COPERTINA_ Bob Venturi

Remembering Bob Venturi

Architects

One of the most important protagonists of architecture dies at the age of 93

Robert Venturi died on September 18 at his home in Philadelphia; for many he was the father of postmodernism, in some ways an understatement, as well as the author of two essential books which have become a reference for architecture students of different generations: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), written with his colleague and life partner Denise Scott Brown and the architect Steven Izenour.

Writing a few weeks after his passing allows us to trace a line through what was said and written about Bob Venturi, using the many – and often short – “obituaries” published on the web and on magazines, the most heart-felt farewell texts or those that attempt to prefigure the legacy left by the American architect.

His life and memories

Almost all remember Venturi’s life, starting from his education: from his degree at Princeton to his experience in Eero Saarinen and Luis Kahn’s firms, to the scholarship for the American Academy in Rome where he studied artists such as Michelangelo and Bernini. Italy was the starting point for his trip around Europe, an actual Grand Tour, a time for personal growth and study before returning to the United States where Venturi will continue his academic career (Yale, Princeton, Harvard and UCLA) and will marry Denise Scott Brown(1960). A career which included the Pritzker Prize in 1991 and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, won with his wife. 

His architectural production

Some of the analyses appeared after his death retrace Venturi’s architectural production, including the house built for his mother Vanna Venturi in Chestnut Hill (1959-1964) and Guild House (1960-1963), both in Philadelphia.

While the former has become an iconic building – also thanks to American stamps - with its gabled roof which culminates at the top in a deep slit, the second project houses apartments for senior citizens making fun of architectural elements, with criticism and irony. Both buildings represent a radical break with the stylistic features of the International Style and can be read in two ways, as Jencks would say, they speak to “architects and a minority who care about specifically architectural meanings, and to the public at large or the local inhabitants living in the area who care about other issues”.

The legacy of an eclectic architectural language

Most texts agree in stating that with Venturi’s work a new way of thinking about architecture took shape, which opposed “Less is a bore” to Mies van Der Rohe’s “Less is more”, an opening to new territories, a curious attitude, which inquired vernacular architecture as well as the “common” one. A new look and a different approach which emerge from Venturi’s texts.

The essay Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), published the same year as The Architecture of the City by Aldo Rossi, gave voice to the complexity (project problems) and the contradiction (relationship between the elements of complexity) of architecture.

In Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the result of a trip with his wife Denise’s students to the sin city in Nevada in 1968, the narration of the strip emerges: from its new shapes and symbols of commercial communication to the disorderly development of the city (sprawl).

Complexity and contradiction as an engine of innovation

A lesson, the one by Bob Venturi, which represented an innovation both in terms of content and ways of carrying out research, a useful approach for its ability to be critical and ironic at once, curious and careful in constantly defining the role and scale of architecture.    

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