New York

Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown

Max Protetch

Given the frequency with which architects have been exhibiting in art galleries, this show of projects by Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown is long over due. The theoretical primacy of Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (coauthored with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972); the firm's seminal effect on the development of Postmodernism in architecture, now descended (by its partners' own admission) into furbelows of historical quotation and chromatic slush; and the scope of the architects' influence as a whole, argue persuasively for such a viewing. What this one shows is a restrained, cautious, and in general accommodating slant on the office's production.

The exhibition of 114 drawings was conceived as a survey spanning the firm's work over the past 25 years, but accentuating recent projects. It alternated in form between the mini-museum retrospective, gallery lodged by default, and the practice, common to architects exhibiting in galleries, of throwing everything onto the walls. In this case the selection was carefully edited to emphasize the range and feasibility of designs, and, as if to illustrate his theories, Venturi designed his own “contextual” installation. The white walls sacred to Modernism, here painted a subtle gray, were stenciled over with a continuous pattern of flowers. The latter—distinctly vernacular buds, like the varieties known to American toilet paper alone—were derived from the facade of the firm's Best Products catalogue showroom (1979), the original brilliant blues and greens here replaced by tasteful gallery grays. A continuous red line ran friezelike above eye level to separate a small layer of initial sketches from finished presentation drawings below. The installation, then, was geared to context and situation, to pattern and appliqué, to surface above all.

The exhibited works ran a considerable range of program and context, extending from small houses (i.e., in Delaware, 1978, the Brant-Johnson house in Vail, Colo., 1975, the Coxe-Hayden Studio on Block Island, R.I., 1979, and on Long Island, N.Y., 1981) to medium-sized office buildings and projects (County Federal Savings and Loan, Fairfield: Conn., 1977) to large complexes (the building for Baghdad, 1981, and the Institute for Scientific Information, Philadelphia, Penn., 1978). Quite predictably, most drawings were elevations, with only an occasional section or schematic floor plan detracting from the overwhelming focus on the facade. Architecture was configured here as surface rather than as volume; as representational system or symbolic field rather than as spatial whole. The facade or wall is conceived as a mirror like expanse, reflecting a diversity of cultural influences or, more specifically, of contexts. This, of course, reflects the pluralist concerns of the firm, whose historic contribution can be seen as the introduction, within the vast storehouse of architectural references, of the vernacular field ignored by Modernist and functionalist doctrines. Yet in recent years Venturi has abandoned his strident Pop-ish verve and has turned, with increasing frequency, toward the past. Porticoes, gables, and shingles turn up everywhere, Ionic capitals are cut out and appliquéd onto schemes, while circles and triangles punctuate an otherwise pristine exterior (Butler Dining Hall, Princeton University, current). As opposed to much current architectural Postmodernism, stylistic reference is generally mediated by relevance, by a desire for the “appropriate” quote; thus Moorish arches lend rhythm to the Baghdad building, while “Jeffersonian” columns articulate a Mount Vernon facade. Yet elsewhere it appears to get out of hand, as Venturi seems to be learning from Lutyens rather than from Las Vegas in a recitation of architectural fads.

The firm's approach toward public communication often tends toward work that is excessively “dumb,” toward projects which, in their banality, transcend Venturi's own now-famous affirmations of vernacular reduction. Thus, in the Charlotte, North Carolina, Science Museum of 1978, Venturi's duck becomes a dinosaur perched above the entrance on a geological “slide.” But at their best these designs do somehow transfigure typicality, paradoxically heightening the ordinary by subjecting it to alterations in scale or to dramatically inverted proportions, to wrenched, distorting relations, or to zooming close-up views. There's an ingenious wit to the way Venturi will blow up a gable or over-accentuate windows, or structure the cupola on the County Federal building so that it overweights the whole, imbuing a simple building with a critical twist. These devices—often clearest in the more modest structures—show the firm's partners as architects of remarkable formal gifts.

It was the drawings in the frieze that appeared most problematic. Freehand sketches executed on yellow tracing paper, they add little to the finished projects, although they are described (in the attendant promotional information) as “an expressionistic rendering of the architect's first ‘vision.'” They seem, rather, to belong within a larger scheme. In recent months Venturi has repeatedly stated that he is first and foremost an artist; that he is opposed to ideology; and that the nature of his production is both highly varied and responsive to clients’ demands. Those are strange words for one whose contributions have been, and are, fundamentally ideological. They place these drawings within a general tendency to fetishize the hand and artily the architect, and to use these humanizing and ingratiating devices to lure both market and clients. Such practices, now widespread, make one long for a time when yellow tracing paper was an easy, economical material, before “touch” became an etiolated realm, and before the wholesale redirection of attention, in the presentation of architectural drawings, to seductively rendered hues. And for a period before architects had turned, for their exhibition promotion, to publicity firms—a tactic still largely unexploited by artists. One wishes, then, for a clearer, more straightforward presentation of the architectural ideas themselves.