Architect, theorist and author Robert Venturi, who offered an architectural antidote to the Mies van der Rohe-influenced modernism of the 20th Century, has died in his Philadelphia home. He was 93.
Venturi and his partner, Denise Scott Brown, were renowned for their humanist approach to design, conceiving of influential buildings such as Philadelphia’s Guild House, the Seattle Art Museum and the Sainsbury Wing at London’s National Gallery. The couple and their firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, were pioneers in post-modern architecture, successfully making the argument that contemporary architecture needn’t be minimal, austere and impersonal. The Prtizker organization, which recognized Venturi with a Pritzker Architecture Prize (an award he fought to share with Scott Brown) in 1991, may have described it best: “He has also been credited,” the organization says, “with saving modern architecture from itself.”
The Vanna Venturi House, completed in Philadelphia for Venturi’s mother in 1964, is one of his most iconic works.
As renowned as he was for his buildings – which reinterpreted classical forms with liberal amount of audacity – Venturi was arguably as acclaimed for his writing career, which began in the 1960s. In particular, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, first published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, was a rallying cry for architects who felt hampered by modernism’s obsession with purity, restraint and discipline.
“Less is a bore,” he famously wrote. “I like elements that are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ distorted, rather than ‘straightforward,’ ambiguous, rather than ‘articulated,’ perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting,’ ” he wrote. “I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit meaning as well as the explicit function.”
In simpler terms, Venturi’s architectural philosophy took fun seriously.
His death prompted a wave of remembrance from architects, designers and the community surrounding them. Sam Jacob, of Sam Jacob Studio, reflected on the time Venturi hilariously called him a “degenerate and a pervert” for his love of post-modern architecture. Jacob shared a blog post he penned about the architect’s impact, in which he argues that Venturi and Scott Brown were better classified as Pop – “a Pop that isn’t only fast, fun and ironic, but political and moral as well.” “Perhaps,” says Jacob, “it’s this idea of making architecture (and architects) engage with the world that surrounds them – rather than with a theoretical model, a diagram or an imaginary Utopia – that drives Venturi and Scott Brown’s Pop sensibility.”
Architecture critical Kate Wagner, who runs the website McMansion Hell, detailed how Venturi helped her engage with architectural theory. In a Twitter thread, she credits him with inspiring her writing. “Complexity and Contradiction teaches us that architecture is a messy bitch that doesn’t always perfectly ascribe to its own self-professed ideology, something I found to be comforting in a world that wants us to put things in boxes rather than accept them as they are,” she said.
That same philosophy led Venturi and Scott Brown to create a body of work that was contemporary, not simply a vision of contemporaneity. In one of their best known publications, Learning From Las Vegas, the duo used the city to praise the ordinary, the perfunctory, the decorated. It considered, in other words, people. “Robert Venturi looked to the past to design a bold, provocative new look for the future,” Avery Trufelman, producer of design podcast 99% Invisible wrote. “He and Denise Scott Brown built a practice on collaboration, observation, and careful consideration of the needs of everyday people.”
Venturi’s son, planner James Venturi, says the architect died from complications from Alzheimer’s.