Learning from Robert Venturi
Robert Venturi has, as of last week, retired from architecture. If that seems like unremarkable news, because you didn’t know Robert Venturi was still practicing, you’re probably not alone.
But when you consider that no art form moves so slowly as architecture does—planning being slower, but not exactly art—then it’s quite something that the man who, with his collaborators, instantly changed architecture has also been quietly practicing ever since. Venturi’s revolution was both instantaneous and glacial, as his writings immediately changed how we view the landscape and his designs, like those of any architect, changed the real thing much more slowly.
Though he wrote about architecture, he leaves no small influence on planning.
When I was an undergraduate, Learning from Las Vegas (1969) and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) – by Venturi, his wife Denise Scott Brown and co-author Steve Izenour – inspired me to consider the built environment in ways that I had never considered before. Indeed, before I read Venturi, et al, I had never considered the built environment at all. I suspect that many other Americans had not, and still do not. Their books held the distinctions of being familiar, provocative, and fun to read. They are still the source of the glee I feel every time I pass by an Arby’s fronted by a big neon hat.
Tracing the history of urban planning, it’s hard to situate Venturi, now in his late 80s. On the one hand, he allies with the forces of smart growth and New Urbanism, boring into the fortress of High Modernism. It was Venturi, after all, who reintroduced humor into architecture, metaphorically pantsing stern bores like Meis and Corbu. On the other hand, this is the same architect who gleefully designed his own big boxes. His designs for Best stores (no corporate relation to Best Buy) included flower patterns and facades that seemed to be crumbling and other playful flourishes. Lamentably, these designs helped legitimized the typology, literally paving the way for the flimsy monstrosities that followed.
Of course Learning from Las Vegas celebrates roadside America in every possible way. And why shouldn't it? In the 1960s, the road was the place to be. In that respect, Venturi took after Corbu, but without the pretense. Indeed, it’s been so long since Venturi debunked high-minded architectural theory – the type that lamely attempts to attach tortured, indecipherable rhetoric to things that are, well, just things – it’s a wonder that anyone attempts it anymore.
Seeing that Modernist sterility was about as uplifting as a hand full of jokers, Venturi made the world safe for ornament again. His own designs make reasonable, if sometimes unremarkable, attempts to put his own ideas into practice. He and his firm are responsible for countless handsome structures with just enough surface flourish – masonry patterns; unusual arrangement of windows – to keep them interesting. That might have been Venturi’s genius: he embraced the garish, profane elements of kitsch and commercialism, but he knew that the world already had plenty of it. He promotes refinement, but not dogma.
I’m not sure if New Urbanism takes Venturi a step further or whether it does an about-face. In any event, whether you embrace ornament as it used to be as ornament that comments on ornamentation, you still arrive roughly at aspects of New Urbanism. That’s because, whether you prefer the cutesy, retro New Urbanist aesthetic or the practical, compact neighborhood, Venturi enabled architects and planners to stop with the ridiculous effort to “push the envelope,” with ugliness and abstruseness, and start thinking about humanity again. He didn’t bother with perfection but instead sought designs that were “almost all right.”
So, on the one hand, Venturi gave us the eclectic highway strip and the garish billboard: both necessary to snap the world out of the Modernist hypnosis. On the other hand, he revered Main Street, and he gave us ornament and freedom: both necessary for the planning movements to come.
I’m not sure if Venturi learned about the world quite the way his revolutionary counterpart Jane Jacobs did – she putting about the front stoop and he roaring by the vernacular in a ragtop Corvette – but, as far as Modernism was concerned, I think they played for the same team. And I'd like to think that both were necessary to make the world safe to question the orthodoxy of Modernism (itself scarcely less authoritarian than the regimes that Mies and Groupius had escaped).
Of course, Venturi is still an architect, not a planner. The arrangement of buildings and the life that takes place between them has never seemed to concern him. (Though, unlike many neo-modernists and starchitects, at least he acknowledges that streets exist and that they are things to which buildings are usually attached.)
I once interviewed Andres Duany (about convention centers, of all things), and he gave me the most self-defeating assessment of architecture that you’d ever expect to hear. He basically said that aesthetics do not matter. “I love it. You hate it. Who cares?” he said. That sort of insouciance is one of the many gifts Venturi gave us. Venturi’s own take on that theme, recounted by (pdf) Paul Goldberger in 1971: “you don’t have to like something to learn form it.”
Even if his buildings, which are now part of a complete body of work, don’t always look like much, Venturi is, after all these years, still more than all right.