovation close to a hundred years ago, and a profusion of robust oak benches and match boarding. This is plain living; here to stay.
At the same time the stability is redefined by a wholly ephemeral series of visual events which are incidental to the "architecture." The space depends entirely on light and fragments of color for its animation. (In fact, when some of us used to go through the place on a regular basis when there was nothing but gray paint and hundreds of board-feet of oak, we were worried that the whole project was doomed. Why would anyone want to go to such a gloomy, lifeless place?)
Venturi's use of color and light is risky, because it depends on things he can't control. It's not the space that is lit, but what's in it. Much of the light has a kind of sparkle or pixillation. It reflects off the colored food packages stacked behind the counter (still visible at night even when the screens are pulled down), it comes from down-lighting bouncing off the food on the tables, and from clothing and faces. It comes from the random accumulation of multicolored notices on the bulletin boards placed the whole length of the internal "street."
The "street" itself is defined largely by light-fluorescent strips shielded with (sometimes) colored gels. The receding parallels of these strips, with their insistent rhythm broken by erratic use of color, define this thoroughfare as something strongly linear (taking you, say, from Sanders Theatre to the Science Center), but interruptible. (You might see a friend in one of the booths, or a notice might catch your eye.) This is architecture that establishes rhythms, then breaks them.
This is a space where you can feel comfortable coming and going; everything here is coming and going. The space is comfortingly stable, but it's always in transition, as any lively community should be.
Which brings me back to the LED signs. Talk about pixillation! These are sparkle, ephemera and coming and going, taken all the way. Upstairs in Annenberg Hall, there is text and patterned color in the stained glass windows. Iconography and cultural content chosen with confidence by a single generation and there forever. Downstairs, Venturi's LED signs continue the theme, but with a twist. Text, colors, cultural content and iconography in constant tradition; millenial energy and uncertainty. The movement of the LEDs, surprisingly, is what keeps the place dynamic; turn them off and the space deadens. But what they need is participation and inventiveness and a sense of color and design.
How long did we have to leave Alice in Wonderland (a crypto-fascist text if ever there was one!) on the three-color 120'-long sign? Pondering, before Loker opened, how fresh material would be generated for the signs, we said, "Don't worry. As soon as the place opens, the students will have a million ideas. They'll take over." Humor, whim, news, animations, graphics, slow and soothing, wild and stimulatin--we thought it would pour in, and that technical or artistic geniuses would be hammering at the door of the computer closet.
Where are you?
(Parenthetically, the full-color 7'x10' LED wall--a technical achievement, and a challenge--has frustrated us by not working with clear strong colors and without blur and flicker. It's being fixed. It has the potential to be more stunning and beautiful when running at full power. It runs on a Mac, and can take Quick-Time movies.)
Director of Planning
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
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