The Duck or the Decorated Shed              created for philosophy of structures, winter 2001by Michael Wildman

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Undergraduate Thesis and Components:

The Space of Interface Research Proposal

The Space of Interface



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Designing Homes in the Age of Information

Walton St.: From a Swamp to a Social Center

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The Duck or the Decorated Shed


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The ironic thing about the idea for the "Duck and the Decorated Shed," is the fact that the group of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour admit to an ulterior motive of its invention. They start by telling us a simple known fact that architects as a rule, tend to philosophize and write in order to justify their own work. And that they are no different than the masses of architects, big names and small names that have come before them.

They define the idea and an exercise in image over process or form. The part they tell us that is the final 10% of a project but the part we all see and remember. They talk about the idea of the image being either similar to or relating to the form or a contradiction to the form, structure, and program of the building of which they are part. The exercise will be divided into these manifestations:

1. Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building becoming sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck shaped drive-in, "The Long Island Duckling," illustrated in God's Own Junkyard by Peter Blake.

2. Where systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them. This we call the decorated shed.

The group opens their discussion with a comparison of two buildings. I shall restate their discussion, as it is the basis for the point. They compared a building by themselves, the Guild House and Paul Rudolph's Crawford Manor. The reason they chose this comparison, not to say one was better than the other, but that they were built at about the same time, in similar locals, have similar programs, but express a different image. They also note that in no way do they say one building is better than the other, just that they are different.
The differences that are felt to be of the buildings are that the Guild House has ornament on it and the Crawford Manor does not. On the Guild House the applied ornament is explicit and at the same time contrasts and reinforces the building behind it. The stripes of white brick placed so high on the building gives it a scale of a Renaissance Palazzo. The scale of the central space in proportion to the whole building creates the reading of a grand entrance to the palazzo as well. At the top is an arched window; it is not structural but used as a sign of a different activity at the top, common space. The location of the arched window, balconies, and base entry unify the building to a scale of monumental size rather than layers of apartment units.

On the Crawford Manor, such items are unthinkable. It would never be adorned with expensive materials, white stripes, or Renaissance compositions. The balconies in this structure that stick out from the façade are completely integrated into the building rather than tacked onto it. For the Crawford Manor, we understand the building not from the adornation of the façade, which is none existent, but from our own past experience; layers of meaning beyond that of simple façade detailing but the translation of the elements and their technology to form a building we can understand.

The trio goes on to say that the Guild House can be defined as "ugly or ordinary" and the Crawford Manor as "heroic and original". This is so because in the Crawford Manor, the building is straightforward. Like architecture of old, it tries not to be anything other than what it is and attempts pure meaning of form for its readings. In the Guild House, the opposite is true. It is so adorned with ornamentation and perhaps even too much ornamentation that it is hard to tell what the building "wants" to be. Additionally, its components are simple, almost off the shelf items and offer no real dialog of exciting construction and composure. But, when the building is looked at from afar and the readings of the larger Renaissance order come out the only instance of a dialog is formed, however it is not between different components working together but of contrast. The scale of the building created by the rows of windows and understanding of floors juxtaposed by the scale of this Italian order is what creates the only excitement in the façade. This juxtaposition is what makes the building simply a decorated shed. The items on the façade do nothing for the building as a whole and in fact make it more difficult to understand.

The decorated shed is to be understood as signed. The precedent for this idea of signage is not a new one and can be traced back to some historical precedent but in modern architecture it is far more prevalent as a tool and a method of design. The low cost box with the huge sign is the ultimate expression of this concept and something very prevalent in building today. It is this idea that was the precedent for the Guild House and the large sign saying "Guild House" is its most literal interpretation.

This idea of signage, which is something, that can be said to be in every building is the key to the study. When the sign is literal and spelled out either by letters or by bold ornaments, we end up with a decorated shed. On the other hand, when a building is subtly formed and interpreted by its overall composure, it is then that we have a duck. The question then gets posed as to which type of building method is the correct one, or better still which is the accepted one? These questions cannot be answered simply as we have so many appreciated buildings in each genre but we can see a shift in which is the more prevalent method at a period. The idea is not new to the trio of architects who said it; they just coined a phrase that we use. The concept can be traced back to the Pyramids of Egypt and continues all the way through time till today.

At this point, I will look at a sample of buildings and building forms throughout time and hypothesis as to what category they fall into, the duck or the decorated shed.

I shall first start with the Pyramids of Egypt as we in the architectural discourse start the study of architectural history with them. Are the ducks or decorated sheds? The pyramids, bold in form as we do not typically build in such a shape anymore are incredibly bold on the landscape. They are monumental in form and extremely heroic in size compared to the limited technology of the time they were built. They are not ornamented any more than striations on the facades due to the use of a brick module and the reading of an entranceway. All in all, they are a very simple and straightforward structures while at the same time 5000 years later extremely bold and powerful. These structures are and always will be ducks. Simple in form but literal in understanding, they look like pyramids and they are pyramids.

We now jump ahead a number of years to the Greek and Roman Empires. Similar to the pyramids, a large number of the forms made by these empires still exist today. Their scales are equally as impressive as the pyramids whether the structure built is small or large; the Temple of Athena Nike or the Pantheon, or whether it was a group of buildings or a single structure; the Acropolis or the Coliseum. In all of these forms, immense detailing was prevalent. Multiple orders of columns were used, scales even on the smallest of buildings so much larger than the human scale that we dwarf even standing near a column, material that itself is massive and difficult to understand how it was used, and the knowledge of the respective empires to build these forms all over as they expanded the size of their empires. By these descriptions, we would and should say that they are decorated sheds as they are signs for themselves and the empires they represent. We would however be wrong. These buildings are in fact ducks. Why are they ducks? They are ducks because there is no difference between the structure and the ornamentation. In fact it is the structure that makes the ornamentation. The buildings try to be nothing more than they are and although read as ornamented, massive forms; still are pure in their expressions.

