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Obituary: Robert Venturi (1925-2018)

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Daniel Elsea recalls time spent in the company of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and the buildings and writings that ‘saved Modernism from itself’

Robert Venturi, who died on 18 September at the age of 93, is often credited with ushering in the Postmodern movement in architecture. Yet he was uncomfortable with the label. He said so himself to me once while we were on a little road trip in 2002. We were both playing hooky from work one day, eyes ahead as we surveyed a roadside scene in New Jersey of strip malls and office parks, one of those prototypical American landscapes in which he found inspiration. ‘Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies?’ he asked and then answered rhetorically, ‘I’m a Mies man.’

Ever the gentle provocateur, a playful rebel, Bob was a kind teacher. I worked for and lived with him and his wife Denise Scott Brown in Philadelphia over that summer. Each year they would hire a recently minted graduate, often from one of the top American universities for whom they were working. Dartmouth, Princeton, Williams, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Penn, Harvard – these were the bread-and-butter clients for their firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), in those days.

Employed by the Venturis directly, I was a jack-of-all-trades assistant helping to maintain their beautiful Philadelphia home – a rare specimen of Art Nouveau architecture on American soil which housed a remarkable collection of art and objects, from a table of kitsch collected on their trips to Japan (once exhibited at MoMA) to works from Pop Art greats like Lichtenstein. It was a special place in which to start an unorthodox career in architecture. 

Franklin court (mark cohn)

Franklin court (mark cohn)

Source: Mark Cohn

Franklin Court, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Venturi and Rauch, 1976

Venturi was a son of Philadelphia. Born in the city to pacifist parents, he was raised a Quaker, a faith that looms large in the city’s heritage. He lived there his entire life and set up his practice there with Scott Brown, his wife, partner, and intellectual and professional soulmate. They were united not just by their architectural proclivities but by a social consciousness. Meals in their house were vegetarian. I remember Denise’s awareness of racial injustice; she had been born to Jewish parents in Zimbabwe and had come of age studying in apartheid-era Johannesburg. So it was no surprise that in Philadelphia, they chose to make their home in West Mount Airy, a neighbourhood that is historically home to the city’s African-American middle class. Their studio was in a solid old brick building on Main Street in working-class Manayunk, a somewhat off-beat nook of the city straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. 

Well into his 70s, Bob had the giddy excitement of a young student as he encountered the mash-up that was Beijing

The impact of their work was felt around the city, from public spaces like Franklin Court, the foyer of the Philadelphia Museum, and quotidian buildings like Guild House. In twee Chestnut Hill, Bob designed the home for his mother (1964) which would become the emblematic Venturian work, taught by architecture faculties the world over. It was just a stone’s throw away from Esherick House (1961) designed by Louis Kahn, another great Philadelphian architect. One day, Bob took me to see both houses. Kahn was a mentor to Venturi and it was then I realised that the two houses were in fact in conversation. Seemingly different, with Venturi’s pitched roof making a pointed contrast to Kahn’s box, they shared a similar tension between symmetry and disorder on their façades. 

Beyond Philadelphia, VSBA would build museums in Seattle, San Diego and Houston. Proposals for a new ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan and a new American Embassy at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin were never realised; too brash for their patrons. Yet more polite designs would be built for the Hôtel du Département in Toulouse and the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, their only built project in the UK. Both in historic settings, they are deferential buildings yet have a tongue-in-cheek interplay between Classicism and Modernism.

Vanna venturi house (rollin lafrance)

Vanna venturi house (rollin lafrance)

Source: Rollin LaFrance

Robert Venturi’s celebrated home for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1964

Yet it was America’s universities, well-endowed and with sprawling campuses, where they probably made their biggest mark – buildings such as Wu Hall at Princeton, the MacDonald Laboratory at UCLA, Yale’s medical research centre, the renovation of Harvard’s Memorial Hall, and numerous campus plans.

By 2004, this type of work would bring them to Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Its early 20th-century core campus was shaped in large part by US architect Henry Murphy. The Venturis were invited to develop recommendations for the campus’s evolution. It just so happened that Beijing was the next city I moved to after Philly and, when they came, we visited the campus together. By then well into his 70s, Bob still had the giddy excitement of a young student as he encountered the mash-up that was Beijing at the dawn of the 21st century, with the beginnings of all that weird stuff Xi Jinping would later lament.

Venturi loved learning from cities. In Rome, as a Rome Prize Scholar at the American Academy, he was turned on by places like Michelangelo’s Capitoline Hill, full of layers and aesthetic richness. It would lead him to write Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). A critique of the minimalist purity that had taken over Modernism, the book changed architecture by creating a new intellectual space for expressiveness. He would go on to write a second manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas (1972) with Scott Brown and the late Steven Izenour. Their irreverent celebration of ordinary, ‘ugly’ architecture and ‘less is a bore’ attitude caused much shock at the time. But it was heralded too as ‘eye-opening and catalytic’ by the critic Ada Louise Huxtable and came to be appreciated as the formative architectural study of the 20th century.

Best products showroom (tom bernard)

Best products showroom (tom bernard)

Source: Tom Bernard

Best Products Showroom, Langhorne, Pennsylvania, 1973

Their lesser-known manifesto, Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time (2004), added urban Japan into the mix of their influences, and explored a growing interest in ornament, graphics and multimedia. ‘Viva modest mannerism over pseudo-Modernism – or flashy Modernism or abstract Expressionism or Baroque vulgarity,’ Venturi wrote. 

Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, yet he never received the RIBA Gold Medal. It is a pity because he helped to save Modernism from itself. He opened a new door for all of us to walk into, to enter a new world where architecture became relevant again, more meaningful, engaged with context, able to revel in the idiosyncrasies of geography. He encouraged us to consider popular will in design and to explore how technology would impact buildings. Sceptical of imagined utopias, he implored a profession prone to élitism not to be afraid of the everyday. A brilliant communicator, a man as deeply moved by the work of Christopher Wren as he was by the neon lights of Ginza and the hagiography of McDonald’s, Venturi was the consummate architect for the modern age.

Daniel Elsea is a director and head of communications at Allies and Morrison

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