Robert Venturi: A Benediction For Contradiction
The passing of Robert Venturi a handful of days ago marked some kind of threshold for architects of a certain vintage—those who had studied architecture in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Modernism still seemed unassailable orthodoxy in the design studio. Venturi—through his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and collaborative studies and treatises such as Learning From Las Vegas (1972)—seemed to bestow a blessing upon young architects-in-training to look beyond the stale modern monuments our professors were pushing.
In 1976 Venturi and his collaborators mounted the exhibit “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City” at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Galleries crammed with such resolutely middle-brow American icons as full-sized Golden Arches, neon signs for gas stations, and recreations of suburban home interiors labeled with large thought-bubbles citing their historic architectural precedents were like theory on steroids—impossible to resist. If it’s true that architects spurn their fathers and embrace their grandfathers, Venturi seemed the perfect grand paterfamilias, whose writings and designs were causing our father figures in architecture school to shudder.
A few years after school, the opportunity to meet the man and talk to him and his partners about their work presented itself. In 1985 Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown (VRSB, as the firm was known) won the AIA Firm Award, and I was dispatched from the offices of Architecture magazine in Washington to Philadelphia to spend the day at VRSB to see them in action. At that time, VRSB’s practice was at 4236 Main Street in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia—a working-class neighborhood hard by the Schuylkill River. It was a pleasantly quirky, red brick, 1880s commercial building, which VRSB had called home since 1980. The successor firm, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, is still in Manayunk on Shurs Lane, just a few blocks from 4236 Main Street.
The Main Street office seemed the perfect place for Venturi and his collaborators to practice. In Complexity and Contradiction Venturi offered the buildings of Main Street, USA, as worthy of a second (or even first) look by architects who considered high-brow modernism the only suitable source for design inspiration. Manayunk’s Main Street seemed to fit Venturi’s description of “anywhere Main Street” as “almost alright.” The firm was surrounded on all sides by delis, video arcades, gin mills, furniture stores, wig shops. It was comforting to find these architectural sympathizers of the honky-tonk in the very midst of it.
“We are all designers,” Venturi explained to me of the three principals and two senior associates, underlining the fact that they were constantly curious and soaking up ideas from interdisciplinary sources.
Inside, the office was loaded with models, rolls of drawings, shelves full of well-thumbed books on architecture, art, ornament, and landscape, and leftovers from installations the firm had created (I spied a Texaco sign from the Smithsonian exhibit). Around the office darted Venturi and his partners—discussing a drawing here or clarifying an idea there. The practice was extraordinary in its ordinariness, generating provocative, convention-breaking architecture out of everyday surroundings and circumstances. The formulae for practice seemed brilliant: don’t lose the looseness of an architecture school. Run your office like a graduate design studio, where each of the partners was deeply involved in design, drawing upon their own passion and collaborating with others whose architectural curiosities complimented your own. “We are all designers,” Venturi explained to me of the three principals and two senior associates, underlining the fact that they were constantly curious and soaking up ideas from interdisciplinary sources.
But the firm never intended to produce a bookish architecture for connoisseurs of history and theory. Venturi considered himself more a pragmatist and craftsman than a historicist. “You should never design buildings to prove points,” Venturi explained the day of my visit. “I remember what Jean Labaut, one of my great teachers at Princeton, referred to as ‘creative forgetfulness.’ To be really creative, when you sit down to start a job you forget all of your ideas and theories and concentrate on the thing at hand. Somehow your generalizations and the ideas take care of themselves.” He reflected on the work they were currently doing in the office. “Very often we’ll be struggling away at something, working on it, and I’ll look at it and say, ‘Ah, that is complexity and contradiction, isn’t it?’”
Winning the Firm Award from AIA in the mid-1980s was a pretty good barometer of how Venturi’s ideas and work had transformed architecture. He and his collaborators were no longer the “bomb throwers” they had been perceived as by some in the profession 20 years before. Venturi wanted an architecture that wasn’t simple, wasn’t a one-liner, that was connected not only with the history of architecture but also recognized the rich vein of native genius to be found in vernacular buildings of all kinds.
I think Vincent Scully, who wrote the introduction to Complexity and Contradiction, best summed up the seismic shift that Venturi’s theories and writings had on architecture. When I was working on my VRSB profile I called Scully and asked him what he believed had been Venturi’s greatest contribution. The historian said Venturi had brought symbolism back into architecture. “It’s through symbols that human beings live,” explained Scully. “There were a lot of people, from the 1950s on, who were doing all kinds of ‘formal inventions.’ They were standing buildings on one finger, turning buildings inside out, and generating shapes that were never dreamed of before. But it turned out to be empty.”
Scully then paused, and added that he thought the architect’s house for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, completed in 1962, was perhaps the perfect example of Venturi’s ability to embody architecture with “sweetness and goodness, gentleness and a wonderful kind of innocence.”
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.