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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.

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. 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.

  3. 4

    Harper and Row, 1984.

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