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Rediscovering Peter Blake

May 26, 2015

hurleyak

…and the story behind Venturi’s famous duck 

Maybe I should have titled this post “Discovering Peter Blake” instead, because although I’d heard the name, I didn’t know much about the man until recently. Over the years I’d come across scattered references to God’s Own Junkyard, Blake’s 1964 jeremiad against “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”—the tide of billboards and neon and tract houses unleashed during the postwar building boom. Robert Venturi invoked God’s Own in his classic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which appeared two years later, and which I re-read a few weeks ago.

This time, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Blake’s book online, along with No Place Like Utopia, his architectural memoir, if that’s the best way to describe it.

Who was Peter Blake? First off, he is not the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. This Peter Blake was born Peter Blach in Germany in 1920. His father was the head of a public utility company, and he grew up wealthy in Berlin, with an English governess and chauffeur. That changed abruptly in 1933. The Nazis removed his father—who was Jewish—from his job, confiscated all his property, and expelled the family from the country. It was very fortunate, in retrospect.

The story of Blake’s early years, at least as it is told in No Place Like Utopia, is that of an almost preternaturally lucky young man. Blake wants to become an architect: good thing his father happens to know Walter Gropius, who secures him an internship with Serge Chermayeff in London. Later, while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Blake is hired by a still-obscure local architect, a “sweet, romantic, hopelessly impractical, and slightly incomprehensible dreamer” named Louis Kahn.

At a party one night, Blake meets a girl; she is working for an English family that lives nearby, and lo and behold, the family is that of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

All of this would start to grate if Blake wasn’t so charming and didn’t have such juicy anecdotes about the luminaries he keeps bumping into. As a very junior writer at Architectural Forum magazine, Blake decides to write an honest review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly published autobiography, which he finds pompous and turgid. He leaves the draft on his editor’s desk and goes to lunch. In the meantime, the Great Man himself—routinely fawned over by the magazine’s senior editors—sweeps into the magazine’s offices and finds it.

When Blake returns, his colleagues look pale and the draft is still there. Scrawled across it in red crayon are the words, “George—I always thought you were a son of a bitch, but now I know! F. LL. W.” (The editors are able to talk Wright down, and Blake isn’t punished for his transgression, although the review is pulled and replaced with a positive one.)

After the war, in which Blake serves as a U.S. intelligence officer, he meets Philip Johnson at a cocktail party in the Hamptons. Weeks later he is speaking on a panel at MoMA at Johnson’s invitation. Afterwards, Johnson and MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr, take him out to lunch: Would he like to become the museum’s new architecture curator? Blake still doesn’t have a degree, and he’s not quite sure what a curator does. But he accepts.

Many of Blake’s best stories are about Johnson—who was arrogant and bitchy, he concedes, but also charming, brilliant, and capable of surprising generosity—as well as Mies, Kahn, “Lajko” Breuer, and his Architectural Forum colleagues (he returned to the magazine after a stint at MoMA), many of them European emigres like himself.

Blake’s critical judgments have aged well, too, for the most part. He saw that Wright was a genius as well as a megalomaniac. He recognized the brilliance of Paul Rudolph, and would no doubt be distraught to see many of Rudolph’s buildings threatened with demolition today. He admits that his first impression of Lewis Mumford was utterly wrong (he thought he was a fuddy-duddy) and that it took him a long time to grasp the importance of Jane Jacobs.

No Place Like Utopia captures the heady spirit of an era when progressive designers really thought they could change the world, but a few too many chapters begin with some sighing variation of, “Ah, those were great times to be alive!”

God’s Own Junkyard is an entirely different sort of book. In the foreword, Blake explains that it “was not written in anger. It was written in fury.” It is a blistering indictment of the uglification of America’s landscape in 150 pages, many of them given over to photographic evidence of the crass billboards and gimcrack architecture that Blake believed were ruining the country. There is a clear precedent in Ian Nairn’s “Outrage” issue of the Architectural Review, published in 1955, an indignant chronicle of the “subtopia” that was swallowing Britain, according to Nairn.

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The funny thing about reading God’s Own now, though, is that many of the places in the photos look…not that bad? And even kind of good. Venturi himself points this out in Complexity and Contradiction. “The pictures in this book that are supposed to be bad are often good. The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity…”.

One building in Blake’s rogues’ gallery stands out: It’s the Big Duck, the bird-shaped building built by a duck farmer on Long Island to sell, fittingly, ducks and duck eggs. Blake doesn’t comment on it, his preferred strategy being to let the photos speak for themselves. But the result of him including it was not what he anticipated. Even in Blake’s time, the duck was a beloved piece of Americana (it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and would have made most readers smile, not howl in outrage.

The_Big_Duck

National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons

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Sensing this, Venturi responded by appropriating the Big Duck as a Postmodern mascot—and an enduring architectural metaphor was born. The tug of war over the duck made Blake question his stance in God’s Own and, ultimately, back away from it (although, an earnest Modernist through and through, he never could come around to the archness of PoMo). The passage he devotes to the dispute in No Place Like Utopia is worth reading:

Venturi was clearly a serious and thoughtful critic of the Modern Movement. He was also a witty one: I had recently published a book entitled God’s Own Junkyard in which I attacked the sort of commercial vandalism that was destroying the American landscape and townscape. Most of the book consisted of photographs of what to me seemed exceptionally vulgar examples of this sort of vandalism—and these were contrasted with examples of natural and manmade environments that struck me as idyllic and increasingly threatened by vulgarians.

One of the “vulgar” examples I showed was the Big Duck near Riverhead in Eastern Long Island, an area which I had come to know very well and to cherish before it was yuppified by rich summer people; and the Big Duck was a store for the sale of dead ducks and their postmortem by-products.

Venturi argued that the Big Duck was a perfectly valid architectural statement…he further argued that every building that expressed its purpose with clarity and effective imagery was doing precisely what the Parthenon (for example) had done in its own time and place. “The Parthenon,” Venturi wrote, “is a Duck!” And this became one of the slogans of the Postmodern Movement…

I must confess that I laughed out loud the first time I read this definition of the Parthenon. Within a year or two of the appearance of God’s Own Junkyard (in 1963), to the applause of thousands of do-gooders, I had begun to realize that my view in writing the book had been more than a little narrow and obvious, and that I had shown almost no interest in popular imagery or, for that matter, in the increasingly visible images of Pop Art.

Venturi made off with the whole basket of duck eggs, in the end.

Blake died in 2006, at the age of 86. I’d like to read his articles in old issues of Forum as well as New York magazine, where he wrote an architecture column. He was the dean of the architecture school at Catholic University in later life, and complained that Washington was a cultural wasteland (it was the early ’80s, so he was probably right).

As a former architecture-magazine editor and a Washingtonian myself, I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with Peter Blake, and wish he were better known.

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