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Fantasia

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

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

1.

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,1 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 monuments to popular culture—than had been the norm during the ascendancy of the Modern Movement. Venturi played the subtle jocularity of Italian Mannerism off against the vulgarity of roadside America—Sixtus V meets Route 66. He concocted a new mix, a cocktail of high and low culture, that intoxicated the growing number of younger architects and critics who felt there was little creative juice left in the late, denatured phase of the International Style.

To be sure, Modernism was not without its own (though perhaps not readily apparent) influences from the recent and distant past and had been susceptible to populist developments from the outset (such as the use of advertising-style graphics by the Russian Constructivist architects). And as early as the 1930s, such leading exponents of Modernism as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto began to incorporate consciously primitive elements in their buildings. But after forty years of the rigorously unornamented International Style, it took Venturi’s carefully organized, calmly argued, clearly written, and extensively illustrated Complexity and Contradiction to open what Le Corbusier had called “eyes that do not see.”

Within a year of its publication, Venturi’s provocative tract had a pronounced effect on advanced architectural education in the United States, exerting what has aptly been called “the shock of the old.” 2 Students flocked to take courses in the history of architecture (Scully’s Yale surveys were the most popular). A new generation of architecture teachers then in their early forties (especially Charles Moore, Venturi’s exact contemporary, born in 1925, and head of the architecture school at Berkeley and later at Yale) took up the call for a return to longstanding stylistic traditions that had been suppressed when American institutions began to adopt Bauhaus principles (and principals, such as Walter Gropius and Mies) in the late 1930s.

Yet this renewed attention to pre-modern architecture did not mean a retreat to the old Beaux-Arts method of adapting ancient models of buildings to contemporary functions—the Baths of Caracalla transformed into New York’s Pennsylvania Station, for example. Rather, Venturi affirmed that recent as well as older styles were admissible, an “inclusive” approach very much in the liberationist spirit of the 1960s. Furthermore, the costly details and labor-intensive craftsmanship required under the old tradition, dispensed with since the triumph of the later corporate phase of the International Style, were not to be reinstated. They would have been hard to resurrect in any case. Once the American construction industry had gladly eliminated the elaborate detailing of Classicism (a major factor in the rapid acceptance of the International Style by American big business during the postwar building boom) there could be no turning back. Venturi’s and Moore’s Beaux-Arts-trained Princeton architecture professor, Jean Labatut, exhorted his students to seek “the maximum of effect with the minimum of means,” and his two most famous pupils accepted that as an article of faith.

That Venturi’s new formula counterbalanced the traditional and the modern so evenhandedly has given it its extraordinary appeal. Indeed, Venturi himself has never forsaken Modernism and from time to time his buildings owe much more to the International Style than to any other source. Yet much had been lost in the headlong rush to Modernism, and by the mid-1960s the humanizing elements that had been missing in America’s version of the International Style became all the more obvious. For Venturi, synthesis is everything. As he wrote in Complexity and Contradiction:

I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non-sequitur and proclaim the duality.

I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or”….

2.

A year after Complexity and Contradiction was published, Venturi married the Zambian-born architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown. Their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas^3 caused even more of a stir than its celebrated predecessor. Venturi’s earlier pronouncement that “Main Street [is] almost all right” was easy for most of his readers to accept in its reasonable suggestion that even unremarkable vernacular construction—which he characterized approvingly as “Ugly” and “Ordinary”—can have a valid place in an architectural hierarchy in which every building need not be a masterpiece.

Learning from Las Vegas went further in its division of all architecture into two categories: “ducks” and “decorated sheds.” Why a duck? The designation takes its name from the Big Duck, now in Flanders, Long Island, a 1930s roadside stand in the shape of a huge waterfowl that originally sold, among other things, duck. This vernacular example of architecture parlante, a building that “speaks” of its function, has many high-style analogues, including the TWA Terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport by Eero Saarinen (one of Venturi’s early employers), a structure meant to evoke a bird in flight. More generally, Venturi sees the duck as “the building as articulated sculpture.” In contrast, he defines the decorated shed as “the building as generic shelter whose planar surfaces are decorated.” In those terms, Frank Gehry designs ducks, Venturi and Scott Brown design decorated sheds. In fact, many buildings are amalgams of both categories or fall somewhere between the two. Venturi’s rigorous division, useful though it may be for polemical purposes, is an unusual example of absolutism from the champion of “both-and” and “either-or.”

Implicit in this preference for the vernacular and the generic was a sharp critique of mid-century Modernism, which had become ever more monumental and bombastic. Translated to the American scene, the often modest character of first-generation International Style architecture became inflated in scale and deflating in social affect. Mies van der Rohe’s stunningly simple glass-and-steel forms worked best as foils to traditional masonry buildings; a skyline full of Miesian copies was considerably less effective. On the other hand, the singularly expressive structures of Eero Saarinen (which varied dramatically from project to project) needed settings of splendid isolation—Dulles Airport in rural Virginia, the Jefferson Arch in a park on the St. Louis riverfront—to achieve their full impact. Venturi wanted an architecture that would both fit in and stand out.

Here Scott Brown’s influence on Venturi and the direction of their office has been decisive. Before completing her studies at the University of Pennsylvania (which in the 1950s and 1960s had the best urban design department in the United States) she received a diploma from London’s Architectural Association, which in the early 1950s placed a strong emphasis on city planning in general and community architecture in particular. Buildings should be modern, many postwar English architects believed, but they should relate in scale and material to their surroundings. (Venturi’s 1950 Princeton MFA thesis was titled “Context in Architectural Composition.”) That accommodating attitude contrasted dramatically with the then-prevalent Corbusian approach, epitomized by his Ville contemporaine of 1922, which proposed—happily without success—the destruction of entire quarters of Paris to make way for high-rise towers set amid vast parks separated by immense highways.

In fact, something quite as drastic was happening in Philadelphia in the 1950s, as an ambitious urban renewal (though some would say urban removal) scheme imposed sweeping changes on the old city’s small-scale Georgian grid plan. To create huge axes and grassy malls, block after block of Victorian architecture (including a small masterpiece of a bank by Venturi’s nineteenth-century counterpart, the maverick neo-Gothic architect Frank Furness) was demolished. Scott Brown and Venturi wanted to promote a new respect for leaving well enough alone and for taking cues from the distinctive character of a place. That is not the least of their accomplishments.

For his part, Venturi brought back a number of potent architectural symbols—especially such icons of domesticity as the pitched roof and the massive chimney—that had been discarded by the Modern Movement. The modern flat roof versus the traditional pitched roof was an issue as hotly debated in 1920s Germany as that of centralized versus apsidal altars had been during the Reformation. Yet Venturi’s use of familiar forms is not motivated by nostalgia, though some of his more benign schemes can prompt such a reaction among a public unattuned to his sophisticated variations on familiar themes. Rather, he prefers buildings that can be quickly comprehended but reveal other intentions upon closer scrutiny.

  1. 1

    Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966; second edition, 1977.

  2. 2

    Rosemarie Haag Bletter, “Transformations of the American Vernacular:The Work of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown,” in Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown: A Generation of Architecture (Urbana-Champaign: Krannert Art Museum), 1984, p. 4.

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