July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE IN NAME AND FORM, an icon of postmodernism comes wrapped in centuries of architectural history
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.
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.
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.
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.
To Robert Venturi history seems to have come full circle. Not only is less a bore, but more is a bore too. Rising beyond mere theoretical concerns, he insists that the architect be alert above all to the requirements of context and listen to the stories that facades can tell.