Gloves and Mittens | José Antonio Sumay Rey

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Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi in the Las Vegas desert, 1966
Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi in the Las Vegas desert, 1966

 “We observed that buildings can be designed as gloves that comfortably surround each finger of the hand or as mittens that allow the hands and fingers of different sizes to adjust and move. Some of the most lyrical buildings of the first Modern Movement are gloves, designed so specifically that they can hardly accommodate small changes.” 1

Gloves or mittens, in the appointment of Denise Scott Brown, allude to two divergent design strategies in architecture. On the one hand, the European Modern Movement in the 20s adapted to the glove strategy with housing as the central theme, moving between the determination of the Existenzminimum and the functional specialization of spaces. On the other hand, the strategy of the mitten that is defended by Denise Scott Brown and her husband and partner Robert Venturi, arises from the lack of specificity of the spaces in the American industrial architecture or the architecture of the Cinquecento.

The strategy of the glove has defined the form of modern housing by intensifying the codification of its rooms: the rooms adjust their dimensions to the minimum required while specializing by means of furniture or control of lighting and installations. The result of the investigations of the first Modern Movement brought as a consequence the determination of the way of inhabiting the spaces, in which the organization of the kitchen and the bathrooms, the identification of the rooms with a main use (pe be, eat, sleep or cooking) or the way of arranging the furniture is already defined in the project, and in which the inhabitant becomes a user who can only choose his personal effects and the style, not the dimensions, of the furniture.

In 1947 Colin Roweelaborated, for an article in Architectural Review entitled The mathematics of the ideal villa, analytical diagrams of Villa Malcontenta (c.1550) by Andrea Palladio and Villa Stein (1927) by Le Corbusier that graphically represent the strategy of the gloves and mittens.2 Although both houses start from a similar layout and proportions, the Malcontenta, the housing as a group of rooms, is recognized in the metaphor of Scott Brown of the mitten, while the Stein would be the glove that with its Curved partitions adapt to the predominant function of the space: cooking, sitting, reading, eating or sleeping. Above the important social, cultural and technological differences both works perfectly represent the two archetypes located at the ends of the Scott Brown metaphor.

Colin Rowe (da "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa") La Malcontenta di Palladio, 1560 (in alto) e la Villa Stein di Le Corbusier, Garches 1927
Colin Rowe (da “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa”) La Malcontenta di Palladio, 1560 (in alto) e la Villa Stein di Le Corbusier, Garches 1927

If we manage, for a moment, to free ourselves from the bad image of postmodernism as a mere pastiche of historical styles we can see that the ideas of Scott Brown and Venturi sought to recover the symbolic importance of architecture and approach it, with irony, to life in its complexity and diversity. In that sense, the metaphor of gloves and mittens is very eloquent about their way of understanding architecture since at a time when gloves were only made they dared to propose mittens.

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi always renounced the label of postmodernism with elegance and irony, but the paradoxical sentence of Denise:

“Freud was not Freudian, Marx was not Marxist and Bob is not postmodern”

it confirms both its distancing from postmodernism and its paternity through central texts in twentieth-century architecture theory such as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) or Learning from Las Vegas (1972).

In short, and viewed from a current perspective, the legacy of Venturi and Scott Brown is an insightful look at the past that takes us away from the univocal debates of modernity, in the face of the moral rigor of “this or that” puts us in the pleasure of the “this and that”,4 in the additive and ambiguous value of architecture that is understood not as a form of crystalline purity but as an expression, sometimes simpler and sometimes more variegated, of common values and diversity of society and its individuals.

 Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, by Andrea Tamas. Leib House © Stephen Hil
Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, by Andrea Tamas. Leib House © Stephen Hil

After all, what’s better, gloves or mittens? And above all, after walking through history and through Las Vegas with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, why should we choose?

José Antonio Sumay Rey. PhD Architect
November 2018, A Coruña

1 Archdaily. “Interview: Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, by Andrea Tamas”.

Colin Rowe. “The mathematics of the ideal villa” en The mathematics of the ideal villa and other essays (Cambridge: MIT press, 1987), 1-27

Archdaily. “Interview”. Op. Cit.

Venturi, Robert. Complejidad y contradicción en la arquitectura (1966). Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 1986.

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