By Carter B. Horsley
Robert Venturi is the co-author of arguably
the most important book on architecture in the 20th Century, "Complexity
and Contradiction in Architecture," which was published in
1966, and the most influential, "Learning from Las Vegas,"
in 1972. Steve Izenour was a co-author on both books and Denise
Scott Brown, Venturi's architectural partner, was a co-author
on the first book.
His new book is not likely to be as monumental,
although its passion and perspective make it critical reading
for anymore interested in architecture and American culture.
A brilliant architectural historian, witty
polemicist, deep theoretician and one of architecture's representatives
in the pantheon of Pop, Venturi is not a great architect.
This book is a collection of essays, speeches,
articles and aphorisms that address a variety of subjects, but
with a consistent and insistent theme that borders between the
revolutionary and the reactionary.
Venturi provocatively argues that the concept
of "a universal architecture defined as expressive space
and industrial structure" is dead.
"Let us acknowledge the elemental quality
of architecture as shelter and symbol - buildable and usable shelter
that is also meaningful as a setting for living. Shelter and symbolism
that are inevitable, admitted, and explicit elements of an architecture
that embraces signs, reference, representation, iconography, scenography,
and trompe-l'oeil as its valid dimensions; that makes manifest
evocation," Venturi writes.
With considerable venom, Venturi attacks visionaries
as misguided and in the process decimates most recent trends:
"As in the last decades we've had to suffer
decennially the dry arrogance of late Modernism, the urbanistic
heroics of megastructures, the idiotic application of semiotics,
the parvenu historicism of Postmodernism, and now sado-masochistic
expressionist applications of Deconstructionism as complexity
and contradiction gone rampant - of modish juxtapositions of expressionistic
Cubism and industrial rocaille and recently what can be called
Venturi is certainly not a lightweight, but
his tone here often is peevish. One is tempted to think that anyone
who could write, as he does, that "it was so much
easier in the old days when the establishment was conservative
rather than cutting-edge," is a bit frustrated, especially
when not a current member of the establishment.
Venturi longs for an architecture "whose
aesthetic and social bases are pragmatically real - rather than
ideologically correct,…whose spatial and formal bases are
generic and conventional - rather than heroic and original or
obsoletely innovative, whose architect is an anti-hero - rather
than a signature,…whose originality derives from iconographic
content - rather than space and form - as architects become poetic
buildings rather than pompous theoreticians,…whose aesthetic
explores electronics - rather than exalts engineering,…whose
content projects human meaning - rather than abstract expression."
His litany has objectives:
"Viva an art that accommodates dissonance
and lyricism and ends up tense - and sometimes enigmatic,
Viva an electronic aesthetic - over the machine
Viva virtual architecture - over engineered
Annoyed with design review boards "who
promote deadening urbanity (while expounding my partner's and
my ideas of some decades ago), to goody-goody community boards
with too much time on their hands," Venturi pulls few punches.
He is for "pragmatic accommodation vs idealistic imposition,
discovering the familiar vs stalking the exotic,…architecture
for everyday sensibility vs architecture as one-upmanship,…deep
satisfaction from focusing on realities vs cheap thrills from
wowing journalists,…richness and ambiguity vs unity and clarity…."
One senses that Venturi wants to be a crowd-pleaser
and is not hesitant to take rather cheap shots: "Creeps who
talk about a new vision make me sick - and suspicious. I say screw
you to vision; up yours to visionaries; vision sucks."
And, "Today's decorative Decon[structivist]
trusses in rainbow colors suspended askew and juxtaposed over
patterned pastel panels conjure up images of Puritan ladies, wearing
lipstick, dancing the cancan."
This cantankerous curmudgeon is level-headed:
"Remember, pious preservationists, architecture
isn't sculpture - you design from the inside out as well as the
outside in. And it's old doesn't mean it's good, and it's new
doesn't mean it's bad. Good can happen."
"Journalists like spectacular architecture:
it makes their job easier."
"It is better to be good than original."
"Set up the order and break it - but not
"Making history is as important as preserving
"For cities, the less control, the more
"Worse than vulgar is dead."
"Work to be of your time and you will
be ahead of your time….To be of your time, focus on being
good rather than new."
"Iconography is all over tee shirts -
why not buildings?"
Venturi tends to practice in part what he preaches.
His winning design in a competition for a new Staten Island Ferry
Terminal in Lower Manhattan (see The
City Review story on the terminal with a picture of Venturi's
story) called for an enormous, but simple clock facing the
harbor. The design was not built, however, as city officials collapsed
to critical condemnation of the project as unattractive and uneconomical.
Perhaps Venturi's most important completed
commission was the Sainsbury addition to the National Gallery
of Art in London. In his book, Venturi expresses dismay at some
design decisions taken on the project by the client, but he defends
its lack of "excitement" correctly by saying that the
building was designed to defer to the great art contained therein
and the adjacent architecture around Trafalgar Square. The design
was one of Venturi's most sophisticated: it was subtle and restrained,
but like most of his work not spectacular, not riveting, not beautiful,
and also not quite a background building that seamlessly blends
into its context.
Almost all of his projects, and there have
not been that many, are cerebrally interesting and founded on
valid premises. But they do not have the audacious complexity
of early Peter Eisenman, the ranking architectural intellectual,
nor the humor of the late Charles Moore, nor the sculptural brilliance
and elan of Frank Gehry.
Perhaps the problem is that Venturi does not
have enough ego, or simply is not a great architect. He is definitely
a great theoretician, and the current book makes clear that he
is not thrilled with theory nor theoreticians.
He is admittedly sensitive to charges that
he and his collaborators have been advocates of the vulgar, and
he goes to considerable lengths to emphasize that he has not always
been approving of specific vulgarity. More to the point, Venturi
has been alert to the pluralistic necessities of architecture
as a powerful social art and as such his work is certainly as
important in its anti-elitism and populist foundations as Jane
Venturi has never sought to put the vernacular
at the pinnacle of architectural achievement, but he has steadfastly
sought to learn from it and, indeed, there is much to be learnt.
There is more to architecture than shelter
and symbol. There is function and majesty, efficiency and, yes,
sculptural form. There also can be magic. Venturi at times contradicts
himself and his tirades against derivative, or elitist, or hyped
design clash with his clear understanding that sometimes the derivative
can be better than the original. What if no Renaissance master
painted a second, or thousandth Madonna and Child?
Venturi is galvanic. He boils over with ideas.
He spews out possibilities. His excitement and enthusiasms are
quite contagious and his insights should be incised in stone.
An irascible iconoclast, Venturi is a terrific critic.
I wish I liked his architecture more. The book
does not deliver specific new razzle-dazzle electronic iconography.
One senses, however, that Venturi is working up a lot of steam
and hopefully his future designs will move further away from banal,
antiseptic, quirky boxes to a new level, not necessarily style,
Readers of this book may run out of ink writing
their own exclamation points and notes in the margins. Hopefully,
Venturi's thoughts will lead to a proliferation of squiggles and
maybe a revival of Cunieform.
What Venturi wants and what we need is an enriched,
lively environment that is diverse and wondrous and surprising.