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‘A Pragmatist Through and Through’: Remembering Robert Venturi (1925–2018)

An homage to the architect who, with his partner Denise Scott Brown, developed the source code for postmodernism

With his passing last week, at the age of 93, Robert Venturi has given us a final gift: the excuse to talk about his ideas, at a time when they are more urgent than ever. It is easy, in discussions of his work with Denise Scott Brown, to focus on the one-liners. Complexity and Contradiction. The Duck and the Decorated Shed. The Roman Piazza and the Las Vegas Strip. This isn’t a bad way to engage with their achievements, as they prized the memorable motif, but there is more to Venturi and Scott Brown than façades. They also had a lot to say about the deeper structures of our built environment.

They came from very different places: Scott Brown, a South Africa-born urban planner, whose sensibilities were honed at the Architectural Association in London; and Venturi, raised Quaker in Philadelphia, who might best be understood as an exponent of American pragmatism. Louis Menand, in his book The Metaphysical Club (2001), explains this philosophical tradition using the example of 19th century astronomy. Telescopes then were not accurate enough to establish the position of celestial bodies reliably, so star positions were established by averaging many separate readings – even if that meant locating them where they had never been observed. This was pragmatism: an embrace of the good-enough, the goal of getting along for now.

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Robert Venturi and John Rauch, Dixwell Fire Station, New Haven, 1972. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Venturi was a pragmatist through and through. He loved the layered textures that arose from haphazard urban development and disliked any imposition of a singular order on the built environment. He said that modernism was like a fitted glove, form carefully calibrated to function; he and Scott Brown wanted to make buildings that were more like mittens, which anyone could wear, and which could accommodate new uses over time. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) laid out these principles, the source code for later postmodernism (a term he and Scott Brown never much liked – but then, few did). It also offered a badly needed satire of modernist architects, with their lordly, my-way-or-the-highway attitudes to other people’s habitation.

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‘Signs of Life: Symbols of the American City’, curated by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, 1976, installation view, Renwick Gallery, Washington D.C. Courtesy: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi Archives

Of course, as Venturi and Scott Brown would go on to point out, the highway had a lot to recommend it. Learning from Las Vegas (1972), their study of a city meant to be viewed from a car dashboard, remains their most influential work, and also their most controversial. It remains usefully provocative today, in both aesthetic and ethical terms. Their basic premise, that architects should be curious about what people actually like, at first seems self-evident. Yet Vegas seethes with naked commercial interest and blatant psychological manipulation. Surely that’s not what we want? The book challenges us to negotiate these two intuitions, and so to think through the true difficulties of constructing a civic order.

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Robert Venturi, Vanna Venturi house, designed for his mother in 1964. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Venturi and Scott Brown manifested their ideas in many genres, including collages that compete with the best of Robert Rauschenberg, and exhibitions such as ‘Signs of Life: Symbols of the American City’, staged at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. in the US Bicentennial year of 1976, which holds as many lessons for curators as for urban planners. Their forays into mass-produced and editioned design – furniture for Knoll, tableware for Swid Powell, silver for Alessi – are succinct expressions of postmodernism; thought bubbles on the subject of style.

As for the buildings, they are not that numerous, but extraordinarily various. Venturi’s own best work may have been his first, the house he built for his mother Vanna in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, between 1962 and ’64. Here he translated the contrapuntal spatial dynamic he so admired in Italian Mannerism into suburban vernacular. Generic elements like sash and lunette windows and decorative moldings are exaggerated in scale and set in unconventional positions. On the interior, a fireplace and stair collide together to comic effect. Like the prose in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, the house manages to be modest and exhilarating all at once.

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Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London, 1988–91. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Among the other buildings that Venturi and Scott Brown completed with John Rauch and their other collaborators, the ones that stand out are often didactic. The supergraphics and rhythmic façade of Guild House (1960–64) make it a breathtaking intervention into a mundane Philadelphia streetscape; other billboard-like buildings, such as their Dixwell Fire Station in New Haven (1972), pack a similar punch. Their most high-profile commission, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London (1988–91), is a pop essay in classicism that managed to satisfy both cultural reactionaries – Prince Charles notoriously among them – and architectural progressives.

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Robert Venturi photographed in front of the Las Vegas skyline by Denise Scott Brown, 1966. Courtesy: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi Archives

As we remember Venturi, it is this ability to find common ground that we should value most. He and Scott Brown gravitated to the ‘ugly and ordinary’ not for cheap thrills, but because they thought they could learn something. They were always curious, never condescending. Given recent politics, it may feel difficult to embrace populism in any form – it feels inextricably tainted by demagoguery. But we can still learn much from the humanist, pragmatic approach that Venturi and Scott Brown shaped together. Next time you walk under the stars, look up and think of him. Venturi won’t be there, but that’s ok.

Main image: Driving through Las Vegas, 1966. Courtesy: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi Archives

Glenn Adamson is Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, and the author of books including The Invention of Craft (2013).

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