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.”