Beginning in the 1960s American architect Robert Venturi (born 1925) spearheaded the "Post-Modern" revolt against the simplicity and pure functionalism of modernist architecture. In both his buildings and his writings he championed an architecture rich in symbolism and history, complexity and contradiction.
The son of a fruit grocer, Robert Venturi was born in Philadelphia, PA, on June 25, 1925. In 1943 he graduated from the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. He entered Princeton University and received a bachelor of arts (summa cum laude) in 1947 and master of fine arts in 1950.
At Princeton, Venturi received a traditional architectural education under the direction of Jean Labatut, a French architect trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. From Labatut, Venturi learned not only how buildings are created in the mind of the architect, but how they are perceived by the person on the street. Venturi also studied architectural history with noted scholar Donald Drew Egbert. Later, Venturi's keen knowledge of architectural history would provide a vital source of inspiration.
Between 1950 and 1954 Venturi worked successively in the architectural offices of Oscar Stonorov and Eero Saarinen. Then, in 1954, he won the Prix de Rome. This award enabled him to spend two years at the American Academy in Rome where, in the company of Louis Kahn, he came to admire the city's Mannerist and Baroque buildings. In the work of Michelangelo and Borromini in particular, Venturi picked up some ideas about freely using a traditional architectural vocabulary of columns, arches, and pediments to create structures of great originality.
Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1956, Venturi entered the office of Louis Kahn. In 1958, he began his own architectural practice as a member of the firm of Venturi, Cope and Lippincott. In 1961 he entered into a brief partnership with William Short. Then in 1964 he and Philadelphia architect John Rauch established a firm. The Zambian-born designer Denise Scott Brown, who married Venturi in 1967, became a third partner in Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown in 1977.
A Seminal Book on Architecture
Between 1951 and 1965, while Venturi was establishing his practice, he taught courses on architectural theory at the University of Pennsylvania. These courses formed the basis of his watershed book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. Hailed as "the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture of 1923, " Venturi's book encouraged architects to turn away from the rigid "form follows function" doctrines of modernists like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe and to look instead to the rich architecture of the past—to the works of Michelangelo, Hawksmoor, Soane, Lutyens, Aalto; to ancient and medieval buildings, and to architecture that reflected local and popular culture. To Mies' famous maxim "Less is more, " Venturi countered "Less is a bore, " and wrote: "I like elements that 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,' …I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit meaning as well as the explicit function."
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture became a rallying point for young architects around the world who had become disillusioned with the stylistic limitations of the International Style. In effect, the book provided a manifesto for the Post-Modern movement in architecture.
The ideas in Complexity and Contradiction were given concrete form in Venturi's earliest buildings, including his first major work, the Guild House, an apartment building for the elderly in Philadelphia (1960-1963). In the Guild House, Venturi created a sense of artistic tension, or contradiction, by mixing high-art aesthetics with motifs drawn from popular culture. Constructed of brick walls pierced by double hung windows, the Guild House looks at first glance like an ordinary six-story Philadelphia apartment building. But a closer examination reveals a peculiar main entrance, seemingly far too small for the building, yet marked by a massive black granite column, a huge frame of white glazed brick (reminiscent of a 1930s movie house), and a sign rendered with giant supermarket-style lettering. Although later removed, a gold television antenna was prominently displayed on top of the building directly over the entrance; Venturi claimed it was "a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV." Despite the purposeful banality of these motifs, they were skillfully composed within a symmetrical facade and were intended to be understood as high-art objects. Contemporary "Pop" artists such as Andy Warhol had an unmistakable influence on this sort of design.
Perhaps Venturi's best known building is the house he designed for his mother, Vanna Venturi, in Chestnut Hill, PA. (1962). Here again the aim was to create a building that would not only be functional but also capable of producing a sense of artistic tension. To do this, the architect mixed contradictory features: the exterior shape of the house is simple, yet the interior plan is complex; and while the overall facade is symmetrically conceived, symmetry is broken by unbalanced windows and an off-center chimney. Moreover, although the scale of the house is quite small, many of the details (doors, chair rails, fireplace mantels) are huge.
A Second Controversial Book
Venturi's willful playfulness with features derived from traditional architecture and his attacks against orthodox modernism did not win him many commissions during the 1960s. He continued to teach, however, and between 1966 and 1970 served as the Charlotte Davenport Professor of Architecture at Yale. Out of his teachings at Yale came his 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas (co-authored by Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown). This work, too, stunned the architectural world. It treated the gaudy, sign-filled Vegas strip not as an architectural aberration, but as a vernacular art form worthy of serious study. Venturi felt that the "Decorated Shed" and other types of roadside buildings offered design lessons that could not be ignored, and he argued that architects needed to respond to the reality and symbolism of the popularly built environment with buildings corresponding to that environment.
In the early 1970s Venturi's practice began to thrive, and after that the architect turned his attention more towards design than teaching and writing. Always refreshingly different, Venturi's buildings continued to reveal an interest in the vernacular and the historical. His Trubek and Wislocki houses in Nantucket, MA (1970) have the same pitched roofs and shingle-clad walls as the many nearby 19th-century Shingle-style houses. The curved facade of the Brant House in Greenwich, CT (1971-1973) reflects the influence of 1930s Art Deco. The Tucker House in Katonah, NY (1974), is reminiscent of some turn-of-the-century English arts and crafts work. Eighteenth-century Polish synagogues provided the inspiration for the wooden vaults in the Brant-Johnson House in Vail, CO (1975). Giant 1960s wallpaper-style flowers decorate the front of the Best Products buildings in Oxford Valley, PA (1977). Gothic touches can be seen in the "Treehouse" in the Philadelphia Children's Zoo (1981-1984).
In 1986 Venturi was selected to design an extension to the British National Gallery of Art's neoclassical building on Trafalgar Square, London. He chose a classically modern stone-faced structure. Venturi's firm also designed the Biology building at Princeton University (1983), a new Parliament House in Canberra, Australia (1979), the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, TX (1983), the Westway Riverfront Project in New York City (1979-1985), and several large exhibitions at museums in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and other cities.
Further Reading on Robert Venturi
The extensive literature on and by Venturi from 1960 to 1982 is listed in Pettena and Vogliazzo, eds., Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (1981). Another bibliographic listing on VRSB, with three scholarly essays and many fine photographs, is available in the December 1981 issue of Architecture + Urbanism (extra edition). Besides Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi also published, with Denise Scott Brown, A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953-1984 (1984). See also C. Mead, The Architecture of Robert Venturi (1989); A. Sanmartin, ed., Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (1986), and S. von Moos, Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown: Buildings and Projects (1987).