Object Talk Explores Complexity of Robert Venturi’s Postmodern ‘Ironic Column’

Katherine Dye

Sunday’s Object Talk at the Allen Memorial Art Museum was given by College junior Mallory Cohen about the “Ironic Column,” an ornamental element of the Allen Memorial Art Museum addition designed by renowned postmodern architect Robert Venturi. The column, located in King Sculpture Court just beyond the main courtyard, is a tall wooden structure which encases one of the supports of the modern addition to the museum, with circular flourishes toward the top that resemble the capital of an Ionic column.

The column is a postmodern commentary on both classical and modernist architecture. The column’s qualities, such as its comically large and distinctly phallic capital, and the fact that it is made out of wood — a very light material — allude in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the metaphorical and literal weightiness of antiquity in visual art. The column is primarily decorative and has no real structural purpose, which serves to further subvert the architectural status quo. This lack of a structural need for the column also serves to poke fun at modernist architecture, in which every element of a structure has a functional purpose. The grotesque playfulness of the column is set in direct contrast to the cold functionality of modernism.

The column also represents an effort to bring together old and new. Located at the meeting place between the original 1917 building and the 1977 addition, it behaves as a kind of marker, while embodying this fusion in its very design. Venturi, in his design of the column as well as in his design of the addition, also eschewed the idea of the museum as a kind of pretentious institution for the housing of art, making both his addition and the column playful and approachable. Due to the placement of the column, students who have classes in Venturi Wing are forced to physically interact with it on a daily basis, having to confront it and walk around it to reach the entrance to the building. The column is treated like a work of art in and of itself, framed by a window in the main contemporary gallery in such a way that it becomes very much a three-dimensional image.

Through this structure, Venturi manages to unite and comment on such complementary ideas as the old and the new, as well as architecture and art in an irreverent and thought-provoking manner.