The book by Robert Venturi continues to be important in today’s complicated and conflicting world. Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published 50 years ago and still in print today, is one of the few books on architecture that can be said to have defined a particular historical moment. It fundamentally altered the way we see, understand, and discuss architecture. Few books on architecture have since attained comparable significance in influencing the discipline’s discourse. Still, Vincent Scully’s famous assessment of Venturi’s treatise as “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier‘s Vers une Architecture” has proven accurate in many ways.
Venturi’s “gentle manifesto” has frequently been praised as a sign of the architectural crisis. Indeed, the publication of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in the same year as Aldo Rossi‘s L’architettura della città has long been seen as a surprising coincidence (although Venturi’s book was delayed and didn’t reach bookshops until the spring of 1967). Both books signalled the exhaustion of the Minimalist and abstract paradigm of postwar Modernist architecture and, in their distinctive ways, argued for what Venturi calls “inflexion”: a position, not least guided by insight from gestalt psychology, that visual phenomena – and, by extension, buildings – are meaningful only in the context of their surroundings. This is true even though their arguments and tones were very different.
‘Venturi’s inspiration was the urban facades of Italy.’
Even though Complexity and Contradiction was not truly an urbanism book, Scully once more made the distinction between Le Corbusier‘s concern with the fluidity of volumes and Venturi’s fundamentally urban concept of concave space: The Greek temple, with its solitary figure white and free in the landscape and its bright austerities clear in the light, served as Le Corbusier’s greatest inspiration. The urban facades of Italy, which are the historical and archetypal opposite of the Greek temple in terms of function and aesthetics, have served as Venturi’s main source of inspiration. Rather than being primarily sculptural actors in vast landscapes, these facades serve as complex spatial containers and definers of streets and squares.
Complexity and Contradiction can be seen as an intellectual digest of Venturi’s two-year stay at the American Academy in Rome from 1954 to 1956. During this time, he pursued his passion for Baroque and Mannerist architecture. Also, he got to know the work of prominent postwar Italian architects, including Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Luigi Moretti (whose splendid Casa del Girasole Venturi was included in his treatise and later singled out as one of his favourite buildings). In fundamental ways, both architects laid the ground for Venturi’s reinterpretation of the principles of Modernism.
‘Hailed as a source text of postmodernism.’ | Complexity and Contradiction in architecture
Despite Venturi’s insistence that he was a Modernist, Complexity and Contradiction has been acclaimed as a foundational work for architectural Postmodernism, similar to Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Contrary to what some of Venturi’s followers have asserted, Venturi did not advocate that Complexity and Contradiction restored historical context to modern architectural discourse or foster respect for the formal vocabulary of the Classical language of architecture. . He was more interested in abstract compositional rules that, in his opinion, had currency throughout the history of architecture, most notably in Mannerism and the Baroque, and that, as he argued, was to be emulated for contemporary production. This was done entirely subjectively and guided by his taste preferences.
Venturi’s use and interpretation of “mannerism” as a supra-historical concept that can describe architecture and art from any historical period indicate this viewpoint. In addition, ideas like “ambiguity,” “contradictory levels,” “the inner and the outside,” and “the responsibility toward the complex total” were all examined only for their compositional merit while being given a wealth of visual examples. Venturi’s praise of the works of architects like Giuseppe Vaccaro or Armando Brasini, whose involvement with the Fascist dictatorship was simply of no interest (or concern) to the author, is the clearest example of this decontextualised (and ultimately ahistorical) perspective.
Does a newer generation of active architects still find Complexity and Contradiction relevant? Many have recently been interested in the “difficult whole” as a compositional strategy that may create readable and clear volumes while still producing intricate floor plans and interior spaces. The Vanna Venturi House (which recently found a new owner wonderfully)’s eccentric plans and elevations show that its architect was not, as he frequently claimed himself to be in later years, merely interested in the symbolic dimension of architecture but rather an erudite virtuoso of the art of space. The Vanna Venturi House is conceived as an object in its own right, which is true for many of his other projects from the era. This building calls into question an understanding of Venturi’s work as primarily contextualist in the same way his spatial research appears to be twisted and non-straightforward. A fresh generation of modern architects has taken notice of Venturi’s formal examination with which he tackles the design process after the postmodern polemics that for too long masked his message was torn away.
‘Activism is not the only way architecture can be political.’
Despite this, Complexity and Contradiction are undoubtedly a product of its period. The book was somewhat avant-garde in the politicised environment of the 1960s since it related to complexity theory and the age of cybernetics as well as Op and Pop Art, the “New Criticism” method of literary interpretation, and a certain obsession with Mannerist poetics in architectural design. One might wonder about the book’s place in a discipline that has only recently begun to acknowledge its flaws and biases regarding gender, geography, and ethnicity. It is difficult to imagine a book of architectural theory today that is so narrowly and eccentrically focused on a formalist interpretation of particular aspects of Western European architecture.
However, activism is not the only way architecture can be political; the greatest way to do so is through the project itself, as Venturi’s project would imply. And even while his treatise was undoubtedly not intended to be a political statement, his words strike us now as a forceful appeal for decorum and a demand for an inclusive rather than exclusive society: “I talk of a complicated and paradoxical architecture built on the wealth and ambiguity of contemporary experience, especially that experience which is inherent in art,” the author writes. I welcome challenges and take advantage of uncertainty. I prefer mixed-up components rather than “pure,” compromised rather, “clean,” and inclusive rather than exclusive. I like visible unity over chaotic liveliness. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white to black or white, and occasionally grey. The challenging unity of inclusion rather than the simple unity of exclusion must be embodied in an architecture of complexity and contradiction. This is the most important thing to remember, whether discussing architecture or not.