The bellyaches of an architect

Iconography and Electronics
July 18, 1997

Robert Venturi was educated at Princeton University under the aegis of Jean Labatut, whose background was Beaux-Arts but whose inclination was to use the latest technology, especially in exploiting artificial lighting. At Princeton, architecture was taught in the department of art and archaeology, so that intending architects were well versed in history and theory. These influences largely explain the course of Venturi's career. In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) Venturi described certain formal stratagems by which architectural effects are created; instances from ancient and modern times directed attention to underlying sources of meaning, and criticised functionalist dogma with its insistence on purely physical determinants. Many examples were taken from mannerist sources: Michelangelo, Romano, Hawksmoor, Soane, Lutyens. Venturi was fascinated by the idea of the conceit as employed by the metaphysical poets, and was influenced by literary figures such as Cleanth Brooks, William Empson and T. S. Eliot, who praised the virtues of ambiguity. Through contradiction and complexity one could make the observer aware of layers of meaning, pointing to a layered architecture that would be culturally rich and that would be as unequivocally an art as was literature.

This approach became a theory after Venturi was joined by his future wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown. To Venturi's sharp eye for architectural form she brought a concern for ordinary people - not necessarily well informed about the history of architecture and its nuances of meaning. Concentrating on how architecture is received, she sought an answer through the ideas of the American sociologist Herbert Gans, who directed attention towards finding out what ordinary people thought. After a trip through the west, Venturi and Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas (1972, with Steven Isenour), which proposed that architects should consider what ordinary folk enjoy, and put some of that into their own work. Since Venturi's architecture was already in principle multilayered, there was no reason why one layer should not be populist.

In this new book, Venturi publishes a miscellany of pieces: essays, lectures, letters, speeches and aphorisms, mostly culled from the last ten years of an active professional life as an architect. All this writing is undertaken in defence of his now somewhat embattled position, with the aim of putting down whatever is anathema (a bas abstraction, a bas revivalist modern architecture) and exalting what is proper (viva evocation, viva an authentic modern architecture).

If we do not learn much more about the theory, we do learn a lot more about the architect Venturi, grappling with critics and journalists. He voices here his complaint against the architecture critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer for substituting an unflattering snapshot of a building for the professionally skilled view supplied: this letter was never sent, so there is an aspect here of settling old scores. He complains to Herbert Muschamp about his comments in The New York Times on the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, while asking him not to publish the letter. A marvellous letter to William and MaryEllen Bowen (the ex-president of Princeton University and his wife), when they are proposing to visit the Sainsbury Wing warns them about all the things that went wrong, mostly due to British pig-headedness, including the omission of a hose-bib in the entrance porch to save Pounds 100. There are protests sent to competition committees and pieces published in justification of their designs for the Philadelphia Concert Hall, which came under attack for being provincial, for not being in the league of Les Grands Projects of Paris in addressing its site on the newly named Avenue of the Arts. In this piece Venturi draws on American ideas of homespun self-reliance as a way of justifying his own kind of building, preferring relatively cheap applied ornament to expensive sculptural form.

In the life of the partnership one senses a tension between the arcane and the popular, but this tension has been resolved by a theory that distinguishes between practical building and iconography. All building should be practical, following the accumulated wisdom of the craft, but it can be ennobled through its awareness of civic responsibility and its acceptance of public symbolism. It should combine ordinariness with a sense of occasion, and this can be done through the principle of collage, where two or more images are juxtaposed. The figures that fulfil the role of public symbolism may be simply applied, as decoration, and still convey a meaning; hence the advocacy of the "decorated shed".

It is this idea that separates Venturi from most other modern architects, who still hanker after a form of determinism where the result is dictated by method rather than art: the wish for architecture to be seen, not as arbitrary expression, but as the result of rationally following the programme. Venturi advocates a sensible and conservative way of building, intensified by surface decoration through layering, or by the application of electric lighting. This is what he means by "iconography and electronics upon a generic architecture". He claims that his emphasis on image and symbol makes an architecture more attuned to the information age than the expensive sculptural abstractions of the deconstructivists.

It is clear from Complexity and Contradiction that Venturi enjoys the game of self-contradiction that defines mannerist architecture. But, to enjoy transgression, it is first necessary to believe in sin. The thing to be contradicted has to be strong, so that it lends its weight to the subversion of it. A sensible, practical architecture for our age does not in itself provide that weight; indeed the conditions of contemporary American practice, where the desired marketable image is hung out on a quickly erected steel frame, make all forms of surface play equally sensible and equally transitory. This suggests that Venturi's theory is less important in his own practice than unspoken and unverified matters of taste. If the theory was in some sense effective, it may have been because it anticipated a real cultural shift, and the eventual demise of the functionalist myth.

Robert Maxwell is emeritus professor of architecture, Princeton University.

Iconography and Electronics: Upon a Generic Architecture

Author - Robert Venturi
ISBN - 0 262 22051 2
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 374

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