Robert Venturi Made Architecture Less Rigid, Yet More Clubby

He advocated for new styles, but not new voices.

The Vanna Venturi House, designed by the architect Robert Venturi for his mother, in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia
The Vanna Venturi House, designed by the architect Robert Venturi for his mother, in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia (Matt Rourke / AP)

Robert Venturi, the Philadelphia architect and writer who died earlier this month at 93, had a gift for maxims and other wryly efficient turns of phrase, many of which appeared in his 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The most famous of these was “Less is a bore”—a cheeky response to “Less is more,” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s summary of modern architecture’s obsession with economy and rigor, with flat roofs and facades scrubbed of decoration.

But it’s a different phrase from the Venturi lexicon that best sums up his complicated legacy: the “both-and.” Early in Complexity and Contradiction, he writes, “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning … I prefer the ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or,’ black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white.”

By “both-and,” Venturi meant an architecture that could pursue multiple, even seemingly opposed strategies at the same time, that could be playful and deeply ambitious or historically minded but also new. The goal, he argued, was not a simple glassed-in box of a modern building—a streamlined form that hid all the messiness of getting architecture built—but one that welcomed ambiguity and embraced what he called “the difficult whole.” Venturi wanted, as he put it, to awaken architects from “prim dreams of pure order.”

The idea of the “both-and” suggested a new pluralism, and maybe a new tolerance, in architecture. But the phrase turned out to have its limits. To the extent that Venturi was making an argument in favor of a kind of big-tent populism in architecture, it was a space for new styles instead of new voices, new forms rather than new people. In fact, tucked inside Complexity and Contradiction is an argument for a renewed insularity in the profession, a position that continues to influence the architectural academy and hamstring its efforts to engage a broad public. Even as Venturi ushered in a freer, less doctrinaire architectural culture, he helped pave the way for a white, male, and clubby profession to close ranks against the outside world, and grow clubbier still.

All the energizing extremes inherent in the idea of the “both-and” live comfortably in the small house that made Venturi’s early reputation. Designed for his mother for a site in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, it was completed in 1964, when Venturi was 39. The architect began with the platonic image of a house as drawn by any first grader: gabled roof, chimney pointing skyward. Then he began to tweak and subvert those familiar shapes, cutting a deep notch in the gable and then hiding the front door behind a simple square opening punched through the facade.

These gestures knock the whole composition thrillingly off balance, suggesting the ironic directions architecture would take as it moved in the 1970s toward postmodernism. In other ways—especially its interior, a mere 2,000 square feet packed with architectural allusion and meaningful detail—the design known as Mother’s House is all-American in the most familiar and most searching senses of that term. As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times after seeing it a couple of years ago, “Benjamin Franklin, the Shakers, Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol are all squeezed in there together.”

By the time he was finishing the house and his first book, Venturi had fallen in love with a young architect and planner named Denise Scott Brown. Scott Brown, born in South Africa in 1931, met Venturi in 1960, when both were on the architecture faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first husband had died in a car accident the year before. Before long, they were teaching together, then writing and designing buildings.

Just how much Scott Brown contributed to Complexity and Contradiction or to the design of Mother’s House remains a subject of debate. Certainly by the time their book with Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, was published in 1972, they were collaborators in every way. Yet when the jury for the Pritzker Prize, the most important award in architecture, convened in 1991, they made the decision (mildly controversial then, infamous now) to honor Venturi alone.

In what turned out to be the most consequential moment of his career and perhaps the bitterest of hers, there was no “both-and.” And thus was Venturi, whom the Yale historian Vincent Scully had praised for the subtlety of his “antiheroic” stance, elevated by the Pritzker jury to the status of hero, of solitary genius, after all.

Scott Brown was only the most visible casualty of Venturi’s heroism.

As Venturi was writing Complexity and Contradiction, many architects of his generation were growing frustrated with the way leading corporate firms were tilting the goals of modern architecture away from their progressive, even radical, political origins in the European Bauhaus and toward a crasser profit motive. They worried that architects were losing their autonomy to a partnership with Wall Street and the larger marketplace.

These younger architects responded by insisting that the profession should answer only to itself and its own circumscribed goals: how a building is built, what it looks like, the conversation it carries on with important landmarks of the past. (Architecture about architecture. And for architects.) Venturi included an argument in support of this point of view in Complexity and Contradiction. It is the only part of the book that seems truly dated.

“The architect’s ever diminishing power and his growing ineffectualness in shaping the whole environment can perhaps be reversed, ironically, by narrowing his concerns and concentrating on his own job,” he wrote. “Perhaps then relationships and power will take care of themselves.”

One (unintended) consequence of this “narrowing” was that architecture as a profession failed to grow with and reflect the culture. Architects did indeed “take care of themselves,” and that mostly meant people who looked like Robert Venturi.

In certain ways, Complexity and Contradiction was part of the larger wave of cultural upheaval that reordered America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet architecture today still looks and feels a lot like 1966. By one recent measure, just 18 percent of licensed architects in the United States are women and 2 percent are African American.

Is it unreasonable to expect Venturi to have used Complexity and Contradiction to fight not just theoretical battles but social ones as well? Probably. But the idea that architecture was about to face a political reckoning—that it suffered by walling itself off from those larger questions—was already in the air.

In 1968, the civil-rights leader Whitney Young Jr. gave the keynote address at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), taking the profession to task for both its whiteness and its timidity.

“One need only take a casual look at this audience to see that we have a long way to go in this field of integration of the architects,” Young told the group. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

He then told a story about talking to an African American man who had just finished studying architecture at Yale; Young had asked him for advice about what to tell the AIA. The young man encouraged Young to challenge the architects “to become more relevant. He did want you to begin to speak out as a profession. He did want in his own classroom to see more Negroes. He wanted to see more Negro teachers. He wanted while his classwork was going on for you somehow as educators to get involved in the community around you.”

Young went on to remind the architects, in simple but devastating terms, “You are part of this society.”

That they needed reminding in 1968 was a sign of how many architects agreed with Venturi that narrowing the profession’s focus made sense. That many in the profession still need reminding today is the more troubling fact, and a sign that making sense of his influence can be a tricky business. Even as he aimed to upend architectural theory, Venturi, in his provocative debut, offered a sly but ultimately very effective defense of the status quo.