Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, “On Ducks and Decoration” (1968)

Daria Dubois
9 min readMar 17, 2021


The New York Five / Postmodernism / Architecture & Popular Culture

Reading: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, “On Ducks and Decoration” (1968)


In an article entitled “A significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas” published in Architectural Forum in March 1968 and written by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the incipient populism of Venturi’s earlier Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture came to fruition. The authors would test their ideas in a design studio and field study conducted with Steven Izenour at Yale School of Architecture that fall, publishing it in 1972 in book form as learning from las Vegas, along with two other chapters: one a more generalized argument derived from the first, entitled “Ugly and Ordinary Architecture, or the Decorated Shed,” the other a catalog of buildings designed by the Venturi firm — “Some Decorated Sheds” — from 1965 on. The following article by Scott Brown represents the first formulation of the decorated shed thesis.

In the transition from ”complexity and contradiction” to “ugly and ordinary,” the aesthetic criteria of Venturi’s earlier book gave way to empirical sociology and semiotics {study of symbols and signs}(still in a purely formal context) derived from current American social planning and communications theory. The reliance on ideas developed by Herbert Gans, Melvin Webber, Paul Davidoff, and others reflected the inputs of Scott Brown, a South African educated at the Architectural Association in London in the early 1950s and then in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania under Gans. {studied architecture and then urban planning} Scott Brown brought to the husband-wife team (who began collaborating as early as 1960) not only the perspective of social science but also her firsthand experience of New Brutalist “socioplastics” and Independent Group ideas, the latter having anticipated the American Pop movement by several years. {Denise experienced in social science and new brutalism, then anticipated the American pop movement} The “almost all right” of Main Street, USA, suggested in Complexity and Contradiction — “The main justification for honky-tonk elements in architecture is their very existence,” Venturi had written — now became a didactic “judgment-deferred” analysis of the vernacular in places like Las Vegas and Levittown, and ultimately confirmed for its vitality and diversity. In an exchange with the Venturis published in 1971 in Casabella, Kenneth Frampton, one of the most vociferous critics of their position, argued that the would-be populism of the Strip was no more than manipulation of the American consumer through advertising and other mythification{Frampton}: Las Vegas was created not by the people but more cynically for the people{Scott Brown}, Scott Brown retaliated by calling Frampton an “armchair revolutionary”{without taking action} with little understanding of American culture.

[2] The second part of Las Vegas was focused on a semiotic distinction between the duck and the decorated shed — the building as a symbol in itself through its formal or spatial features{the duck} as opposed to the building as a structure to which symbolism was applied{decorated shed}. The authors felt the latter{the last one} was more honest. Scott Brown later recalled how the concept evolved: “[‘On Ducks and Decoration’] was written while we were conducting the Las Vegas studio at Yale. Seeing modestly decorated Victorian warehouses through the train window on our weekly trip to New Haven; working in [Paul Rudolph’s] Art and Architecture Building there; analyzing Las Vegas strip signs and reading God’s Own Junkyard by Peter Blake, prescribed for the studio — one day all joined to form the now famous (or infamous) argument on the unadmitted symbolism of architectural form. I wrote the first draft… it was rewritten and extended in Part 2 of Learning from Las Vegas. In this early formulation, ‘duck’ is used metaphorically for the first time, but we refer to ‘decoration’ not ‘decorated shed’; that idea came later.” {during the process of writing the Learning from Las Vegas they start developing the term of Duck and came to the idea of the opposite side of Duck which is decoration}

The Venturis’ validation of popular culture and its “forgotten symbolism” resulted in the advent of a Pop architecture in which high architecture emulated low. It also took inspiration from Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Ed Ruscha’s parking lots, and Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

From Architecture Canada, October 1968, pp. 48–49. Courtesy of the authors.

On Ducks and Decoration

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi

Loos equated decoration with sin; {Adolf Loos, Vienna} Perret believed it always hid a fault in construction {August Perret reinvented reinforced concrete}. International stylists believed it was valid as the joie d’esprit of the individual craftsman as he worked by hand on the great cathedrals sculpting to the glory of God, but that in a machine age the I-thou relation with materials and construction is lost and so is the posit of decoration; the same joie d’esprit should now, it was felt, be expressed through the beautiful and precise use of machine-made building elements and the eloquent spaces of the building itself. The whole building is the decoration. {Int believed that decoration was an unnecessary part and that the Spirit of Joy as it was present before in architecture now, in the machine age, is lost and the same spirit of joy should be present in a work with machines looking at the whole building as decoration. }

This may have been literally and ironically more true than was intended. Contemporary painting and sculpture are now generally accepted as a formal source of early modern architecture — whole building from this period, in fact, resembled constructivist sculptures or cubist paintings. But this happened on an unconscious level. Architects such as Le Corbusier lived their connection to the arts intensely and it came through in their work. {Contemporary paintings, cubism, and constructivist sculpture were influencing early modern architects on an unconscious level as they were surrounded by these ideas.}

