Fantasia

Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room

by Robert Venturi
MIT Press, 374 pp., $40.00

Among all living American architects, only two—Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi—now seem unquestionably assured of a permanent place in the history of their art form. Yet the question remains: What will they be remembered for? Gehry’s idiosyncratic handling of eccentric sculptural form distinguishes him as one of the few architects to have devised a convincing alternative to the rectilinear rule that has prevailed in the Classical and Modernist building traditions alike. But Gehry is not a theorist or teacher, and despite a younger generation’s attempted emulation of his schemes, his highly personal approach offers little in the way of an adaptable vocabulary for less gifted architects to follow.

Venturi is quite another matter. Few present-day architects can equal his formidable skills: brilliant draftsmanship, superb (if sometimes intentionally quirky) sense of proportion, canny understanding of symbolism, and keen intelligence in transforming the lessons of history to contemporary purposes. Nonetheless, a number of Venturi’s essential concepts—especially the reuse of traditional motifs in a simplified but recognizable manner—are all too easily mimicked. Thus over the four decades of his career, many lesser talents—most notably Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, and Robert A.M. Stern—have been able to profit from Venturi’s ideas and designs more than he has, thereby obscuring the importance of their true originator. Much the same debasement occurred fifty years ago, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s reductivist high-rise schemes were appropriated and coarsened by cost-cutting real estate developers who saw money in minimalism. And as with Mies, Venturi has been blamed for the offenses of his opportunistic copyists.

This is not to say that Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates—the Philadelphia firm Venturi heads with his chief collaborator and wife, Denise Scott Brown—is by any means unsuccessful. The VSBA office has established a solid practice based largely on university buildings (at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA, among others), cultural institutions (including the Seattle Art Museum, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Houston Children’s Museum), landmark restorations (Frank Furness’s University of Pennsylvania Library and Henry Van Brunt’s Memorial Hall at Harvard), and several projects for the Walt Disney Company.

For all that, Venturi’s writings have had an even more widespread effect than his buildings. His theories have become as pervasive as the architectural principles of Vitruvius and Palladio were in previous centuries. Venturi’s self-styled “gentle manifesto” of 1966, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, set in motion the revolt against the International Style and laid the groundwork for Postmodernism. Not even the widely acknowledged failure of Postmodernism (now seen as but another passing phase in a period of rapidly changing architectural styles) has lessened that book’s continuing relevance.

Instantly recognized by the architectural historian Vincent Scully (who wrote the introduction to the text) as the most significant theoretical statement since Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture of 1923, Venturi’s polemic proposed wider sources of architectural inspiration—from historic …

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