Along with other members of my profession I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of Robert Venturi. Although I never met him in person, he has traveled with me throughout my career.
I was first introduced to Mr. Venturi via his wife and collaborator, Denise Scott Brown. I read the book they wrote together with Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, as a young undergraduate architecture student. The book provided analytical tools that helped me understand the sort of messy suburban landscapes that surrounded me in Texas. It also taught me that if I kept my mind and my eyes open I could learn from any built environment. This is how I came to be interested in courthouses and small town urbanism.
My relationship to Venturi’s earlier book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was, well, complex and contradictory. Even though it was one of the first works of architectural theory I read it was remarkably accessible. Unlike the writing of other architects, Venturi’s prose was both clear and persuasive and it served as an example I have always sought to match in my own writing.
Of course I was reading Complexity and Contradiction a good three decades after it was originally published. Ideas that were radical in 1967 were somewhat less so in 1997 after postmodernism (a term Venturi disliked) was rapidly falling out of favor. I remember arriving at the end of the book excited by the ideas it contained and then being underwhelmed by the built work Venturi cited as examples.
Complexity and Contradiction was an expansion of Venturi’s Master of Fine Arts Thesis he completed at Princeton in 1950. It loomed large over me when I attended Princeton myself as a graduate student and was tasked with creating a thesis of my own. Just like Mark Twain hated Benjamin Franklin for providing an example that was a bit too perfect for a young boy to follow, I came to resent Robert Venturi for writing a thesis that was a bit too perfect for an architecture student to emulate.
Venturi’s thesis perfectly reflected Princeton’s legacy of integrating history and theory while defining the direction of Venturi’s work for the rest of his career. It was, in short, the plutonic ideal of what an architectural thesis should be. That was a high bar for a student to clear and in trying to do the same I failed spectacularly.
Studying at Princeton put me in close proximity to many of the projects Venturi’s had built along with John Rauch and Denise Scott Brown. His 1980 Gordon Wu Hall on Princeton’s campus happened to be the closest dining hall to the College of Architecture. The building’s exterior made the same playful contextual references Venturi’s work was known for but it was the interior that fascinated me. It was warm and inviting. It felt good to eat there even if I was sitting by myself surrounded by young and care-free undergraduates.
Venturi would later travel with me to Italy on my honeymoon. When my wife (who like Denise Scott Brown is also an architect) arrived in Rome we carried a long list of buildings we hoped to visit. Even so I distinctly remember wandering into a piazza not on the list and thinking, “I know this place.” I recognized it because Venturi had referenced it in one of his books.
Back in Texas Venturi’s footprint was relatively small. Built in 1992, the Children’s Museum of Houston features playful reinterpretations of the elements that define typical “serious” museums. A decade earlier Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown had designed an art museum for Austin that, had it been built, would have changed the cultural and architectural landscape of that city for the better.
I always appreciated the fact that Venturi had a sense of humor about his work. I also respected the fact that he could admit when he was wrong. In the original text of Complexity and Contradiction he disparaged the a church outside of Florence. Venturi later added a footnote where he admitted that after actually visiting the church in person it was in fact a beautiful and effective building.
Venturi famously responded to Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” credo by saying “Less is a bore.” After all these years I can certainly say traveling with him has never been boring.