- Historic Sites
DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE IN NAME AND FORM, an icon of postmodernism comes wrapped in centuries of architectural history
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Inside, the historical references are no less profuse. A central fireplace recalls the dominant position of the hearth and the massive chimneys of houses in colonial New England, which later appeared in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The adjacent stairway, which turns around the chimney and, as it does so, diminishes in size, finds its parallel in Michelangelo’s monumental staircase for the Laurentian Library. Again symmetry is suggested and at the same time denied. Partitions mark the boundary of the social area on one side of the living room, while on the other side a change of spatial use is merely suggested by a change in flooring material from hardwood to marble and a variation of ceiling height.
In his book, Growing Up Italian , Venturi has written of feeling like a “nerd,” “someone who is awkward on the outside whose good points are not visible because they are on the inside.” The same tension between outward expression and inward emotion marks his work. The real key to the house is the interconnectedness of its parts. Robert Venturi remembers the day that the idea struck him. He was sitting in the library at Eno Hall at Princeton in the spring of 1950, reading a book on gestalt psychology. “I found the word ‘context.’ … For me it was a true moment of discovery: ‘Eureka! I have found my thesis! Meaning derives from context.’”
The emphasis on context informs all of Venturi’s architecture. In the Vanna Venturi house it shows in the relationship between the chimney and the stairs. They seem to bend toward each other, each determining the form of the other. Venturi describes this as “inflection,” the creation of new forms out of the close association of adjacent parts, and he constantly strives toward a larger context, incorporating physical landscape, social environment, and historical background. The result is apt to bewilder viewers, but as Venturi says, “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture. … I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure.’ … I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. … I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.” He further explains that “an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”
In the past decade Venturi’s work, once so controversial, has gained honors from the mainstream institutions. In 1985 Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown won the American Institute of Architects Firm of the Year Award, and in 1991 he received the Pritzker prize for lifetime achievement in architecture. Many of his early critics are now grudging admirers. Philip Johnson, one of the great practitioners of modern architecture and one of the first to criticize Venturi’s work as “ugly and ordinary,” paid a sort of homage when he placed an enormous split-gable atop New York City’s AT&T Building (now the Sony Building).
Even today Venturi’s work often is misunderstood. This has much to do with the essential ambiguity of postmodernism, but it is also because Venturi adopts no single style. Each of his buildings expresses its own distinct identity; each fits into its specific environment. The result can be direct and forceful, as in the facade of the Seattle Art Museum, which he covered with the monumental letters spelling out its name. Or it can appear gently playful, as at Princeton University’s Wu Hall, where the facade resembles the entrance to a Tudor house. Faced with unique problems, Venturi reaches for unusual solutions. In Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Court he represented the structure of Benjamin Franklin’s long-vanished house by reproducing its outline in stainless steel.