Style exists on two levels. It is practiced and produced; something akin, creatively, to breathing. And it is talked about. One is art and the other is polemics. The connection can be tenuous.
Style—the product—is a reality, with or without polemical explanations. It is automatically and inevitably the result of all the confluent factors of a culture and a particular moment. It cannot be created artificially or imitated successfully. That is why the forger’s hand is almost always revealed, through slips of style beyond his control.
Theory is not an independent act. Only the work of art is absolute. Theory illuminates. The interconnections between art and theory are convoluted; sometimes, as with the modern movement in architecture, the rationale better served purposes of persuasion than of analysis. At worst, theory can be the most pretentious of exercises in ego gratification, full of egregious fallacies and hot air, clarifying nothing. At best, it offers devastating insights into art and reality.
Which brings us to the Venturis—Robert Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown—of the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch. The Venturis have been producing theory like hotcakes and buildings in miniscule numbers, and they are a continuing prime topic of debate among architects and intellectuals. Learning from Las Vegas, the book written by the Venturis with Steven Izenour, sums up a “radical” polemical attitude toward “architecture” in today’s world that has had those who think about the subject in turmoil for the last seven years.
For it is that long since Robert Venturi’s “gentle manifesto,” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, appeared, published in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art. A genuinely controversial tract, this slim volume deliberately kicked out the underpinnings of accepted modernist architectural theory. Seven years later Venturian polemics are still going strong and the new book, beginning with its aggressive 11” by 14 1/2” format, is not so gentle. (It is also, in spite of its size, inadequate for the reproduction of charts and pictures that were originally large-scale graphic presentations, and text and pictures are constantly at war.)
Now the Venturis have taken on the architectural establishment in lasting terms. Their ideas have made, and are making, many in the profession extremely uncomfortable and angry. Their theory is making architectural history. Whether it is making architecture is another question.
The answer rests a great deal on your definition of architecture, and the Venturis are offering a very new one, or a very old one with a new twist, depending on your perspective. They look back to a more symbolic, decorative, and literary time, and they devote considerable care to the resuscitation of what might be called a neo-nineteenth-century view filtered through a perversely sophisticated twentieth-century sensibility.
But the celebration of the commonplace, with its Pop Art associations, has been the most publicized and debated Venturi theme. Robert Venturi’s much quoted and frequently misunderstood comment that “Main Street is almost all right” has aroused relentless hostility among …