SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Avant-Pop Architecture: The New Literalism – SVA MA Design Research

Matt Shaw

Avant-Pop Architecture: The New Literalism

SEAT public pavilion, E/B Office, 2012

Throughout architectural history, the figural, or more specifically the recognizable image-reference that can be called “the literal,” has been derided as immoral and impure. For this reason, it is often relegated to little more than a footnote in architectural history. Yet many of today’s most interesting experimental architects are using literal, referential forms as part of their architectural work, both built and speculative. This research examines how this new group of projects and practitioners moves beyond kitsch, attempting to mediate between the recognizable sign and the affective artistic treatment. Through this unique type of architecture poiesis, do the political lines between opposing ideologies begin to break down?


Avant-Pop architecture has many facets, but this thesis focuses on only one: The New Literalism. In all of the works selected for study, the literal image reference has been processed, or remixed, but not beyond the point of recognition. There is a spectrum on which all art (and architecture) can be placed. At one end of this range is the purely abstract, which is detached of meaning, and on the other is the purely literal, or un-processed, direct image-reference. The extreme abstract end of the spectrum includes paintings by Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian, and buildings such as Villa Savoye. Nearly any building by Japanese architecture firm SANAA might also be included here. The purely abstract is often derived from a concept or phenomenon outside of the physical world, such as Pollock’s deep psyche or the chance expressionism of the painterly gesture. It can also be derived from, or “inspired by, a formal reference, such as Daniel Libeskind’s “Dancing Towers,” in which the movements of Korean dancers were translated into form. This derivative process often obscures the object or image-reference beyond the point of recognition, and renders it meaningless

On the other end of the spectrum is the completely literal, which could be considered the opposite of abstract. This is sometimes called figural representation, but in this instance, it specifically denotes a recognizable image-reference. The literal can be seen in sculpture, such as Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger; painting, such as Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe; or architecture, in the form of hot-dog-shaped hotdog stands. These works all take images and represent them literally, with the original object or image-reference left intact, recognizable, and legible. There is no level of abstraction in the purely literal, though all have some degree of translation (in scale, color, proportion, etc.), because an inherent distinction must be made between “being a specific object,” and “looking like a specific object.”

Abstraction and autonomy are generally considered to be characteristics of what is known as “avant-garde.” Removed from an art historical context, the term is defined as: “any creative group active in the innovation and application of new concepts and techniques in a given field (especially in the arts).”1 Such a sensibility is still possible today, and the generic definition will be used here. The “literal” is often associated with pop culture, and also serves as the concept used in “popular” architecture. In the middle of these two extremes lies Avant-Pop.

The term Avant-Pop first appeared in 1986, as the title of experimental jazz musician Lester Bowie’s fourth album, and included a series of improvisations on popular tunes like Fats Domino’s classic “Blueberry Hill.”2 This appropriation and subsequent manipulation of popular culture takes the familiar and makes it unfamiliar, in a calculated, artistic use of the mainstream reference. The recognizable, popular song was remixed into something new, or in other words, an image-reference was processed.

Art and media theorist Mark Amerika helped to define the Avant-Pop movement in 1994 with his “Avant-Pop Manifesto.” Amerika posits that Avant-Pop artists must not only engage with both the innovative technique and conceptual rigor of their “avant-garde predecessors,” but they also must resist both the “avant-garde sensibility that denies the existence of a popular media culture and its dominant influence over the way we use our imaginations.” He also warned artists against “becoming so enamored by the false consciousness of the Mass Media itself that they lose sight of their creative directives.”3

In a 2007 Brooklyn Rail article entitled “What is Avant-Pop?” author and assistant professor of English at Yale University Paul Grimstad, agrees with Amerika about the these new artists’ open-minded, non-judgmental attitudes toward the “immediacy of the mainstream hit,” or the “pop hook” as it is termed with reference to music. Avant-Pop artists, Grimstad explained, do not “deform catchiness” as previous avant-garde movements might have done. Rather, Avant-Pop artists restructure and manipulate the song and its components “so that (a) none of the charm of the original tune is lost, but (b) this very accessibility leads one to bump into weirder elements welded into the design.”4 This process does not necessarily prescribe complexity, and in fact some of the best moments of Avant-Pop are bluntly simple. Buildings shaped like everyday objects such as food, or animals, become the architectural equivalent of the popular references that Avant-Pop authors and musicians use in their remixes. New Literalism in architecture communicates simply through literal shapes whose catchiness has not been “deformed.” The new creations however, transcend the merely representational via an added layer of depth and artistic treatment, which holds the viewer’s attention.

The relationship between avant-garde and popular culture is well documented, with popular culture often taking the avant-garde and diluting it for a mass audience. Historically, the avant-garde has seen itself in opposition to popular culture. This is not the case in Avant-Pop, where avant-garde technique is applied to popular references and there is a mutual feedback loop, or symbiosis, between the mass media popular culture references and the avant-garde technique.

In architecture, the recognizable image-references and figural representation of the literal architecture of the roadside vernacular, is considered one of the architectures of “popular culture.” The architecture produced when a recognizable image-reference from outside of architectural language is manipulated via an avant-garde technique, such as digital modeling or innovative material processes, manages to make these literal shapes look “good,” or like more than an anti-intellectual one-liner made of stucco. Avant-Pop suggests using more sophisticated building systems and techniques in order to make intellectually challenging buildings that also retain legible, literal shapes, and image-references across scales.

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009).
  2.  Alexander Laurence, “Interview with Larry McCaffery,” The Write Stuff, August 1994,
  3. Mark Amerika, “Avant-Pop Manifesto,” 1994,
  4. Paul Grimstad, “What is Avant-Pop?” Brooklyn Rail, September 2007,