Robert Venturi has been described as one of the most original talents in contemporary architecture. He has also been credited with saving modern architecture from itself. He has done this by being eloquent verbally with his writings and visually with the appearance of his buildings. Like other Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureates before him, he is a writer, a teacher, an artist and philosopher, as well as an architect.
Venturi graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1947 and received his Master of Fine Art degree, also from Princeton, in 1950. He furthered his studies as a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1954 to 1956. Shortly after his return to the United States, he taught an architectural theory course at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Architecture. In the following three decades, he has lectured at numerous institutions including Yale, Princeton, Harvard, University of California at Los Angeles, Rice University and the American Academy in Rome.
In his first book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art, Venturi posed the question, "Is not Main Street almost all right?" He was arguing for what he called "the messy vitality" of the built environment. As he puts it, "We were calling for an architecture that promotes richness and ambiguity over unity and clarity, contradiction and redundancy over harmony and simplicity." He was challenging Modernism with the multiple solutions available from history—a history defined as relating not only to the specific building site, but the history of all architecture. He wanted architecture to deal with the complexities of the city, to become more contextual.
In his original preface to the book, Venturi states, "As an architect, I try to be guided not by habit but by a conscious sense of the past—by precedent, thoughtfully considered." He continues later, "As an artist, I frankly write about what I like in architecture: complexity and contradiction. From what we find we like—what we are easily attracted to—we can learn much of what we really are."
Venturi is an architect whose work cannot be categorized; to him, there is never a single solution. Lest anyone try to pigeon-hole him as a postmodernist, he declared that he was practicing modern architecture, and paraphrased his own words earlier about Main Street, "the modern movement was almost all right." emphasizing his close affinity to the basic tenets of modernism, while still giving importance to human use, memories, comfort and entertainment. Venturi has made it possible to accept the casual and the improvised in the built environment.
Venturi's early professional work was in the office of Eero Saarinen, where among other projects, he worked on the design of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. He also worked in the offices of Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov in Philadelphia.
One of his first projects to be built that captured the attention of the architectural community was a house for his mother in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1989, it received the American Institute of Architecture’s Twenty-five Year Award as a design of "enduring significance that has withstood the test of time." Other well-known works include: Guild House (1964) in Philadelphia, comprised of 91 apartment units for the elderly, the Allen Memorial Art Museum (1976) in Oberlin, Ohio, the extension to Britain’s National Gallery of Art, begun in 1986 in London, and the recent Seattle Art Museum (1991).
Robert Venturi's wife, Denise Scott Brown, is an architect, planner, author, and educator. She has been a partner in the firm since 1969 and his collaborator in the evolution of architectural theory and design for the past 30 years. She is noted for bringing particular attention to the relationship of architecture, planning and social conditions, and is primarily responsible for planning, urban design and architectural programming.
Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour collaborated on another book, published in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas, a further exploration of urban sprawl and the suburbs in relation to their architectural theories. A collection of their writings was also published in 1984, A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953-1984.
In one of the essays in the latter collection, Robert Venturi confessed, "Alvar Aalto's work has meant the most to me of all the work of the Modern masters. It is for me the most moving, the most relevant, the richest source to learn from, in terms of its art and technique. Like all work that lives beyond its time, Aalto's can be interpreted in many ways. Each interpretation is more or less true for its moment because work of such quality has many dimensions and layers of meaning." With a characteristic Venturi human, humorous touch, he added, "But Aalto's most endearing characteristic for me as I struggle to complete this essay, is that he didn't write about architecture."
In one of his essays in A View from the Campidoglio, Venturi says, "When I was young, a sure way to distinguish great architects was through the consistency and originality of their work...This should no longer be the case. Where the Modern masters' strength lay in consistency, ours should lie in diversity."