Robert Venturi and the Difficult Whole
Robert Venturi (1925-2018) was the most influential American architect of the last century, though not primarily for his built work, or because of his stature as a designer. He will never stand beside Wright, or Kahn, or even Gehry in that regard. Between 1965 and 1985 he and his collaborator, Denise Scott Brown, changed the way all architects look at buildings, cities, and landscapes, much in the way that Marshall McLuhan, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol changed our view of art, media, and popular culture during the same period.
I worked with Bob Venturi during my apprenticeship in the 1970s; I also grew up with his books, buildings and paternal influence. He and my father were one year apart; Denise is the same age as my mother.
Anyone who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s was aware of the electric Kool Aid that drove the culture. For young architects, Bob and Denise Venturi were as important to the culture as television personalities. They were attractive, witty, and hip—honeymooning in Las Vegas and bouncing between Yale, Penn, UCLA, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York during their whirlwind rise to prominence in the mid-1960s. After their marriage in 1967 Denise hoped that they might have the same influence as her mentors, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, or colleagues Allison and Peter Smithson, had in the United Kingdom. She needn’t have worried. Following Vincent Scully’s encomium about Complexity and Contradiction and Architecture, her husband would become an AIA medal winner, theory guru, and firebrand leading the critique of “corporate modernism”—the symbol of America’s military industrial complex during the Vietnam period.
It’s easy to forget that for a time Denise Scott Brown actually eclipsed her husband’s stature in academia: she was the first woman to head and urban design program, the first to have her name on the masthead of a major firm, and almost the first to lead an elite architecture school (Yale). By joining her husband’s firm, she strove to create a “difficult” partnership in a male-dominated field. Bob resisted those who suggested he retain the name “Venturi and Rauch” for the business—they were an inseparable creative team.
Like many young architects who read the little white book from MoMA following its publication, I found in the tiny photos and dense prose a liberating argument against the establishment architecture of the Harvard Bauhaus, General Motors, and SOM’s sleek Miesian towers. As an English literature major, I knew that Venturi had read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity at Princeton, using it as the basis for his examination of different “orders” in building plans and facades. He knew the work of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics—so meaning in architecture might be interpreted as these figures had looked at complex poetic syntax, irony, and oxymoronic vocabularies. Buildings could express humor, ambivalence, suavity, frivolity—indeed any emotion conveyed by poems, symphonies or abstract art. Look, he said, at Michelangelo, Lutyens, Frank Furness, and the Greek Revival bank around the corner. You’ll find complex, difficult compositions that raise your aesthetic awareness and challenge your taste.
Little did I know that a book would be published shortly before my graduation from college that would create an even bigger splash among practicing architects and planners: A Significance for A&P Parking Lots or Learning From Las Vegas. I spent every penny I had in my savings account to buy a copy—here was a New Testament to follow the Old, printed in a folio the size of the Ten Commandments. I went home and read it cover to cover, sometimes thinking I had to hide it like a Playboy magazine from my roomates. Were these intellectuals actually writing sympathetically about sprawl, shopping centers, supermarkets and billboards?
The ideas in Learning From Las Vegas shocked the architectural establishment, and even turned some Venturi enthusiasts away from his “postmodern” aesthetic positions. He, of course, never endorsed that label.
The ideas in Learning From Las Vegas shocked the architectural establishment, and even turned some Venturi enthusiasts away from his “postmodern” aesthetic positions. He, of course, never endorsed that label. As an American he saw the embrace of Main Street, the Strip, and the Long Island Duckling as extensions of many post-Armory-Show art movements, including the realism of Edward Hopper and Charles Demuth, the regionalism of William Carlos Williams and Grant Wood, Supergraphics, Pop Art, and early Minimalism. Scott Brown was an early advocate for urban neighborhood preservation; Steve Izenour started the Doo Wop Preservation Society in Wildwood, New Jersey. Charles Moore published his tribute to Disneyland, “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.” Though difficult to acknowledge then, these 1970s critiques of the urban landscape were prescient.
Just as Lou Kahn’s office trained scores of talented designers, so VRSB in Philadelphia launched many successful careers. Critics seldom point out that a few of those who worked with Venturi turned back toward modernism during the 1980s—Steve Kieran, Jim Timberlake, W.G. Clark and Fred Schwartz are prime examples—while others began to see traditional and vernacular architecture as a more potent source of inspiration for new work. Tony Atkin, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stanley Taraila and Cameron McTavish learned from classical and City Beautiful precedents as they became successful architects and planners. We would not have the Congress for the New Urbanism without Robert Venturi’s bold leadership, as Scully pointed out on many occasions. Pluralism is difficult for some contemporary architects to accept, but it is a condition of modernity.
An unintended consequence of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was the rapid rise of text-based critical theory in many American architecture schools. Venturi distanced himself from these pure theorists, always claiming to be an architect intent on expressing ideas in buildings, not words. In this way he was a pragmatist, as American as John Dewey or Henry David Thoreau. By celebrating the modern condition without rejecting humanism, he accepted the difficult predicament of any contemporary designer. The son of an ardent Quaker who advocated equality and individual self-worth, he and his firm were committed to improving the lives of their ultimate clients, building users. He never bridled at being called a pop(ulist) architect.
Today it’s disheartening to see a fine building like the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art under threat of destruction to make way for second-rate expansion. The great VRSB buildings are well-established landmarks of modern American design: the Vanna Venturi House, Guild House, Franklin Court Museum, Oberlin Art Museum, Gordon Wu Hall, the Sainsbury Wing. Not many were constructed after 1990.
Alas, during the final three decades of his career, Venturi accepted honors and awards for his early work but found few champions among contemporary critics or in the academy. That was an unfortunate consequence of history, though I believe history will look more positively on his work in the decades to come. He lived during a challenging period, accepting all of its problems and contradictions with good humor and grace. Arguing always for designs that found a middle ground, a difficult whole, he was an architect perfectly in tune with his time and place: Philadelphia, the United States, the twentieth century.
Featured image: Vanna Venturi House, via Wikipedia Commons.