Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi
Credit: George Pohl Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi

I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.

But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.

The words that Robert Venturi, FAIA, who passed away on Sept. 18 at age 93, wrote more than 50 years ago at the beginning of his seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture read today both as a common-sense advice to a designer and a call for an architecture appropriate to a liberal democracy. It is difficult to imagine that they were once a clarion call for an architecture that seemed radically different. Of course, they weren’t. Like the Modernism that Venturi sought to nuance and enrich, many of the elements for which he argued were present in even the most reduced forms of high Modernism. Venturi was trying to save Modernism from its own pronouncements more than from its practices. To a large extent, he won, to the point now that we cannot think of architecture since 1966 without reference to Robert Venturi.

In the last 50 years, we have found “double-functioning” elements and those “implicit functions” in the work of Mies van der Rohe as well as Lutyens, and they have become mainstays of movements as seemingly radical as the “post-humanistic” endeavors pursued by the followers of Venturi’s sparring partner Peter Eisenman, FAIA, perhaps more than of the neo-classicists who found it difficult to marry Venturi’s eclectic eye with their love of the canon. In other words, Venturi did not just beget (or at least act as godfather to) Postmodernism, he changed the whole way we look at and think about how to make modern architecture.

Steven Goldblatt The Vanna Venturi House, which Robert designed and built for his mother.

Today, Complexity and Contradiction and the book Venturi wrote with his wife Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, and their then partner Steven Izenour six years later, Learning from Las Vegas, have become not just textbooks but so fundamental to the way we practice, teach, and think about architecture that it is difficult to imagine them ever not having been written. That their words remain so fresh is a tribute not only to Venturi’s erudition and clarity of thinking, but also to the elegance of his prose and the early designs he illustrated in his “gentle manifesto.” The house he designed for his mother Vanna Venturi in 1959 and constructed several years later remains quite literally a textbook example. You can use it to teach students how much complexity and contradiction you can pack into a single little building, and you can start with the roof, the lintels, the chimney, the staircase, or just about any element and trace it back to its origins in either daily building practice or architecture history, track it forward to how it has developed in generation after generation of architects since, and compare it across to see how architecture is almost infinitely open and how combinatory possibilities can be made.

The political dimensions of what Venturi maintained for so many years have remained obscured because his work became strangely associated with conservative tendencies in culture (and, truth be told, became less complex and contradictory as the office grew larger and Venturi and Scott Brown oversaw more and bigger commissions). But they do ring true to us today. Venturi was arguing for an architecture that drew on the history of architecture around the globe, despite his focus on the West, and wanted to make an architecture that would be open and responsive to the diversity of culture. If he remained stuck with the statement “Main Street is almost alright,” and was never able to figure out how make something of the big box retailers that turned Main Street into a nostalgic relic, his words still echo today as call for an open and humane way to shelter and give meaning to all of us. Venturi did not want walls or prisons any more than he wanted the prismatic architecture of white boxes. He wanted an open architecture—both literally and visually—for an open world.

Toward the end of Complexity and Contradiction, Venturi quoted art historian August Heckscher when he said that he wanted a “unity which ‘maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives … force.’ ” He then ends the book with a call for us to look at the “everyday landscape, vulgar and disdained,” to inspire “architecture as an urbanistic whole.” It was a lesson he and Scott Brown took seriously when they mined the Las Vegas Strip for the building blocks of an “electronic expressionism” and American suburbia for “Signs of Life,” as their 1976 exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (with its magnificent Stephen Shore photographs) in Washington, D.C., was called.

University of Michigan Press The Lawn at the University of Virginia
University of Michigan Press Typical Main Street, U.S.A.

We may have taken most of Venturi’s words so to heart that we do not realize how radical they once were, but that conclusion, illustrated with paired images of the Lawn at the University of Virginia, the most refined statement of democracy this country has ever created, and a “Typical Main Street, U.S.A.,” full of cars, signs, lampposts, electrical wires and buildings in all sizes and styles, is one we still need to take to heart. Robert Venturi’s complex and contradictory work must continue.