PRINT October 2001


Learning from Philadelphia

Robert Venturi, whose seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966 is credited with returning historical concerns to the forefront of architectural theory and practice after the willful amnesia of modernism, is, it would seem, overcome with anxiety about his own place in history. Weeks before the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened “Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates” this summer, Venturi issued his latest broadside. “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist” ran the quote accompanying a frowning Venturi on the cover of Architecture’s May issue. “I unequivocally disavow fatherhood of this architectural movement,” he insisted in a theme issue devoted to postmodernism, a topic as taboo in academic circles as it is ubiquitous in the commercial landscape Venturi long ago emphatically declared to be “almost all right.” For over two decades the Venturis (Scott Brown is Venturi’s wife as well as partner) have been chafing at the diverse interpretations spawned by their influential calls for “messy vitality.” After years of combating orthodox modernism, they now find themselves up against an equally formidable nemesis: orthodox postmodernism.

A retrospective ought to have provided the occasion to reflect on the Venturis’ place in relation to that offspring they now spurn (even if the textbooks long ago legitimized the line of descent). But retrospectives of living architects are inherently caught between the stock-taking of curators and the impassioned involvement of their subjects with current challenges and future projects. Indeed, the historical record suggests that the most influential exhibitions have often been the dual work of an architect and a curator eager to act as champion. Mies van der Rohe’s 1947 MoMA retrospective for instance, crafted with the helping hand and rarely equaled flair of Philip Johnson, was at once a new architectural design and a polemical and potent rewriting of Mies’s earlier work in relationship to his then current preoccupations in Chicago.

Ironically enough, just as Mies has often been reduced to clichés supposedly of his own coining—“Less is more” and “Almost nothing” were available as souvenir refrigerator magnets at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s recent “Mies in America”—so Venturi has been typecast by his own brilliant polemics, which makes it hard for him to shake the mantle of PoMo guru. As early as 1979 Venturi quipped that his next book would be entitled Modern Architecture Is Almost All Right. And while Robert A.M. Stern may have given full vent to anti-Miesian spleen in Michael Blackwood’s 1986 documentary film on Mies, Venturi confessed regret at having coined PoMo’s greatest quotable, “Less is a bore.”

Venturi has continually sought to be his own historian, offering episodically new enhancements to the original explication de geste that accompanied publication of his iconic youthful masterpiece, alternately known as My Mother’s House or the Vanna Venturi House, 1959–64. Its facade a giant figural gable, the coral-green house seemed the veritable rejection of modern formalism, even while the sophisticated formal gestures in both surface and spatial composition were in fact as much indebted to modernist collage as they were to the literary theories of double meaning and ambiguity that made the text of Complexity and Contradiction such a startling sea-change manifesto. Venturi’s writings of the ’60s, and many of his subsequent projects, are squarely framed by questions of meaning, instability, and pluralism, issues at the core of postmodern literary criticism, social thought, and political critique. But by the early ’80s, architectural postmodernism rapidly developed into a brand name, a stylistic tag rather than a philosophical stance. One of the most effective displays in Philadelphia is the contextual model of VSBA’s controversial Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery (1985–91), a complex and witty reflection on the modern history of classicism’s associations. A study of that building’s surfaces and of its deliberately divergent facades is a key reminder of how much separates VSBA’s work from the full-bodied neo-Neoclassicism embraced wholeheartedly by the nostalgia industry on both sides of the Atlantic since the mid-’80s. The Sainsbury Wing’s willingness to change in relationship to the microclimates of its divergent adjacencies, both formally and associationally—and in particular the way in which it takes themes from William Wilkin’s adjacent nineteenth-century edifice and playfully hints at the ways the original played with classicism as sign, while interweaving its forms with modernist gestures—are all direct developments of that contextualism without pastiche that characterized the “Philadelphia School” in the ’60s and ’70s. In the work of Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, and a host of others, the legacy of Louis Kahn was expanded, characteristically in the period’s beloved chipboard models, which in Venturi’s hands became material for exploring the ironic importation of two-dimensional referents into a richly spatial and urbanistic practice.

Invitations to position Venturi in the larger frame of American art and thought since 1960 are, however, relatively few in “Out of the Ordinary,” conceived by the same curatorial team that produced the Philadelphia Museum’s elegant Louis Kahn exhibition a decade ago. Whereas the Kahn catalogue heralded an appraisal gently removed from the protective hagiography of Kahn’s associates, the essays in the Venturi catalogue by David Brownlee and David De Long have a cool reserve and politeness that makes one suspect the presence of the Venturis’ censorious eye. Nonetheless these astute historians of Philadelphia’s distinctive place in modern architecture lend scholarly depth to Venturi’s shrill refusal to be labeled a brand-x postmodernist. Brownlee demonstrates with great pertinence just how important the formal vocabularies and spatial inventions of Alvar Aalto and Kahn—the two architectural masters who most successfully personalized the modernist idiom—continue to be for Venturi. He helps draw our attention to the fact that despite obsession with signs and surface, meaning, for Venturi, can be invested equally in space making and in sequence, a dialogue between spatial form and symbol that marks VSBA’s finest designs, from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College (1973–77) to Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton (1980–83).

