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Fantasia

For example, his firm’s Trubek and Wislocki houses of 1970 on Nantucket are most readily understood as an homage to the nineteenth-century Shingle Style, which was particularly popular in American coastal resorts. But those two deceptively simple cottages were sited at a precise and critical angle toward each other and the confronting sea, a direct reference to two of the Hellenistic temples at Selinus in Sicily. No works in Venturi’s oeuvre better illustrate his predilection for an architecture drawing on a variety of traditions.

As readily as Venturi’s inclusive credo was adopted by others, it was something else to declare, as Learning from Las Vegas did, that American commercial imagery at its most unbridled and raucous—the colossal electrical signs of the Las Vegas Strip—could offer pertinent lessons in urban design for the rest of the country. Louis Kahn, Venturi and Scott Brown’s teacher and hero at Princeton and Penn, took as his great project the elimination of the “tinniness” he felt had overtaken American architecture. Here his disciples eagerly embraced the laissez-faire capitalist values he despised. Or did they?

Shocking though its premise seemed, Learning from Las Vegas was no mere stunt, but rather the outgrowth of a 1968 Yale architecture school seminar in which teachers and students undertook the analysis of a place then deemed beyond the pale of serious inquiry. (The notable exception was Tom Wolfe’s 1965 essay, “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!,” which made some of the same points and was cited by the authors.) Twenty-five years ago, long before the desert gambling mecca became a favorite subject of writers and filmmakers eager to exploit it as a metaphor for national venality and the bankruptcy of societal values, the authors of Learning from Las Vegas used the city’s defining monuments to put Venturi’s populist theories to the test.

As meticulously documented and annotated as the field report of an archaeological dig, Learning from Las Vegas sidestepped all questions of taste. The electrical and neon totems proclaiming the Stardust, the Dunes, and Caesar’s Palace, among others, were evaluated as dispassionately as if they had been artifacts of a civilization other than our own. Caesar’s Palace, with its kitsch appropriations of Imperial Roman architecture and sculpture, got much of the team’s attention. A current-day (if camp) correlate of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli—which was conceived as an imperial theme park recreating exotic landscapes and landmarks from throughout the emperor’s far-flung dominions—Las Vegas similarly seeks to invoke the magic of distant splendors. If all kinds of design—good, bad, and indifferent—are worthy of our scrutiny, Venturi and his assistants were saying, why not also a cityscape that epitomizes America at its most excessive and extreme?

Those outraged by Learning from Las Vegas could not see beyond the glitz. Even more galling for some was what has been perceived as a moral relativism that bypasses the concept of architecture as a vehicle for social improvement, a key tenet of the Modern Movement. Despite the adverse effect their lingering reputation as Pop architects has had on their firm’s fortunes, Venturi and Scott Brown have been as willing as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein to take the surfaces of commercial culture at face value and to use them as their point of departure. Though these architects’ output has always been quite varied and in recent years has quietly incorporated more and more historical references, it is their strident schemes that tend to stick in the memory of potential clients. And it is those challenging projects, outdoing Disney and Vegas at their most gaudy and superficial, that are particularly esteemed in Europe, where Venturi and Scott Brown are honored as artists who have freshly interpreted American values.

Startlingly original though their work can be, Venturi and Scott Brown will often recycle a basic pattern from one similar project to the next. For example, the Seattle Art Museum and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London are much the same in being rectangular structures with the main entrance cut into one corner; both have a grand staircase set to the right of the entrance and leading up to main galleries on the upper floor. Yet commissions for the same kinds of buildings can also inspire radically different responses from Venturi and Scott Brown. For example, if young Americans today are most familiar with eating in fast-food restaurants, why not design a college dining hall resembling the neon-lit food courts of shopping malls, as the architects did with their Tarble Student Center of 1984-1985 at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania? Conversely, the firm’s dining commons at the Pennsylvania State University Faculty Club of 1974 and Gordon Wu Hall of 1980 at Princeton draw on traditional collegiate imagery but in such a deadpan (albeit stylish) way that they can be seen either as a sly parody or a sincere tribute, or both. In Complexity and Contradiction, Venturi cites the literary criticism of William Empson and Stanley Edgar Hyman in support of the validity of ambiguity as an artistic device. Still, ambiguity tends not to be valued by most patrons of architecture, who generally prefer mediocre certitude to brilliant equivocacy.

3.

After Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi began to regret that he was becoming better known as a theorist than a builder. Rivals such as Philip Johnson lost no opportunity to stress Venturi’s importance as the former at the expense of the latter. To correct that perception Venturi decided to curtail his writing (for which he has a facility unmatched in American architecture since Frank Lloyd Wright, with the single exception of the late Charles Moore) and even his lecturing (for a time agreeing to speak only at those institutions where he had received a building commission or was contending for one). He produced only occasional pieces, which were collected, along with writings by Scott Brown, in A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953-1984.4

More than a decade later, another Venturi compendium has appeared, but as opposed to the previous volume, this book harks back both to Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas in its central proposition. Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room contains several of Venturi’s best pieces, including his essay in praise of Frank Furness, which is as insightful and evocative as a Lewis Mumford “Sky Line” column in the old New Yorker:

…I look at Furness as an American-Emersonian, individualist-reformist, naturalist-artist, as one who follows at the same time the sturdy, continental, functionalist Gothicism of Viollet-le-Duc in France and the exuberant Italianate Gothicism of Ruskin in Britain. But also as a mannerist. He is a mannerist as the anguished artist described in these essays evolving beyond the America of Manifest Destiny and abolitionist idealism and toward the postwar realities of dynamic economic growth and unlimited political corruption. To me his mannerist tensions are essential.

The book also includes an exemplary retrospective statement written for the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy; a brief but masterful summary of the architecture of Louis Kahn; and the first full publication of Venturi’s MFA thesis project—a hypothetical chapel for the Episcopal Academy campus—that demonstrates a breathtaking precocity and sets out many of the major themes he has developed in his subsequent career.

But the volume’s first two essays, from which the book takes its rather cumbersome title, make the book more than a convenient collection for Venturi enthusiasts. Though much of this collection sputters with the author’s barely contained outrage over recent trends in architecture—which he finds to be, among other things, “theoretically pretentious, boringly abstract, technologically obsolete”—he is unabashedly optimistic about what he sees as the liberating potential of the new electronic technologies, which he believes are capable of infusing our public space with a new vigor equal to the glory of Byzantine architecture.

In his opening essay, Venturi hails the advent of an

…electronic age when computerized images can change over time, information can be infinitely varied rather than dogmatically universal, and communication can accommodate diversities of cultures and vocabularies, vulgar and tasteful, Pop and highfaluting—from here and there. In this context the grand advertising Jumbotrons atop buildings in Tokyo and Osaka can, along with temple hieroglyphics and mosaic iconography, work as precedent for a generic architecture employing video display systems—where the sparkle of pixels can parallel the sparkle of tesserae and LED can become the mosaics of today. What S. Apollinare Nuovo does inside we can do inside and/or outside.

This vision of a modern Ravenna is not a simple case of Learning from Las Vegas revisited, especially since Iconography and Electronics also contains Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1995 essay “Las Vegas After Its Classic Age,” a lament for the lost vitality of Glitter Gulch after it has metamorphosed into a family-friendly holiday destination. Here Venturi pushes his earlier premises further, advocating the “electronic shed,” a generic structure overlaid with Vegan visuals.

Though consistent with their earlier aims to enliven public architecture through populist iconography, this latest expansion of their design vocabulary is fraught with the same dangers their work faced twenty-five years ago. Venturi and Scott Brown have sometimes fatally misjudged their clients, many of whom have been unwilling to accept that Pop imagery and materials are appropriate for high-style buildings in “serious” public settings. Much the same happened to Charles Moore, whose Piazza d’Italia of 1975-1978 in New Orleans, though a high point of Postmodernism, offended his patrons, the city’s Italian-American community, because his use of multicolored neon reminded them of cheap saloons rather than the decorous plazas of their ancestral homeland. In cases where more than one decision-maker is involved, architectural clients are unlikely to find consensus in schemes that to most people seem indistinguishable from the effluvium of the roadside strip.

Among the most interesting documents reprinted in Iconography and Electronics is the firm’s 1984 “Letter Sent to Several Architect Selection Committees Concerning Competitions.” No major architectural firm today has a higher proportion of unbuilt to executed projects than the Venturi-Scott Brown firm, and it has a long and dispiriting history as the undeserving loser of a number of the most important competitions of our time. Admittedly, competitions allow younger professionals to advance their careers through a single important commission that otherwise might be closed to them. But once the quality of one’s work is widely known, having to vie against other architects is a degrading enterprise. It is also time-consuming and costly, since architects are rarely reimbursed at anything close to the amount they must invest to prepare a potentially winning entry. But clients, especially those who are publicly accountable or cannot envision the outcome of a scheme based on an architect’s previous work, remain fond of the competition format and it persists as one of the main ways in which big jobs are awarded. Thus the VSBA disclaimer that “we feel compelled to decline to participate” has been only selectively applied.

