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Postmodernist legend Robert Venturi dies, aged 93

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American architect Robert Venturi, who has been credited with pioneering the Postmodernist movement in architecture with his partner and wife Denise Scott Brown, has died, aged 93

Famous for saying ’Less is a bore’ – a riposte to Modernism and Mies van der Rohe’s maxim ’Less is more’ – the Philadephia-based architect wrote many ground-breaking texts including Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and, with Scott brown, Learning from Las Vegas.

The home he built for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Philadephia (1964) has been hugely influential. Jonathan Glancey described it as ‘one small house for an architect, but a giant leap for architecture … [it is] generally taken as the first knowing step into the choppy seas of Postmodernism’. 

In 1991 Venturi was controversially handed the Prtizker Prize alone, despite a request to include his partner, Brown. Although later attempts have been made to get his long-term collaborator added retroactively to the prize, the Pritzker Prize jury has always declined (see AJ 20.06.13).

They were, however, subsequently both given the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal, the first architects to be jointly recognised with the top US architectural award (see AJ 04.12.15).

Founders of practice Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), the pair are best known in this country for the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London (1991), a replacement for ABK’s ditched Modernist proposal for the landmark, which was doomed by Prince Charles’ infamous ‘carbuncle’ speech.

Venturi was born in Philadelphia in 1925 and was raised as a Quaker, attending the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania, before graduating from Princeton University in 1947.

He studied under Professor Jean Labatut, who taught provocative design studios within a Beaux-Arts pedagogical framework.

In 1951 he worked briefly for Eero Saarinen in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and later for Louis Kahn in Philadelphia. Three years alter he was awarded the Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, where he studied for two years.

From 1959 to 1967, Venturi taught at the University of Pennsylvania and served as Kahn’s teaching assistant, as instructor, and later, as associate professor.

Robert venturi credit as riba collections

Robert Venturi in 1980

Source: RIBA Collections

Robert Venturi in 1980

It was at the University where he met fellow faculty member, architect and planner Denise Scott Brown in 1960.

Venturi subsequently taught at the Yale School of Architecture and was a visiting lecturer with Scott Brown in 2003 at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Other notable buildings by Venturi and Scott Brown include the Lieb House in New Jersey (1967) which features a large number 9 on its front and a sailboat-shaped window on one side, a fire station in Columbus (1968), the Seattle Museum of Art and the UCLA’s Medical Research Laboratory (1991).

According to the Pritzker Prize citation his ’works have ranged from cups and saucers to major buildings that are or will become landmarks’.

A statement from the Venturi family said that Venturi had ’passed away peacefully at home after a brief illness’ on Tuesday (18 September).

It reads: ‘He was surrounded by his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown and his son Jim Venturi. He was 93. The family is planning to have a memorial service to celebrate Venturi’s life and this will be announced in the coming weeks.’

Tributes

Sam Jacob, director of Sam Jacob Architects and co-founder of FAT

It is hard to describe Robert Venturi’s gentleness and humour, his tendency to aphorism and irony even under extreme pressure. One of my strangest memories of Bob, was when he, Denise, Sarah Herda and I squeezed into a tiny rental car driven at high speed by (Robert’s son) Jimmy Venturi, simultaneously juggling two phones during an emergency trip to save the Lieb House from demolition. Bob remained good natured while the rest of us became increasingly frantic.

But then Bob’s humanity was remarkable. The subtitle of Complexity and Contradiction as a ‘gentle’ manifesto, that great first line: ‘I like complexity and contradiction in architecture’ both pointed to a way of thinking as much as what was thought.

Always behind his scholarship, his remarkable design ability, his unique intelligence, you could feel the person behind it, joking, prodding you, teasing, smiling or otherwise declaring that architecture, however high-faluting, is part of the ordinary world.

You feel this in the way he spoke, the way he wrote and the buildings he designed. You felt it too in the continuity of his life with Denise, how their personal life and the work they made was a kind of continuum (the McDonald’s drive-in sign by their front door, for example).

It is fantastic that over the past few years their work has been taken up by younger generations who have felt a deep resonance with their ideas in different ways. Bob opened up ways of thinking about architecture which remain essential to understanding architecture’s role in contemporary life.

Venturi Scott Brown Fire Station 4

Venturi and Scott Brown’s Fire Station #4 in Columbus, Indiana (1968)

Venturi and Scott Brown’s Fire Station #4 in Columbus, Indiana (1968)

Angela Brady, former RIBA president and co-founder of Brady Mallalieu

How sad to hear he has passed away – but he had a long and fruitful life. The work that he and Denise Scott Brown created together will continue to resonate for years and inspire our architects today and tomorrow.

 

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I was lucky enough to visit Venturi Rauch & Scott Brown back in 1988 when I was on a scholarship visit in the US. I was taken to the most unprepossessing building in one of the many Main Streets in Philadelphia and having confirmed it was indeed the premises of this esteemed practice I introduced myself at the reception. My previous correspondence was with one of the Associate Architects but imagine my surprise when Mr Dashiel emerged accompanied by the great man himself, who introduced himself - "Hi! I'm Bob." I enjoyed the most wonderful afternoon being escorted around the entire office, of I think 70 staff, with "Bob" explaining that this was his greater pleasure, co-operating and developing designs with his team. We retired to his modest office which resembled a large cupboard, with a huge drawing board, a beat-up draughtsman's stool and various ephemera and talked and listened some more.

    I feel truly honoured that I got to meet this generous and inspirational giant of the architectural profession.

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  • I am very sad to read that Robert Venturi has died , he was a wonderful empathetic intelligent person .
    I worked for his firm Venturi and Rauch ( 1964 - 1989 ) in the late sixties , his partner Denise Scott Brown formed the practice of Venturi Scott Brown Associates in 1989 ( VSBA ) when John Rauch left , who had been the managing Principal for the previous 25 years , John Rauch went on to be a painter . The office in the sixties was a very inspirational place to be ,Robert or Bob , as he was affectionally known , had works of Alvar Aalto and several books on Edwin Lutyens open and laid out in the middle of the drawing studio which he referred to constantly with his usual wit and intelligence , this " education " had a profound effect on me .
    A wonderful person will be greatly missed .

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  • Yes, great guy! Changed everything and opened the world through a small white book and a very large book. Made the 80s complex and very interesting. Only now is the Sainsbury wing revealing it’s full Lutyen’s magic. Not even their best building?

    A Duck or Decorated Shed for a monument? On the Strip?

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