Robert Venturi, the Philadelphia architect who died in September at the age of ninety-three, left a twofold legacy. On the one hand, he demolished almost entirely by himself the prestige of the modern movement in architecture, whose moral authority had gone unquestioned for a generation. He did to it precisely what Andy Warhol did to Abstract Expressionism: make its heroic claims seem laughable. On the other hand, Venturi also created—again, almost entirely by himself—a rich architectural language that would take the place of laconic International Style modernism. By making witty use of signs and symbols, plucked from across the whole range of history and modern life, he made buildings speak again, if sometimes garrulously. Here was the origin of architectural postmodernism, although in later years he would bitterly deny all paternity claims.

It is fitting that the most devastating critique of modernist orthodoxy should have been launched by a Quaker from Philadelphia. The city, which had been building red-brick row houses on straight streets for almost three centuries, was itself the physical manifestation of the Quaker doctrine of plain clothes and plain speech. Venturi was raised a Quaker, and he absorbed its dread of pomp and display. When his first buildings were mocked as “ugly and ordinary,” he adopted the phrase as a badge of honor. Since Quakers have no formally trained ministers, and so did not, as did the Puritan colonies, immediately found universities to produce them, Philadelphia’s intellectual culture tended to be pragmatic and empirical, rather than abstract and theoretical. And so when Venturi came to write theory, its hallmark was a complete absence of utopian ambition and an insistence on accepting the basic facts of modern life.

In 1944 Venturi began to study architecture at Princeton; three years later he enrolled in its graduate program. These were the years when International Style modernism reached its zenith of post-war influence. But the doctrine of functionalism, imported by German refugees from the Bauhaus and adopted by their American disciples, had not taken over Princeton, where he was marinated in the history of architecture. As he liked to tell the story, he took the survey course three times: as a student, slide projectionist, and teaching assistant. It has been pointed out that his celebrated Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is itself like an art history lecture, with its tiny images scaled like 35-mm slides and artfully arranged to show startling parallels.

After graduation, Venturi worked in turn for two architects whose interest in expressing the specific nature of building types put them outside the high-modernist camp: Eero Saarinen’s airports looked like airports, and Louis I. Kahn’s biological laboratory looked like a biological laboratory. But Venturi’s formative experience came in 1954, when he received a fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. He spent the next two years in and around Rome, where he became enamored of the Italian Renaissance, particularly in its mannerist phase, when the forms of classical architecture were imaginatively manipulated for expressive purposes. If Venturi had an architectural philosophy, it was that of Mannerism, which treated architecture as a language with its own vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, and whose rules could be violated for expressive effect. His architectural heroes were actual mannerists like Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, or their rule-breaking successors over the centuries, e.g., Nicholas Hawksmoor, Frank Furness, or Edwin Lutyens.

In 1966 Venturi published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, whose effect on the architectural world was like that of a stone hurled from a catapult. It was quickly translated into sixteen languages, and Vincent Scully hailed it as “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture.” Half a century later, that verdict seems truer than ever. As radical treatises go, it is as mild as can be. Venturi himself called it “a gentle manifesto.” Its argument was a simple one, put forward with inexhaustible ingenuity and examples: that architecture is at bottom an expressive medium but that its expressive range had been drastically impoverished by a functionalist doctrine of universals and absolutes that had no sympathy for the complex and contradictory nature of life itself. Strangely, while the book was crammed with examples of historical architecture, as in a survey course, it was not in the slightest historical. Venturi juxtaposed examples from wildly different periods and cultures, the further apart the better—a seventeenth-century wooden synagogue in Poland and an outdoor theater by Alvar Aalto, an Egyptian temple and a Spanish church in Peru—to show that complexity and contradiction have always been the rule, not the exception, in architecture. The book’s cruelest cut to International Style modernism was not to take it seriously. If Mies van der Rohe proclaimed “less is more,” Venturi yawned that “less is a bore”—his book’s most famous sentence.

Critics were baffled and young architects captivated by the portfolio of Venturi’s own buildings and projects at the end of Complexity and Contradiction. They were at once goofy and esoteric. The small house he built for his mother looked like a child’s cartoon of a house, all chimney and gable, but it was filled with sophisticated architectural quips. He alternately expanded and contracted his staircase as it made its way around the fireplace, giving it the kind of tortuous journey that might have delighted Michelangelo. And he placed a symbolic, nonfunctioning arch directly over the functioning lintel, as casually as a refrigerator magnet, gleefully subverting the Modernist insistence on truth in materials. Just as startling was his Guild House, a Quaker-operated retirement home whose main façade was an abstraction of a heroic Roman portal and whose rear was as plain as the brick factories nearby.

