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‘Venturi’s book radically changed architecture’ – Farrell and Gough lead tributes

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Leading UK figures have paid tribute to the influential Postmodernist pioneer Robert Venturi, who died earlier this week after a short illness, aged 93 

Terry Farrell

I first met Bob Venturi socially, as Denise Scott Brown was my tutor at Penn. He struck me then as a quiet, modest man who was gently good-humoured. I was then given a tour by them around his just-completed mother’s house, and I realised he had a steely and passionate commitment to a contrary view of the prevailing architecture then being singularly unquestioned.

His book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) written at this time, became a manifesto that radically changed all architecture from that time on.

He was right, and all around him were people who were leading architecture in the wrong direction. We’ve all benefited from his views and his work; well done Bob.

The Sainsbury was way better than the parochial hugely biased British ever thought

I always thought the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery was way better than the parochial, hugely biased British ever thought. It’s a very fine thoughtful and complex building, inside and out. We are very lucky indeed to have it here in Trafalgar Square.

Sainsbury wing exterior venturi scott brown 1991

Sainsbury wing exterior venturi scott brown 1991

Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins

The loss of Robert Venturi is profound. Together with his partner Denise Scott Brown he made a seminal contribution to architectural culture. It is not an overstatement to say that the work they produced – written, built and taught – in the late 1960s and through the 1970s shifted architectural discourse more than anyone else has achieved in the past 50 years.

If you doubt this, then it is worth revisiting, for example, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Levittown, and see how what we now take for granted was once a brave and radical approach. Many architects today owe them a huge debt of gratitude for opening the door to a more diverse and culturally rich set of values.

It’s a tragedy his contribution was not recognised during his lifetime by the RIBA

It is a tragedy that Bob’s contribution was not recognised during his lifetime by the RIBA through the award of the Royal Gold Medal – blindsided, I suspect, by a myopic view of architecture residing primarily in the built object. Bob and Denise’s brilliance lies in the way they made connections across all aspects of architectural production, and in so doing related to wider cultural and social movements.

Piers Gough, partner at CZWG

The infamous gold antenna on the Guild House was metaphorically him. A transmitter of witty intellectual vigour to the next / our generation’s instinctive pursuit of enriched architectural expression.

Vanna Venturi house

Vanna Venturi house

Robert Venturi’s Vanna House - the influential home he built for his mother in 1961

Julyan Wickham

I was hugely impressed by the way Venturi secured the commission to build the National Gallery extension in Trafalgar Square following the failure of the trustees to find a suitable British architect and the drama culminating in the RIBA dinner at Hampton Court with the Prince of Wales’s ’carbuncle’ speech.

Venturi’s method for getting himself selected was brilliant, this by not presenting loads of drawings for a solution but rather insisting on a simple interview where he drew the jury, headed by Lord Annan, into his idea by sketching what he perceived they wanted for the project, there and then.

This conversation led to what became more of the old façade – a morphing of the existing mediocre Wilkins classicism into what was in reality a simple stone wall enclosing a box, which Aldo later christened a new architectural building disease – columniatis – when he lectured on the Rats, Posts and other Pests, illustrated with a slide of the Venturi façade dripping with red blood.

Venturi’s interview method indeed led to the acceptance of it as a better way of selecting an architect rather than getting a whole bunch of them to produce thousands of drawings, most of which would be destined to end in the dustbin.

He was hugely influential and, with his theories exposed in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, he caused our world to be strewn with the debris of thousands of misguided architects who failed to understand the meaning and misappropriation (mainly by Charles Jenks) of the true postmodernism espoused by the contemporary philosophers such as Michel Foucault.

Though I was not a fan [of his work generally], his Washington Freedom Plaza was OK. The Sainsbury Wing was probably his most successful building. Even so, the tapering, very steep main stair leading up to a cross-axis linking the new part into the old is difficult. 

Max Dewdney of Max Dewdney Architects and tutor at Bartlett

Much has been said about Venturis’ contribution and formation of a post modern language of architecture. However his approach to urbanism was also vital to the work. The dynamic junction between internal and external realms of their buildings and how they create a public circulation rich in form and use is a theme perhaps established in Vanna Venturi house and found in many other of their schemes. And I quote Venturi from his Response to the Pritzker Prize Award Ceremony

“We design from the inside out and outside in… this act can create valid tensions where the wall, the line of change between inside and out, is acknowledged to become a spatial record - in the end, an essential architectural event.”

So this primary theme that related to the junction of private and public space, pointed out by David G De Long to be similar to Giambattista Nolli’s famous plan of Rome was a key driver to all the work. Like a lot of post modernism it is often dismissed for it’s style and formal language so I would like to remember and celebrate the intelligence and complexity amongst so many other given by Venturi offers back to our cities which is so often missing.’

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Great that all these heroes learnt so much from the Venturis. A moving tribute to a quiet man?

    He helped bring a much needed change to British and World Architecture in the 70s. Certainly broke the mould at good old Oxford Polytechnic School of Architecture. Deftie, Winikoff, Davis, Hiscock etc staff, Kevin Rhowbotham, Tony White and myself students. Paving the way for the Post Modernists, High Tech etc at which we are now world leaders. A great shame that big Jim couldn’t be another part of it? And the pompous RIBA types know as much about real architecture as the Masonic people? Only on inflated salaries! Sorry.

    Actually, my entry to the National Gallery extension competition was better than the rest, and what we see today. A conventional classical building away from the existing, following the pavement lines, separated and connected by a glazed high tech jewel box on stilts, with a pedestrian connection at ground level between Trafalgar and Leicester Squares below. Might use the idea somewhere else, or illustrate on the inter web? Learning from Las Vegas, but deferential to it’s surroundings.

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    I remember as a young student coming across Venturi Rauch houses, and Steven Izenour's brilliant 3Dsketches. I've only just found out he died in 2001.
    At that time, we students were poring over Corb, Aalto, not much FLW shame on us, a good bit of Mackintosh cos we were in the building, and moving on to Jim Stirling, Hertzberger, Sea Ranch, Aldo Rossi and then the Japs like Kurokawa, trying to find a language for a damp British climate.

    Venturi hit me and others like a brick -you could have fun in architecture and be irreverent too.
    Like so many before him, hopelessly misunderstood by the pastiche artists like Stern, Graves, Philip Johnson and all the UK Po-Mo's, Venturi's legacy was badly spoiled.

    I hope future generations discover him and his partners, afresh.

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  • Viva complexity and contradiction in architecture.

    Viva messy vitality over obvious unity.

    Include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality.

    Viva richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.

    Embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.

    Viva Robert Venturi.

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  • Phil Parker

    I never valued post modernism.

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