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.
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). □
(b. 25 June 1925 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), prominent architect who in the 1960s helped formulate the postmodern revolt against the simplicity and functionalism of modern architecture, instead emphasizing buildings rich in symbolism and history.
The only child of the Italian immigrants Robert Charles Venturi, a fruit produce merchant, and Vanna (Lanzetta) Venturi, a housewife, Venturi credits his father with his early exposure to and appreciation of architecture. By the time he was four years old, Venturi knew that he wanted to be an architect. His parents' pacifism led them to convert to the Quaker religion, and Venturi spent much of his childhood attending Quaker meetings. He attended private schools and graduated from the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania.
In 1943 Venturi entered Princeton University in New Jersey to study architecture. Under the direction of Jean Labatut, who had trained at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Venturi learned not only how buildings are imagined in the mind of the architect but also how the average person perceives them. Venturi also studied architectural history with the noted scholar Donald Drew Egbert, taking his course four times. As Venturi later recalled, Egbert's course steered away from the then popular philosophy that modern architecture was not just a style but an ideology. Instead, Egbert stressed architecture as evolution, suggesting that modern architecture would continue to develop and change. Venturi's keen knowledge of architectural history proved a vital inspiration for his own works. In 1947 Venturi graduated with a B.A., summa cum laude; he earned an M.F.A. from Princeton in 1950.
Between 1950 and 1954 Venturi worked as a designer in the offices of Oscar Stonorov, Louis I. Kahn, and Eero Saarinen. In 1954 he won the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to spend two years studying at the American Academy in Rome. Venturi was particularly drawn to mannerist and baroque buildings and admired the work of Michelangelo and Francesco Borromini. During his time in Rome, Venturi began to formulate ideas about reinterpreting the traditional architectural vocabulary of columns, arches, and pediments to create structures of great originality. He later referred to Rome as his "Mecca," stating that the city was "where I proved that my architectural fathers were wrong when they said that history was bunk."
Within two years of his return to Philadelphia in 1956, Venturi had established his own architectural firm of Venturi, Cope, and Lippincott. In 1961 he entered into a brief partnership with William Short and in 1964 went into business with John Rauch. The Zambian-born designer Denise Scott Brown, whom Venturi married on 23 July 1967, became the third partner in Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown in 1977. The couple had one son.
During the 1960s Venturi began teaching courses on architectural theory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. These courses formed the basis of his first book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which was published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The book encouraged architects to turn away from the rigid "form follows function" doctrines of the modernist movement. Instead, Venturi argued, architects should look to the rich architectural traditions of the past, from the classically executed works to the vernacular architecture that reflected local and popular culture. Deriding Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe's famous maxim "less is more," Venturi wrote, "Less is a bore." He confirmed, "I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning." Venturi's book marked a watershed in American architectural history and was hailed as the most important writing on architecture since Le Corbusier's Rise of Architecture (1923). Complexity and Contradiction became a guidebook for young architects the world over who had become disillusioned with the modernist movement.
Venturi practiced what he preached. His first major work, the Guild House, constructed between 1960 and 1963 as an apartment building for the elderly in Philadelphia, combined high-art aesthetics with motifs drawn from popular culture. The six-story brick building appeared at first glance to be a quite ordinary. A closer look revealed a small main entranceway, marked by a massive black granite column, in a large frame of white glazed brick. A sign done in giant supermarket-style lettering completed the building's facade. For a time, a gold television antenna was displayed prominently on top of the building directly over the entrance as a symbol, according to Venturi, "of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV." The inclusion of such commonplace elements, which Venturi intended to be viewed as high art, combined with the design of the Guild House, produced an unexpected symmetry.
Venturi's best-known building from the1960s was the house he designed for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. For Mother's House, which he completed in 1962, Venturi again created a building that mixed contradictory elements, including a simple exterior with a complex interior plan. The symmetry of the house was disrupted by unbalanced windows and an off-center chimney. Although Venturi conceived the scale to be small, he also incorporated oversized interior doors, chair rails, and fireplace mantels.
Unfortunately, Venturi's innovative forays and his attacks on modernist orthodoxy did not win him many commissions during the 1960s. He continued to teach and from his courses came his next book, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), which he coauthored with Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown. Venturi's argument was as audacious as it was original. The gaudy explosion of neon that characterized the Vegas strip was not an architectural abomination, he insisted, but an important vernacular art form worthy of serious study. Venturi thought that the so-called Decorated Shed and other types of roadside buildings offered lessons in design that architects could no longer ignore.
When Venturi's business began to prosper in the early 1970s, he devoted his attention more to design than to teaching and writing. Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, Venturi's buildings continued to illustrate his architectural philosophy by combining the vernacular, the historical, and the artistic. Venturi published his third book, A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953–1984, in 1985, and that same year Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown won the architectural firm award of the American Institute of Architects. In 1991 Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the highest honors an architect can receive. Since that time, his work has been the subject of museum retrospectives and exhibitions. Venturi's designs continue to challenge architects to rethink their theory and practice.
Venturi's groundbreaking writings and designs of the 1960s illustrated for architects all over the world that "the commonplace and everyday built environment cannot be willed out of existence and is 'almost alright.'" Venturi's deft handling of conventional and everyday elements in his architecture, while shocking at first to many, also demonstrated that the everyday could become the extraordinary if done thoughtfully. Instead of embracing the credo of modernists, who felt it necessary to educate and elevate public taste, Venturi showed architects how to accept and improve it.
There is no biography of Venturi. Overviews of his work often contain some biographical information. See Philip and John Cook Johnson, Conversations with Architects: Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, Bertrand Goldberg, Morris Lapidus, Louis Kahn, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi (1975); Diane Maddox and Roger K. Lewis, Master Builders: A Guide to Famous American Architects (1986); Christopher Mead, ed., The Architecture of Robert Venturi (1989); and David B. Brownlee, David G. Delong, and Kathryn B. Hiesinger, Out of the Ordinary: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Associates: Architecture, Urbanism, Design (2001). In addition to Venturi's books mentioned in the text, see Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (2002).