The quirky Guild House embodied another of Venturi’s innovative ideas. If the forms of the International Style were meant to be universal, the same steel-and-glass box serving equally well for a school in Alaska or an embassy in equatorial Africa, Venturi insisted on the value of context. Buildings should not stand aloof in time and space, but should respond to their location. In fact, every architectural design needed to begin with a sensitive study of local conditions, materials, scale, and neighborhood character. If this idea is something of a platitude today, it testifies to how widely Venturi’s ideas have triumphed.

For one brief moment Complexity and Contradiction, with its rich parade of classical buildings, suggested that humanist values might be restored to architecture, and the great Western tradition reinvigorated. But it soon became clear that this was never Venturi’s goal. The decisive event was a 1967 pilgrimage to Las Vegas with Denise Scott Brown, the architect and planner who would soon become his wife and business partner. They returned a year later to study the visual language of casinos and their signs, a studio of Yale architecture students in tow. Where Venturi once condemned the American highway strip as a “honky-tonk [of] chaos and blight,” he now looked at it with sympathy. After all, the Las Vegas billboard, for all its vulgarity, was nothing more than the modern counterpart to the mannerist façade, its elements cleverly abstracted and enlarged to be legible from a speeding vehicle.

Such was the argument he put forward in his jaunty Learning from Las Vegas (1972), written with Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, which famously categorized all buildings as either Ducks or Decorated Sheds. Ducks were buildings that spoke by means of their iconic sculptural shape, which would be anything from the Parthenon to a roadside hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog; a Decorated Shed was a cheap utilitarian box that could be made to speak by applying decoration, either applied directly to the façade (more refrigerator magnets!) or detached in the form of a billboard.

To look without judgment at Las Vegas, in the detached manner of an anthropologist, was novel. It was probably made easier by virtue of Scott Brown having been raised in South Africa, which gave her an outsider’s curiosity and insight about how things work. (It continues to rankle that Venturi alone received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, and not jointly with Scott Brown). As a sociological and semiotic analysis of America’s visual culture, Learning from Las Vegas was brilliant, but as a program for architectural renewal it had unintended consequences. It gave permission to Venturi’s followers to proceed directly to Vegas, skipping over the bracing history lesson of Rome. In their work it soon wilted into a boorish commercial architecture of brazen cutouts, garish colors, and overscaled pastiches of historical motifs. Venturi, ever gentlemanly and soft-spoken, was properly horrified. In later years he would insist that “I am not now and have never been a postmodernist.”

In retrospect it became clear that the buildings in Complexity and Contradiction were there for their graphic or spatial qualities, and not their cultural content. About the values and beliefs they expressed, or the spiritual or social yearnings they embodied, Venturi had little to say. It was a peculiar vision of the past, a great rummage sale of reusable graphic motifs, severed from their original owners and purposes, and innocent of any sense of tragedy. But for tragedy, Venturi had a ready substitute: irony. The owners of Guild House were appalled to read in Complexity and Contradiction that the classical acroterion crowning their façade was in reality a symbolic television antenna, meant to signify how the elderly “spend so much time looking at TV.” They promptly removed it.

Ironic detachment, as it happens, is stony ground in which to plant an artistic movement. And while Venturi helped topple International Style modernism in its triumphant phase, the idiosyncratic personal style he cultivated did not amount in the end to a satisfying replacement. Had Complexity and Contradiction not seemed to promise so much, the architectural legacy would be less disappointing. And yet there are bright spots. Venturi’s Franklin Court is the most significant act of architectural restoration since the controversial rebuilding of Colonial Williamsburg. Faced with the rich archaeological excavation of Benjamin Franklin’s house but not a single image of the building itself, Venturi built a skeletal ghost structure above the site, marking its dimensions without building a spurious replica, inviting the visitor to imagine actively. Of similar high quality is his Sainsbury Wing addition to the National Gallery in London, which takes the festive neoclassicism of the original building and gradually relaxes its architectonic order as it moves away from it—his one great performance in high Mannerism. This was Venturi at his best, if not as pregnant with possibilities as those first provocative projects of the early 1960s.

One may admire the Roman Venturi even as one laments the Vegas Venturi. The highest standards were there, along with a stalwart probity. If his jaunty buildings were free of tragedy, the man himself was full of it, deeply conscious of the fractured and anxious nature of modern life, and furiously determined to make an architecture that faced its reality fearlessly and joyously, and with the absolute sincerity that one is somehow comforted to find in architecture’s last Quaker.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 78
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now