In the galleries, the quandary of what role to give living artists in their own retrospective led to a confusing hybrid solution: The lion’s share was guarded with curatorial objectivity; only the final gallery was given over to the Venturis. The curators arranged a series of bays opening like so many shop fronts off a great corridor that served as the show’s organizational spine and paid clear homage to VSBA’s preoccupations with Main Street and Las Vegas. One couldn’t help but think how tame this was in comparison with the excitement of Venturi’s seminal project for the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame, 1967—an astounding forerunner of the Centre Georges Pompidou in its thinking about the role of information in composing a public building—or with “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City,” the innovative show conceived and curated by Scott Brown and Venturi at Washington, DC’s Renwick Gallery in 1976. That bicentennial display offered new techniques for reading the commercial vernacular (across the street from the White House where Lady Bird Johnson had declared war on billboards!); by contrast, “Out of the Ordinary” is a respectfully neutral and fairly conventional firm monograph. Projects are arranged by building type, so that any sense of the responses of VSBA to the challenges of continually diversifying yet globalizing commercial culture in the three decades since they almost embraced it is obscured. The miniature monuments of Venturi’s chipboard models of the ’60s, in which his personal transformation of Kahn’s scale and Philadelphia School contextualism happens before our eyes, are hidden away in a final section devoted to houses, relegated all but to the attic by the firm’s larger and showier recent work, which has won it lucrative institutional clients.

Throughout, the curators’ privileging of Venturi’s stunning power as a draftsman negates almost all opportunities to reveal the way designs evolve in the office, a real loss when we encounter moments of sea change in the firm’s vocabulary and attitudes. How are we to avoid lumping Venturi with other emergent postmodernists when alternatives between abstract and classically embodied designs for the same project—notably the Penn State Faculty Club, 1973–76—are juxtaposed without explanation? In the late ’70s Venturi’s shift to more literal classical forms exactly paralleled Michael Graves’s abandonment of purist reverie for classical pastiche. Had we been able to understand what took place as the Faculty Club commission unfolded, or to track Venturi and Scott Brown’s evolving interaction with art-world discourses—from Edward Ruscha to the Pattern and Surface movement of the ’80s—we would be better prepared to draw precisely those distinctions Venturi exhorts us to observe.

At the exhibition’s climax, VSBA were given all the space behind a billboard rendering of the Vanna Venturi House facade, placed, perversely, at the end, rather than the beginning of the show’s “main street.” Allowing Venturi one more proprietorial reading, My Mother’s House served as the portal to “The Architect’s Dream,” the couple’s latest manifesto, which comes in the form of a multimedia installation. The title is borrowed from the famous 1840 Thomas Cole canvas in which buildings evocative of Egypt, Greece, and medieval Europe form a monumental port city glimpsed over the shoulder of a diminutive figure of an architect. Cole’s painting is, in architectural history, a veritable icon of eclecticism and revivalism, a shorthand for all the supposed sins of cultural confusion the modern movement set out to combat. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should be beloved by the Venturis, who blow it up to billboard dimensions, once again merging their art-historical erudition with a fascination for everyday culture. The billboard’s surface is now encrusted with plasma screens and LEDs flashing the Venturi’s favored mottoes, revealing not only their ardent desire to adapt to the ever-morphing landscape of the commercial vernacular of a society in the throes of an information revolution but also a sensibility that remains attuned to the practices of artists—Jenny Holzer comes to mind—rather than to the stylistic moves of VSBA’s postmodern architectural confreres. The difference between the Venturis’ work and postmodernism as it has evolved in the Disneyfied culture of the late twentieth century lies in their grasp of the ironic, signaled by their favorite qualifier, “almost.” “Almost” is the kernel of Venturi and Scott Brown’s theory of representation in architecture, as it is a key to the hotly debated—and disturbingly open—question of their seeming ideological neutrality. This show almost lets us reflect on just that.

Barry Bergdoll, cocurator of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Mies in Berlin,” teaches architectural history at Columbia University in New York.

"Out of the Ordinary” travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, June 2–Sept. 8, 2002, and the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Nov. 7, 2002–Feb. 3, 2003.