Mother’s House

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VANNA VENTURI USED TO SIT AT HER DINING ROOM TABLE AND TALK TO visitors about her house in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. “This facade will tell you a lot of stories, if you will listen to it,” she would say.

One of those stories is about how her son grew up to be counted among the most influential American architects since Frank Lloyd Wright. Another tells how the house came to be considered the most significant dwelling built in America during the last half of the twentieth century. Architectural critics consider it one of the major influences of the postmodern movement.

 

TO ARCHITECTS AROUND THE WORLD, THE modest structure is known simply as “Mother’s House.” Built in 1963-64, it was influenced by the pop art and the camp sensibilities of the early sixties. In the thirty-two years since its birth, the house has spawned offspring that have transformed the skyline of nearly every major city in the world.

You have seen at least one of these odd buildings in your own city or town, sprouting gables and arches out of all proper proportion, bringing together half-familiar elements belonging to a dozen different eras. Perhaps, like many others, you have thought, “That’s the ugliest building I’ve ever seen.” In the hands of its masters, such as Michael Graves, Charles Moore, and Robert Stern, the post-modern style has produced buildings of impressive complexity and wit. But very quickly the movement seems to have passed from inspiration to imitation. Now virtually every new major building displays some of the style’s characteristics: classical elements seemingly irrationally placed, ironic juxta-positions of scale, tensions of form and space.

 

Robert Venturi’s early career as an architect was largely subsidized by the income from the wholesale fruit-distribution business built up by his father, but his values were most strongly shaped by his mother. As a child she had to leave school because her family did not have the money to buy her a winter coat. Somehow, despite her interrupted education, she became interested in literature and politics. As a young woman she turned toward socialism and admired Bernard Shaw and Norman Thomas; later she became a pacifist and a Quaker.

VENTURI BUILT HIS MOTHER’S HOUSE AT the start of his career, when he was wrestling with some of the architectural issues that would come to characterize his work. At the time, he was teaching architectural theory at the University of Pennsylvania, home to one of architecture’s great modern masters, Louis Kahn. Conceiving of his mother’s house as a testing ground for his theories, Venturi designed at least six different models starting in 1959, shaping and reshaping the basic design.

The result, as Venturi himself admits, looks like a child’s drawing of a house. Venturi is proud of the fact that his mother’s house is deceptively simple enough to be an archetype. He achieved this by highlighting the elements that have typically seemed essential to a house: a gable, a central entrance, a big chimney.

Venturi’s favorite photograph of the house shows his mother in the square entrance opening. Above her is a sweeping arch that is k merely applied to the surface of the structure. It is an image that Venturi’s wife, the architect Denise Scott Brown, says suggests a Renaissance painting of a Madonna with halo. Although the house is unmistakably contemporary, it employs abundant historical references. The wide split gable that forms the front was, Venturi says, inspired by not one but many architectural models, such as Michelangelo’s Porta Pia (1561-65), Palladio’s Villa Barbara at Maser (1557-58), Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace (1705-19), and the Low House, in Bristol, Rhode Island (1887), by McKim, Mead and White.

 

Against these classical forms Venturi sets off the seemingly disordered elements of windows and doors. With this planned discordance the architect subtly manipulates the viewer’s emotional response. While announcing its conformity to some idealized order, the house manages, with its many nonsymmetrical elements, to confound expectations. Only after careful study does the viewer realize the way in which complex parts relate to the whole. For example, five square units are balanced on each side of the composition. On the left, four squares of the window, plus the one square window at the spring of the arch, form a visual equivalent to the units in the strip window of the kitchen on the right.