The Magazine

The Last Modernist

Robert Venturi's architectural ambivalence.

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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NO ARCHITECT SINCE LE CORBUSIER and Mies van der Rohe has had more impact on his profession than Robert Venturi, whose erudite denunciation of the "puritanically moral language of orthodox modern architecture" was published thirty-five years ago as a slender tome entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. And yet Venturi’s theory and practice have served, in the main, to compound the confusion that modernist orthodoxy sowed, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent retrospective abundantly demonstrates. This exhibition of the architecture, urban planning, and decorative art of Venturi and his wife and longtime partner, Denise Scott Brown, will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh next year.

One of the most noteworthy items in the exhibition, entitled "Out of the Ordinary," is a large model of Venturi’s first major building, the modestly scaled suburban Philadelphia house he designed for his mother in the early 1960s. It represents Venturi’s response to the stultifying rectilinear geometries the current wisdom imposed. The model is certainly arresting—in the sense that the house might pass for a neurasthenia incubator. Its studiously inharmonious interior spaces are contained within bizarre façades with off-beat fenestration and a greenish stucco finish. A door is stashed off to one side of a large entryway; behind the main façade’s "representation" of a classical broken pediment, a window is punched through what at first appears to be a large chimney block. Inside, the stairway’s railing runs at an oblique angle to the chimney breast abutting the other side of the stairs. Belabored art-historical references abound, starting with the broken-pediment motif and the interior and exterior moldings.

It was by eschewing absolute abstraction and including references to classicism in the design of the Vanna Venturi House that the architect made it a cause célèbre within his profession. And yet this pathologically intellectualized structure could hardly engage the interest of the public at large, for its manifold distortions of conventional elements were conceived for cognitive dissonance’s sake rather than beauty’s. Its design spoke instead to the chosen few engaged in recondite efforts to define the appropriate architecture for contemporary society.

During the nineteenth century, theorists like Viollet-le-Duc increasingly rejected the idea of cultural continuity in favor of the Hegelian notion that architecture should somehow express the essence of its age. This calamitous idea converted the architect from an artist concerned with the imaginative and pleasing use of traditional forms in the design of useful buildings into a sort of oracular sociologist whose mandate was to fathom the deepest significance of modern life and translate his Delphic insights into architectural form. A world-view grounded in the redemptive potential of science and social policy encouraged Le Corbusier, Mies, and other modernist pioneers to reject classical architecture’s profoundly anthropomorphic qualities. Similarly undermined was the sense of an ideal, other-worldly life underlying our transient earthly sojourns that traditional architecture, Gothic as well as classical, had always imparted.

The modernist pioneers aspired instead to an architecture conceived in mechanical rather than anthropomorphic terms—an architecture whose expressive elements were scientifically required, in principle at least, to have a structural function. Their ideal architecture, in short, was to conform to as ruthlessly realistic a formula as ever was inflicted on an art form. The glass and steel office-building-box was the direct result of this hopelessly paradoxical formula, and so was the ubiquitous irruption of sterility and ugliness in America’s downtowns and suburban office parks.

This was the modernist world into which Robert Venturi was born—and which he rejected. But he never addressed the root of the problem. He simply espoused a different approach to modernism. The puritanical Moderns had said that classical architectural elements were meaningless and should therefore be abandoned. Venturi said that classical architectural elements could be meaningful, but only if they were distorted. The architect, Venturi asserted, should use "conventional elements unconventionally"—and with his mother’s house, he certainly did. It was an effective retort, in its way, to the hyper-reductionist "high-design" boxes of that time, but it failed to reconnect architecture with its enduring human meaning.