The most noteworthy recent exception was the firm’s decision to take part in the 1995 competition for the new United States Embassy in Berlin, necessitated by the move of the German capital from Bonn. The prominent site, next to the Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linden, and the ability to represent America in a city that is becoming a showcase of international design, prompted Venturi and Scott Brown to break their rule against contests. And once again they lost. Though the masonry exterior of their scheme was restrained and dignified, the embassy forecourt, only slightly visible through a narrow opening on the entry facade, was to be dominated by a huge LED billboard of the sort proposed in Iconography and Electronics, on which colorful images of American life would be shown, with similar devices installed elsewhere in the building.

The winning design, by the Santa Monica firm of Moore Ruble Yudell (co-founded by Charles Moore), is more conventional and was doubtless chosen because it was less startling than the VSBA entry. Avant-garde artists by definition try to lead the rest of society into new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Very often they fail, but they must try. Unjust as that situation seems to Venturi, whose discontent with architectural practice today is the dark leitmotif running through his new book, he cannot have it both ways. As an astute historian himself, he must know that his positions challenging fashionable trends put him in very good company indeed, and moreover give him continuing relevance as an innovator at an age when most of his contemporaries have subsided into the comfortable platitudes of architectural business as usual.

Interestingly, Venturi and Scott Brown’s best-known building was the result of the most controversial commission of the last two decades: the Sainsbury Wing of 1986-1991 at the National Gallery in London. An earlier proposal—an aggressively high-tech design by Richard (now Lord) Rogers—was famously denounced by Prince Charles as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The ensuing publicity led to a search for a new, more “suitable” solution for the Trafalgar Square site. The VSBA entry to the limited, invitational competition was the best of the offerings, but six years after its opening it can be seen as something less than a complete success.

At the forefront of the Sainsbury Wing’s faultfinders is Venturi himself, who in his new collection includes a letter he wrote to friends who were about to pay their first visit to the addition. Sensitive though he has been to the opinions of others, Venturi does not hesitate to point out the flaws in his most prestigious commission. He was compelled by museum officials to alter his winning design in several respects, most notably to remove a large window meant to face Pall Mall at the south end of the central gallery enfilade. Other parts of the project—the color scheme of the lobby, the restaurant, the gift shop, and the furniture—were removed from the architect’s control altogether and lack distinction. A host of other complaints, unacknowledged by Venturi, were registered by critics when the building was completed and it received mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Awkwardness has always been an attribute—and not an undesired one—in Venturi’s designs, and elements of the Sainsbury Wing are no exception. Critics have commented on the thick mullions of the great glass wall enclosing one side of the monumental stairway that leads up from street level to the picture galleries on the piano nobile. Others dislike the purely decorative, Victorian-inspired steel arches suspended above those grand steps. A lover of the anti-heroic gesture, Venturi wanted the stone wall at the top of the stairs to be engraved with the supergraphic inscription LIFTS; he detests the eye-catching (if artistically insignificant) painting that curators have hung there instead. And the columns of grey pietra serena—which Venturi specified to pay homage to the architecture of Florence and the Italian Renaissance paintings the Sainsbury Wing was built to enshrine—are already grimy and stained, giving a gloomy impression to some visitors. Those pillars were quarried from a different vein than the quattrocento material.

And yet, somehow, it works. The sweep of the superbly proportioned galleries is thrilling, and the principal rooms are much better for showing pictures than those in Sir James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, which is often ranked among the best museums of the 1980s. Though Venturi is in many respects archetypally American, the Sainsbury Wing feels both appropriately Italian (with effects of perspective that bring to mind the Mannerist illusions of Borromini and Bernini) and at the same time remarkably English (with gallery skylights that owe something to Sir John Soane and a stately progression of imposing spaces that recalls the interiors of Sir Edwin Lutyens). Most important of all, the pictures make a strong, concentrated appearance. Even the basement-level galleries for temporary exhibitions are superior to subterranean spaces in many other museums.

Architects are the art world’s control freaks, and thus there is an uncommon degree of acceptance in Robert Venturi’s uneven but absorbing new book of the inevitability that things are bound to go wrong in his, the most compromised of all artistic mediums. In 1991 he addressed the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects on the frustrations that he and his co-professionals share. “Things are almost bearable,” he said, “when a client loves the building in the end and appreciates your commitment…and the building in your own eyes is almost all right.” Then he closed with the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Beauty is not in being perfect, beauty is in knowing how to make the design so the imperfections are unimportant.”

  1. 4

    Harper and Row, 1984.

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