“I am not now and never have been a Postmodernist.” – Robert Venturi (2001)
One of the most renowned architectural figures of the 20th century, Robert Venturi has been considered to be one of the pioneers of postmodernism, something that he has constantly denied.
On the contrary to architects known by their designed works, he grew popular for his published work, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which dared to start a conversation against the then revered International style of architecture, later joined by one of the most respected academicians, architect and his partner, Denise Scott Brown to give Learning from Las Vegas, followed by other publications and collaborated projects in the coming years.
The alma mater of Princeton University is known for his maxim “Less is a Bore” as an antithesis for “Less is more” coined by Mies Van der Rohe, a pioneer of modern architecture, and as a harbinger of a new style after modernism. However, some lesser-known facts could have shaped the controversial yet highly admired personality of the century.
1. Worked under Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn
Shortly after his education, he briefly worked with the two renowned architects where his experience with Louis Kahn has been widely discussed. While there is immense respect for Kahn’s work by Venturi, the latter has talked about, not being acknowledged for the exchange of ideas between the two, ideas that played a huge role in Kahn’s later works. (© Article by Vladimir Belogolovsky, September 24, 2018)
2. Educational Program under Professor Jean Labatut
This program by Princeton University offered design studios within a Beaux art pedagogical framework, which played a crucial role in the development of Venturi’s approach towards architectural theory and design, inspired by architectural history and commercial architecture. (© Wikipedia)
3. Guild House
Completed in 1963, this was one of the first projects of Venturi that is now considered as an important and influential work of the century. It was a project for low-income senior citizens.
This work depicts the “decorated shed” concept that Venturi often talked about in his published works. Its façade was with context to the surrounding “ordinary” houses but at the same time had an extraordinary value to it.
Here, Venturi wanted to incorporate quite a literal symbolism of the life of the senior citizens by adding a golden replica of a TV antenna in the middle of the front façade which also would have been an ironic variation of the pediment. However, it didn’t survive in later years. (©Less Is More‐Mies van der Rohe, Less Is a Bore- Robert Venturi, an article by Paul Goldberger, 1971)
4. Meeting Denise Scott Brown
In 1960, after having argued against the demolition of the Furness library of the University of Pennsylvania, Denise Scott Brown, a faculty member and master’s student of the university met Robert Venturi, a fellow professor, who agreed with her on the argument.
Later, they would visit and study Las Vegas, eventually getting married in 1967 and publishing one of their most celebrated works, Learning from Las Vegas in 1972.
Despite the declination by the jury of Pritzker to recognize Scott Brown along with Venturi in 1991, she made a place of her own in the patriarchal society by becoming one of the first women to head an urban design program, first to have her name on the masthead of a major firm as well as lead an elite architectural school. (© “Robert Venturi and the difficult whole” by Mark Allan Hewitt)
5. Not a postmodernist
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have claimed to be loyal modernists instead. They said once, that their way of introducing vernacular influences was something that European modernists had done before, getting inspired by the American factories and elevators.
Venturi said, “Modernism is about space and postmodernism is about communication”. He has been influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Palladio having symbolism and narration through space. (© Robert Venturi: Architecture’s Improper Hero, a short film by John Thornton and Interview for American Architecture Now: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, 1984)
6. Lieb House
Lieb House is one of the earliest collaborations between Venturi and Scott Brown in New Jersey, 1969, and exhibits their idea of “ordinary is the new extraordinary” that was widely written about in their book, Learning from Las Vegas.
Lieb House, as originally built in New Jersey was on the verge of being torn down as the owners of the house sold it to a developer. However, son of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, James Venturi asked a client of theirs to buy the house and relocate it to a site designed by Venturi at Glen Cove, New York in 2009. Therefore, the house was shipped to its new location which is now a guest house for doctors Deborah Sarnoff and Robert Gotkin. (© Can architecture be ordinary? By Deborah Fauschand “Venturi’s Lieb House Relocated By Boat” article by C. J. Hughes)
7. Sainsbury Wing, an extension of National Gallery, London
This project is one of the best examples to understand the context of the surrounding and showcases a subtle take on the adjoining classical style of architecture. It has got a fair share of criticism and appreciation in the world of architecture.
Due to a debate on a particular detail for the design of the wing that was crucial for the architect but not the client, Venturi and Scott Brown were about to resign. However, later on, the detail was kept and work continued.
There was a stark contrast in the opinions regarding the building due to its presence in the middle land with neo-Modernists and traditionalists on two sides. It went on to receive honors like the AIA Twenty-five Year Award in 2019. (© Robert Venturi: Architecture’s Improper Hero, a short film by John Thorntonand an essay written by Adam Nathaniel Furman, published as part of the series “Building of the month”)
8. Queen Anne Chair
Robert Venturi gained an interest in furniture from his mother, Vanna Venturi who worked as a decorator and collected historical pieces. This piece of work is yet another humorous take, this time on a smaller scale producing a range of chairs for Knoll in the 1980s. Their objective was to design for easy and cheap production along with a new take on the historical design.
The chair based on the style prevalent during the British monarch, was a personal favorite of Denise Scott Brown as it relieved her from back pain, which was not the initial objective of the design.
This project was yet another victim of the patriarchal society wherein Scott Brown was not credited and acknowledged by Knoll for her contribution.
The chair was indeed a game-changer in terms of the color palette and texture but at the same time is reminiscent of the past. (© Postmodern design: Queen Anne chair by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, an article by Dan Howarth)
9. Society to Preserve Our Billboard
At a press release, Venturi announced the formation of Society to Preserve Our Billboard as an occasional moment of self-mockery and signed as the chairman. However, he received criticism from the Director of the City Planning Commission, Edmund Bacon who was “absolutely astounded” by the news and did not share the sense of humor.
(© Less Is More‐Mies van der Rohe, Less Is a Bore- Robert Venturi, an article by Paul Goldberger, 1971)
It is a pilgrimage site for architects and students and some of the major temples are by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Venturi was born in Philadelphia in 1925 and passed away due to Alzheimer’s disease in the same city in 2018 at the age of 93.
He left a huge imprint on the city with the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel to residential architecture in Chestnut Hill and public spaces in the Old City.
Robert Venturi started a conversation at a time when a style came to a point of saturation and when history needed a different idea to lead its way.
He could have debated about a detail in Sainsbury Wing, but he also emphasized on the constraints of the site, surrounding, and the client along with the modernist aspects.
As a student of architecture in the 21st century, I will always be curious to know how an architect strove past the traditionalists and the modernists by standing in the middle of the road, cementing his position, and was followed by other postmodernists.
His legacy will live within as well as beyond Philadelphia for an architecture that didn’t take itself too seriously.