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Essay

Looking at Architecture with New Eyes
By Vittorio Lampugnani
Director of the German Architecture Museum
Frankfurt, Germany

In 1954, a twenty-nine year old architect from Philadelphia went to Rome on a scholarship from the American Academy. In the course of the next two years he traveled through Italy and in the cradle of the classical Renaissance it was Mannerist and Baroque architecture that made the deepest impression on him. Immediately after this he worked in the offices of Eero Saarinen and Louis I. Kahn. In 1966 he published a book in which he worked his thoughts into a theory of architecture which was soon to become extremely influential. The book was called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, the young architect was Robert Venturi.

This heretic, romantic creed, which was a head-on attack on the whole of twentieth century Modernism, found its most enthusiastic followers in the United States of America. The anti-rationalist, anti-Classical and anti-European attitude it expressed struck a chord in the land of the freely-composed cabins and barns of the early pioneers, the Shingle Style influenced by the Pittoresque and above all in a country permeated by the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life-long polemic and his “organic architecture” which was intended to provide an alternative to the Beaux Arts school and later to dogmatic functionalism. But in a Europe which was tired of the clichéd, heavy-handed, anti-urban remake of the Modern Movement of the twenties, the liberating bon mots of this obviously highly cultivated rebel were also given an enthusiastic reception. When, a short time later, the international Post-Modernist Movement was proclaimed, which after the dogmatism of the Bauhaus doctrine and its successors was to propagate a new unorthodox laissez-faire attitude, Venturi was almost unanimously declared its heir apparent and main protagonist.

His impudent aphorisms (the bowlderizing of Mies van der Rohe’s famous saying “less is more” into “less is a bore,” the provocative assertion that “Main Street is almost all right”) were immediately taken up by the advocates of the “new niceness,” but they found his articles and books on the whole indigestible. The same fate befell his buildings. For Venturi was not only an architectural theoretician, he was also a designing architect. He had already designed a number of buildings: between 1960 and 1963, Guild House, the older people’s home in Philadelphia (where Venturi would later build his own house); 1961–64 the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania; 1967 the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame for New Brunswick, New Jersey (never built); 1968–1973 the Humanities Building of the State University of New York in Purchase; and from 1970 to 1974 the Dixwell Fire Station in New Haven, Connecticut. All the buildings which he designed with his wife Denise Scott-Brown, who represented the social and political commitment in the group around Venturi, became widely-publicized, widely-discussed milestones in the history of Post-Modernist architecture—and yet they seemed strangely unwieldy and somehow out of place there.

Indeed the brand of Post-Modernism through which Venturi tried to improve the well-being of people and their environment and to reinvigorate a Modernist tradition which was now de passé and sclerotic had little in common with the trend which almost everywhere won cheap applause simply by currying favor with populist taste. Some of the proponents of the latter used the favorite images of the contemporary consumer society quite literally, others filtered them through the amusing interpretation which Pop-Art had already provided; some used direct but completely arbitrary historical references, others felt obliged to be ironic in their treatment of historical forms, silently implying that the connection to the original could not be anything but fictitious, some fulfilled the expectations of the user and above all of the client in a very direct way whereas others went along with the client’s wishes simply in order to question them cryptically, make good hearted fun of them and gently change them.

The more Venturi’s work developed the more evident this discrepancy became. In 1972, at the latest, it must have been crystal clear to anyone who had closely followed the work of the thought-provoking enfant terrible. For it was in that year that two works were created in the Philadelphia studio which were as emblematic as they were provocative. One was the design for Franklin Court and the other the book, Learning from Las Vegas co-authored with Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour. For the first work he took the site where the good citizens of Philadelphia had asked for a dignified and prestigious memorial to their illustrious son and traced on it in a mildly mocking spirit the banal outline of Benjamin Franklin’s demolished house, whilst banishing the actual memorial below the ground. The second turned polemically against the negation of what was misguidedly considered to be the ugliness of North American everyday life and present it instead as an artistic stimulus, even an iconographic model which one could perfectly well learn from.

Both manifestos (which is what they in fact are) shocked not only the North American middle class, whose aesthetic needs Venturi pretended to champion, but also the majority of international architectural critics. For the Modernist they were too impure, for the Post-Modernists, too prosaic. This is exactly what Venturi wanted. Had he not confessed programmatically six years earlier “…an architecture of complexity and contradiction … must rather be a realization of difficult uniformity by integration than easy uniformity by elimination?” Now he head reached this stage himself: he integrated all manner of things into his architecture and architectural theory and thus eluded any attempt to put him into a category.

Consequently, each of his subsequent works had a new surprise in store: the extension to the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin College, Ohio (1973-1976), the Faculty Club of the Pennsylvania State University (1974), the Basco Showroom on the edge of Philadelphia (1978), the Molecular Biology Building at Princeton University, New Jersey (1983-1985), and the Art Museum in Seattle, Washington (1988-1991). Each building was different, each was adapted to its surroundings like a chameleon, interpreted it and its function in an unexpected and each fascinating way and yet each building was unmistakably a “real Venturi” ...

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