A vocabulary of forms whether consciously possessed or not is probably as important in the synthesizing process which gets from functional requirements to a building as is a load of bricks. Whether you call it “composition” or “plastic organization” you have to have a philosophy about it. Your philosophy may be more or less useful depending on how well it helps you relate forms to requirements. {Vocabulary of forms is very important and no matter if it comes consciously or not, you need to have a philosophy about it, which might be less or more useful to understand how forms relate to requirements.}

Later architects have taken too literally the functionalist dictum and allowed the formal vocabulary (still unadmitted) to stultify. We don’t admit the importance of having a philosophy about forms, because a good building should arise like Venus purely from the functional requirements. But since this is impossible, a repertoire of old hand-me-down, from Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, or Lou Kahn slips in unnoticed while the pieties of each on antiformalism are mouthed. {Later architects were under a strong influence of functionalists ideas, where the theory of a form is not necessary, and the functional requirement is the only important aspect.}

Because applied decoration is still taboo the whole building is still the decoration. Only now, artists like Le Corbusier, sensitive to what they are denying, are not involved, so the formal vocabularies are dull, unsuited, and unrevised for today’s needs. The more interesting the attempts of our best, most avant-garde architects at mannered complexity supposedly derived from structure and program, the more uninteresting their buildings become: they may have themselves up on needless pilotis, corset themselves in rusted iron stays, zap out and up in plan and section ten stories, making twenty apartments with “bad space”, or welcome in a heedless multitude to an unused piazza. They do these deeply distorting things for the sake of appearance, but they have no “decoration”. {Decorations are still taboo, but architects became more sensitive of the form at some point finding themselves in the functional building with a “bad space”, start building detorting things for “appearance” but not a “decoration”}

We believe a new interest in the architecture of communication involving symbolism and mixed media will lead us to reevaluate the eclectic{mixed style from dif sources} and picturesque{visually attractive} styles of the last century, to reappraise our own commercial architecture — pop architecture if you wish — and finally face the question of decoration. We have distinguished in a previous article between two styles of heraldry in the commercial environment: the sign which is the building (for example, the roadside duck, first brought to fame in Peter Blake’s book) and the sign which fronts the building{allows the modest function to take place without distortion in a modest building, and even to look at the sign as separate object}. The first distorts the less important inside function of drawing you in. The second, applied to the building or separated from it with the parking lot between, allows the modest eating function to take place without distortion in a modest building, right for it, and permits the symbolic function its own leeway as well — they need not coincide and it is probably cheaper and easier if they don’t. {They believe that commercial architecture needs to be reappraised taking into consideration symbolism and mixed media, and bring up ideas of decoration again. Separating two styles: the sign which is the building, and the sign which fronts the building. They need not coincide.}

Our thesis in that most architect’s buildings today are ducks: buildings where an expressive aim has distorted the whole beyond the limits of economy and convenience; and that this, although an unadmitted one, is a kind of decoration applied where needed, not in the way the Victorians did it but to suit our time, as easily as the billboard is pasted on its superstructure; with the building, it is applied to allow it to go its own conventional way, no more distorted than are the functional wind bracing and catwalks of the superstructure. This is an easier, cheaper, more direct, and basically more honest approach to the question of decoration; it permits us to get on with the task of making conventional buildings conventionally and to deal with their symbolic needs with a lighter defter touch. It may lead us to reevaluate Ruskin’s horrifying statement, “architecture is the decoration of structure.” But add to it Pugin’s warning: it is all right to decorate construction, but never construct decoration. {the most buildings now are ducks. Decorations applied as needed and placed on their own superstructure to allow buildings and signs to go their own conventional way. }


Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown explore the idea of the decorations of the building and the interpretation of it by architects of movements of international style, brutalism, and the necessity of the new look at the American pop architecture. Even though modern architects believed that in the machine age the idea of a building decoration was supposed to be left behind and the functional requirement was the only important aspect, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown believed in the importance of having at least some philosophy about the form of the structure. They catch avant-garde architects, under the influence of the contemporary paintings, cubism, and constructivist sculpture movement, developing functional buildings with a “bad space”, and building strange distorting things not as a decoration but for an appearance. Authors conclude that commercial architecture needs to be reconsidered allowing for symbolism and mixed media, as well as that the idea of decoration needs to be brought back. They separated two styles, where the first one is the sign which is the building, and the second is the sign which fronts the building. In the new commercial architecture, decorations are a separate structure allowing buildings and signs to be semi-independent.


Only after reading the chapter I fully realized that what first came from the exploration of new ideas, arts, and forms, now is an inseparable part of the commercial architecture movement where it is cheaper and easier to make mainstream buildings that lack decorative elements to prolong a functionality of a place, generalizing its use and allowing a variety of signs and decorations to be applied throughout the building lifetime.