The construction of churches, particularly Gothic churches, blurs the distinction and becomes difficult to classify. On one hand it is agreed that they are ducks because they simply and literally represent the sign of the cross with their transepts and naves, they are massive as is the belief that G-D is much larger than we are, and are similar to the structures of the Roman and Greek empires built in a scale of materials in a scale far larger than we might expect able to be used at their times. However on the other hand, almost all of the churches took so long to build that the items we see are the facades often were placed hundreds of years after the building was built. This makes them decorative. Or does it? In fact, one could say that in this case that the ornamentation is more adornation than decorative due to the iconography of the elements. If we look back at the Guild House, the decoration applied did nothing for the understanding of the building except perhaps make it more difficult to understand, whereas here in the churches, the decoration, just goes along to assist in out understanding that we are looking at a church. Whether is be intense detailing as on the Duomos of Florence or Milan with their green and white marble forms or plain as in Santo Spirito, the items we see other than the building as a whole take nothing away from the understanding that we are looking at a church.

The construction of the Renaissance Palazzo is another form that may blur the distinction between duck or decorated shed. But, once one looks beyond the simple appearance of these forms now so engulfed in the urban landscape of their cities we see that they are sheds. Why is this so? Despite that they are made of orders of columns, scales larger than that of humans, and materials that are bold and statement creative, they are all still sheds. One of the reasons for this is that they are not really freestanding forms and only have one true façade on the urban landscape. Similar to the churches, the elements that we see on the structures are part of the structures as well as ornamentation on it. However, unlike in the churches, they try to act as something other than what they are. In the churches ornaments did not pretend to be structural, did not make a sign other than this is a church, or be used for political reasons, while in the palazzo, this cannot be said. The heavily rusticated base of the Palazzo Ruccelai is a statement of power, the depth and columns as well as bust of the master on Palazzo Ugucioni is also a statement, and the five balls that adorn any structure of the Medeci family clearly are there to denote power and superiority. They do nothing for the structure of the buildings and only blur what is holding the building up and what is being held up.

As we move to a more modern architecture, we will look at the Villa Savoye. This residence very simple in its appearance is in fact very complex in form. All its curves and angles, slopes and planes, are carefully planned. Its location on its site and relation to the landscape are similarly carefully planned. However, it is all white and only contain some columns and windows. This would make one think of it as a duck literal in interpretation and pure in form. That is not true. Its careful planning and dialog between elements, the way one enters and the way the light is seen through the glazing and the way we visualize the ramp ascending to space in fact make this building a decorated shed where the elements try to make the building something other than what it is.

Las Vegas, the location that is actually in the title of the book written by the trio of architects that coined this phrase of the "duck or the decorated shed" is felt to be the ultimate decorated shed. In this place, we have everything from the small burger stand with giant golden arches screaming McDonald's to large hotels that now post the publishing of the book have recreations of the Sphinx from Egypt and at the time of the writing had similar recreations of Rome and Caesar's Palace, and most recently entire cities, New York and Venice. The later containing a half-mile stretch that is the Grand Canal and even has gondolas and gondoliers. These structures aside from the burger stand are hotels. But, one would never know that. To the laymen who had no knowledge that such forms are adaptations and recreations of structures of another time and place might actually think that these are the originals. And if anything would think that they are accurate copies. But they are not the same. Even if we gave the benefit of the doubt that they could never look exactly the same, as the programs are different they are not built the same. The structures they are mimicking are masonry in form inside and out and thus even with their ornamentation are ducks. But here in Las Vegas, the structures are not pure and are steel framed with panels and veneers to give the look they want. Additionally, once we bring the program back into the picture clearly act as signs so people can A) know where they are going and B) people can be attracted to it in the first place.

It can be said that nowadays what we build is always a decorated shed. This is for the most part due to the way we build, since mostly elements on facades tend not to be the structural components of the building but in some cases are, as in the Crawford House. What this gives us ad designers is the unique ability to consciously decide on many levels what the building is going to be. If we choose to use a form of construction that allows us to create a duck we can still make it a decorated shed by the way we detail it. Similarly if we choose a construction method that would inherently be a decorated shed, as it would be framed we could still make it a duck by exposing the structure and using it for the decoration of the building.

At this point, we will look at some buildings and try to figure out what they are, ducks or decorated sheds. Some of them may not be as easy as they look while other will be incredibly straightforward.

Art Park

by Gordon Bingo


Guggenheim Bilbao

by Frank O. Gehry

Casa Battlo

by Gaudi


The Flamingo Motel

on the Las Vegas Strip


The Gehry House

by Frank O. Gehry

Guggenheim New York

by Frank Lloyd Wright



by Moshe Safdie


Hong Kong Shanghai Bank

by Norman Foster


The Primitive Hut

drawing by Pirinasi


Montreal Housing Development


Renault Distribution Center

by Norman Foster


Research Center

by Mike Hopkins


Single Family House

by Mario Botta


Sturges House

by Frank Lloyd Wright

The following links are sites that I have found that have some interesting takes on this concept and are extremely worth-while to look at: