Interview: Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, by Andrea Tamas

Episcopal Academy Chapel / © Matt Wargo

Back in August 2009, architect Andrea Tamas interviewed Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown. Today, we share with you the complete interview. Read it after the break.

Denise Scott Brown – DSB Robert Venturi – RV Andrea Tamas – AT

AT: Over the last few years, your son Jim Venturi has been producing a documentary called “Learning from Bob and Denise.” We read that it will reveal much of your professional and personal lives. Do you feel this film will demystify aspects of your work that have perhaps been misunderstood?

Episcopal Academy Chapel / © Matt Wargo

DSB: Jim’s theme is still developing. He would like to appeal to a wide audience and to suggest that our ways of thinking apply to fields beyond architecture, but I think we must demystify ourselves through our own design and writing. Jim would rather reveal us through our actions than confront judgments on us by earlier generations – especially when young architects today may think differently from their parents. For example, if I tell architects of my age that Learning from Las Vegas is in part a social discourse, they will exclaim “You’ve got to be kidding!” but try it on the present generation and they respond “What else is new?”

AT: From architecture schools, books and the internet we learn that you are the initiators of Postmodern architecture.

Episcopal Academy Chapel plan

RV: Denise once said: “Freud was not a Freudian, Marx was not a Marxist and Bob is not a Postmodernist.”

DSB: I said we are not Postmodernists. Actually we are Postmodernists, but of a certain kind. Our ideas grew through a confluence of influences, Bob’s from the U.S. and Europe, mine from Africa, England and Europe. We both spent important time in Rome. When we met on the Penn faculty in 1960 we formed a friendship based on shared architectural interests, in Mannerism and Early Modernism, for example. And he sympathized with my commitment to social issues that were rocking our school and the country. This is not the picture the world has of Bob — but his mother was a socialist and a pacifist.

RV: And a Quaker.

Congregation Beth El / © Matt Wargo

DSB: An Italian-American Quaker, very rare. The origins of our Postmodernism were not in architecture. They lay in the humanities and theology, among people who were saying things like, there can be no innocence after the holocaust. Penn’s social planners added that the diverse populations of the U.S. have multiple ideas and beliefs, and that architects and planners should not impose their own value systems on others, or attempt to remake cities in their own image. That’s the Postmodernism we subscribed to. Then there was Philip Johnson. When he heard social planners say: “Architects can’t solve social problems,” he replied “Why try?” He invented PoMo.

The terms Postmodern and PoMo distinguish the differences between Johnson and us. He did not come to Postmodernism via our ideals. His buildings of that era were largely for commercial corporations. But commercial purpose did not impede great architecture in the past. To me, the speciousness of Philip’s PoMo lay in its design not its clients.

RV: There was also his and others’ misunderstanding of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. I had employed historical reference as a way of analyzing, and learning. I did not propose imitating historical buildings. But this was interpreted by architectural historians of the 1960s, Richard Krautheimer for one, as retrogression toward the architecture of styles fought by the Moderns in the early 20th century. Krautheimer saw Modernism as a revolution that started around 1910, when Europeans began to appropriate American industrial building as a basis for a new architecture.

Congregation Beth El / © Matt Wargo

We too had our love affair with industrial architecture, and still do, and we supported Corbusier’s cry, “eyes that do not see.” Yet the destruction of war and the harsh renewal that followed affected the way architects saw history, and in the 1950s they began to seek accommodations between old and new. C&C’s analytic approach, its comparative analyses of building types such as the basilica and the palazzo for example, helped to shape this outlook.

DSB: Another component was time. Seen from the perspective of history, Modern functionalism fails, and so does its mantra, “form follows function.” What 14th century non-religious building still houses its original activities? What 19th century one does, for that matter? Even houses are not used or outfitted as they were on day one. Over time, the “program,” the chosen activities of the first client, are far from the only uses of the building. Palazzos were built as combination family residences and warehouses, but they became museums, embassies, public and private institutions, government offices, and apartments.

Congregation Beth El plan

We observed that buildings can be designed like gloves that snugly surround each finger of your hand, or like mittens that allow different-sized hands and fingers to fit and wiggle. Some of the most lyrical buildings of the early Modern Movement are gloves, designed so specifically that they can accommodate little change. But industrial buildings loved by the Modernists tended to follow the other trend. Loft buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with their sturdy structures, wide column bays, uninterrupted floors, and evenly spaced windows, have accepted varieties of uses over two centuries. Our architectural offices fit happily into one and we took this direction for many of our academic buildings, particularly labs. (1)

RV: In parallel with reassessing the philosophy of function, Denise and I were learning from Las Vegas. This concerned the role of symbolism and iconography in architecture. In ancient Egypt hieroglyphics covered the walls and columns of temples. They were both pictures and communications and it’s been that way ever since. Italian church frescoes were only incidentally great art. They were there to give information to worshippers who couldn’t read. And today’s architecture may communicate via electronics. But although the buildings we (VSBA) design may allude to history, they don’t copy it. (2)

In the 1960s the use of history as allusion was exciting and new. History had been called “bunk” by Goring and “irrelevant” by Modernists whose slogan was “We’re starting again!” We were not starting again, we were evolving. But because Modernism had become an old revolution, we were revolutionary in being evolutionary.

DSB: Modernism had by then become a florid style called “Orthodox Modernism,” so proclaiming evolution — saying change can be slow — was revolutionary.

RV: And it still is. Viva valid evolution!

DSB: Because the 1960s turned received wisdom on its head, it was given to such paradoxes.

AT: Did PoMo’s bad image result from ignorant use of historical reference and not understanding its true basis?

DSB: For an office building in Chicago, Philip Johnson borrowed imagery from Louis Sullivan’s theatre there, although nearby were marvelous office buildings important in Modernism’s history. He wasn’t obliged to use historical reference but, once he did, the Rookery or Monadnock Buildings might have been more relevant.

But we stand for more than symbolism. From the start our Las Vegas study was tuned to the auto cities of the American Southwest, and we were fascinated by popular culture and the “taste cultures” (to quote Herbert Gans) of the U.S. But the hullabaloo we caused over neon made readers ignore our other views, particular those on the social revolution of the 1960s and how, since then, we have adapted ideas from the social sciences to design.

Today urban mapping is fashionable among architects, but they don’t use its real capacities. They superimpose distributions from, say, molecular biology on urban maps and extend these vertically to see what cool new shapes they suggest. The distributions serve as heuristics for form-giving, but their content, the relationships they represent, is irrelevant. We map urban relationships – activities (for example, wedding chapels on The Strip) and economic patterns that show linkage between activities or growth; also social and population variables and natural patterns of slopes and water. Then we relate the activities of our building program to them. So our designs become, on one level, interpolations and extrapolations of our maps. And this holds not only for urban and site planning but also for the plans of buildings. We apply ideas from land use and transportation planning to the layouts of laboratory buildings, and our activity patterns flow from inside to outside and vice versa.

Of course designing is a multi-level experience, but this is a useful tool, particularly for beginners. It’s an extension of functionalism, simpler than it sounds, and you don’t have to understand its mathematics to apply its ideas in design. Consider a medieval town. Where its main roads cross – where most people pass — will be a marketplace, a meeting place, and a meeting of minds. This crossing forms, as well, the center of a circle of demand. People who need to reach others want to be right there. Yet, ironically, geometry makes it the smallest area within the circle – much smaller than areas at the periphery. So the rents will usually be highest at that center point and the buildings tallest and densest. And the further out you go, the lower the rent and the sparser the buildings.

Urban settlement patterns the world over derive from these forces of “gravity” and “potential” – names borrowed from physics. Their study is called “city physics.” (3)

AT: And desire lines?

DSB: They’re romantic-sounding loans from transportation planning. They link where you are to where you want to be, usually where you live to where you work. I designed a life-science complex around desire lines and the meeting of minds. It’s a joy to go there and see people actually congregating where I planned that they would. Nevertheless, architecture can’t force people to connect, it can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive.

After WWII English planners were criticized for causing hardship to poverty stricken city dwellers by forcing them to leave the social support networks they had built on city streets and live in the greenbelt new towns as if they were middle class people. The English Brutalist architects, Alison and Peter Smithson. (4) tried to study life on the streets in low-income neighborhoods and to calibrate the relation between physical and social form. “Active socioplastics,” they called it and they hoped through it to envision the physical “counterform” (Aldo van Eyck’s term) to social form. But they gave up. “Sociologists are impossible to work with!” they said.

Architects and sociologists were both impossible – for each other. Their approaches were so different. Architects could not get sociologists to extend their time frames into futures that they could not measure. The sociologist said “You have to give me information, I can’t develop a view of the future without it,” whereas architects were happy to draw grand visions of unknown futures. Both were wrong. Some architectural visions have become urban nightmares, yet a freeway planned today could last a thousand years and abrogating thought on planning it for an unpredictable future is irresponsible. We do have to cope with differences in approach between the two professions and to find rational ways of handling unpredictability. So though the Smithson’s gave up, I kept trying and have continued to refer to “active socioplastics” in their memory. (4)

So, although I’m proud we reintroduced symbolism as an element of architecture, we’ve also done more than that — we’ve tried to heal the rift between architecture and urbanism and outlined new and useful ways to approach functionalism. I disagree with the Neomodernists who say “Forget functionalism!” But our functionalism does not only consider where you put the living room in relation to the dining room. It means understanding the patterns of the city, how they play out in and around your building, and how the city and your building will go on changing together over time. And we considered communication as one of the functions of architecture, one that helps to define and support community.

AT: Learning architecture is learning architecture-and-urbanism — as a whole.

DSB: The problem is, when architects say this, they make urbanism something that it is not — large scale architecture. They approach the design of cities as they do architecture, although the city is too large and diverse for one head, or even for one team, to conceive.

My dear friend and colleague, the social planner, Paul Davidoff, used to say: “Architects who think they can design everything from a tea spoon to a region have delusions of grandeur.” And I agreed with him. Nevertheless, I go ahead and design them all. But not in one project. And we take a different approach at each level. For example, when I plan for a city or region I must work with economists, and many other specialists, and I must push them too, because they, like architects, have blind spots and can make big mistakes. So you have to know how to work with them, what you can and can’t ask of them and, most important, what you can’t do yourself. And you must consider time scales both shorter and longer, and decision structures even more complex, than those of architecture.

AT: You mention that communication is a function of buildings – do you feel that in the new electronic information era it might be easier for people to understand what you mean? Electronic iconography seems to be a refreshing idea for young architects today.

DSB: It’s amusing that everyone now knows the word “font.” It was once used by graphic designers and some architects, but corporation heads now talk knowledgeably about fonts, because the visual quality of their internet communication with the public has become so important. This is an amazing change. It started with television but has skyrocketed with the personalizing of electronics. People are much more visual than they were. But how should the ability of cities and buildings to communicate be used? We have moved away from the unchangeable and poignantly dated graphics of the Victorians, but where have we gone?

AT: The Whitehall Ferry Terminal…

RV: Yes. It’s ironic that we can’t do what we talk about — that if you are a thinker ahead of your time, or an architect with unusual ideas, you may write, lecture and talk about it, or teach it and illustrate it, but quite often you have little chance to “do it.” We don’t get much commercial work — commercial clients seem to feel that because we write and teach we won’t meet budgets, though we do. And given that most of our projects are university buildings on traditional American campuses (“campus” is Latin for “field”) this means we work mostly in open, landscaped areas, loosely linked with towns, and there is reduced opportunity for the robust communication-to-establish-connection that we have studied.

The Whitehall Ferry Terminal was a fascinating exception and a great opportunity to offer community through communication at many scales and levels. Approaching Lower Manhattan from Staten Island, you would see the terminal with the downtown skyline behind it. In the end, although we won the competition, we couldn’t build the building because of New York politics.

DSB: Local people and ferry riders from Staten Island combined to say “We don’t want to see that vulgar thing!” and several architects agreed with them.

RV: The irony is incredible. We don’t argue with the need for a low profile on campus. You don’t need to see information from the distance there. But from the ferry you did.

DSB: Visitors love to access New York from that ferry, just think of what they would have seen. From Staten Island the terminal façade would have resembled a small, bright postage stamp, and would have grown in size and detail as you approached.

RV: In earlier centuries the architect would have carved the message in masonry and it would be there for centuries. Now it will be changeable. I wanted the LED sign to display a large American flag for 15 minutes every hour and, as you drew nearer, to show details of events in New York.

Ferry Terminal / Courtesy of VSBA
Ferry Terminal / Courtesy of VSBA
Ferry Terminal / Courtesy of VSBA

DSB: I felt there was no way he could control that. The architects would not design the electrographics, the client would hire a commercial artist. The architect would have to give up control of the major communication on the building’s main façade. I suspect there will be ways for architects to react creatively to this situation, but so far LED has not integrated as gracefully with architecture as neon does. We have also learned that the organizational structure for administering the sign must be planned as much as the sign itself. The only place where there’s enough interest and control for the signs to last is in hospitals – not universities, they tend to take them down with the next president.

AT: There is also irony, if you look at the Lieb House. When it was built, the neighbors considered it a big ugly box. Also, though you write that you sympathize with Early Modernism, the Lieb House has a Pop Art twist (the big No 9 on the façade). And today it looks quite contemporary. It’s amazing that it survived so long, and went through a 40 year evolution and a relocation in March 2009.

RV: We loved that experiment!

DSB: The house was designed for a honky-tonk Barnegat Light neighborhood that had disappeared by the time we moved it. It looked so poignant floating up the East River, beside the city skyline and under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was incredibly small, but it seemed to dwarf New York around it. I don’t know how. Now it sits quietly by the water in high-class residential surroundings.

Leib House / © Stephen Hill
Leib House / © Stephen Hill
Leib House / © Stephen Hill

AT: It’s truly a great story. And the exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture was really exciting, with previous owners and the new owners there.

DSB: The movers were from a religious group called The Brethren. You glimpse them in the film, with their large beards and flat black hats and along for the adventure, their long-skirted wives and children. They used medieval skills, perhaps for barn raising, to move the house. And they brought Meccano-like beams of different sizes and a range of tools to deal with eventualities along the way.

AT: You have written about being a young architect not able to get commissions or express your ideas, and of writing and lecturing instead. How do you feel about competitions?

Leib House / © Stephen Hill
Leib House / © Stephen Hill
Leib House / © Lara Lomer and Mike Meggitt

RV: They are not the way to get good projects. One of the most important needs while you are designing is to work closely with the client. We get some of our best ideas from our clients, but you and your client can’t meet while designing for competitions. And they are often very political. You have to learn the makeup of the jury and how to please its members — you plot rather than plan. And the choice of architect may in fact have been made before the competition started. So we don’t enter many. But when we do, we offer designs we think are right, even if not politic. So we split the committee: half strongly want us, half violently don’t. They’re at a stand-off until they agree on their second choice. The result is a bland solution that engenders tepid feelings.

DSB: Working with a client is a voyage of discovery. It’s subtle. We must sit eye-to-eye and I must ask myself “Do their words and their eyes agree?” As we venture further, there will be horrible and strange ideas that you and your client will discard. But some – although incredibly ugly — you will ponder over together and keep returning to, and perhaps you will come to love them, because they solve the problem. That’s a growth process. You and your client learn to accept an “ugly” solution that makes the building work. And that process changes aesthetics and architectural sensibilities. But if you merely arrive one day and say: “Here’s your scheme. See how this ugly thing here really works!” your client will fire you.

RV: It is good to surprise yourself – to do something you didn’t expect to do. I tell young architects: don’t do what you are supposed to do; analyze to discover what you really like, then go for it. It may get you into trouble, but you may also do well.

Leib House / © John DeFazio
Leib House / © Todd Sheridan
Leib House / © Todd Sheridan

DSB: Such subtleties aren’t available in competitions. And after? At the point where you have the award, you also have strong attachment to a scheme. It’s your baby, you discovered it, how hard you charretted over it! But your commitment may not be shared by your client. How could it be, without collaboration during design? And without client involvement important details of function may have been missed. But you are likely to fight changes to the thing you love. Therefore you may be out of the project, or you may give in and continue without enthusiasm, or the client may give in and not get what they want – three bad results. Had you shared the design process, this might not have happened. For these reasons I feel competitions are bad — even if Europeans are keen on them and even if they help young architects find work. And, if my analysis holds, work found in this way may come at the price of unpleasant and unnecessary compromises – you may lose your soul.

AT: Rem Koolhaas wrote that in his opinion Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is the last true manifesto in architecture. What writings of the past 10 years do you consider iconic or refreshing?

Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova
Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova
Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova

RV: I don’t read much about architecture these days, because in general I am bored by or disagree with what is written. I’m not happy with current architecture and I don’t like Neomodernism. But I love to look at historical architecture and the everyday. Therefore on the train or driving I am constantly looking. And, although I don’t like “MacMansions,” I love and learn from the commercial vernacular. I love walking down Main Street, driving Root 66. I’m a pervert!

AT: It seems that architecture is ingrained in your lives and your lives are ingrained in your architecture. Do you think this is the only way to do architecture — by living it? Are there other ways?

RV: Yes we live architecture. I am constantly looking and learning and I am never bored. I learn from all sorts of sources, so does Denise. Denise taught me to look at the everyday, to love it and learn from it. She perverted me.

DSB: Along our drive from home to the office, every view is wonderful and not one building or vista was designed by architects.

RV: It’s all the ordinary, the vernacular.

AT: What about other aspects of your daily life, like movies…?

Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova
Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova
Leib House / © Ekaterina Choutova

DSB: We watch old movies on the Late Show. I enjoy those from the 1930s. Some are very sophisticated. And I love spotting Hollywood stage sets that must have been designed by refugees from Nazism. Their basics were Bauhaus — I can almost hear the German accents!

RV: I love that Jews from Eastern Europe essentially defined American popular culture of their time and Hollywood.

AT: In 2005 at the XXII UIA (The International Union of Architects) World Congress in Istanbul Peter Eisenman said that there has been a paradigm shift in architecture, and that the era of “starchitects” is over. What do you think about the future of architecture?

DSB: In my article “Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” (5) I give reasons why architects need stars. And if they really do, then stardom may not end. On the other hand, half the World’s population is not acculturated to be a star, other than on stage and film. And particularly in American architecture, stardom is reserved for men. Women, having been formed in another mould, may regard their profession from a different viewpoint. But the women’s way may be more useful in a future world. I think it will take at least 30 years to learn whether the differences between men and women that we see today are inborn or learned, and some say it will take 60. But a “woman’s outlook” and “thinking like a man” will eventually, I feel, be qualities shared more equally between the sexes.

RV: Architecture today is a process where people work together. We may have individual poets, musicians, or sculptors but architecture is a group activity and becoming more so as the complexity of its tasks and components increases. Design is now done digitally and at meeting tables. There’s little designing “over a drawing board.” To discuss a design, you pin up print out in the conference room. I don’t think that is necessarily bad, but it means there’s less opportunity for the individual genius approach.

AT: As partners in your office and your private lives, do you feel at a disadvantage, or does this make your professional lives more fruitful?

DSB: It’s hard for both of us — but particularly for me because I get obliterated. Visitors to our office have tunnel vision toward Bob. I am seen as his assistant, not a professional in my own right, and certainly not a designer. Why that’s anathema would take a book to define. In practice, I have my own work, my own identity, but mostly we work together, capping each others ideas so that it’s difficult to separate our individual contributions. Also because our collaboration spans working and living, arguments about architecture can bring discord to our lives, though luckily we argue more about life than about architecture. It’s an intense way of living but I emphatically wouldn’t want anything else. Luckily we agree on defining the combination of work and home as our career. If one wanted to do that but the other didn’t, it would be very difficult.

RV: Working as partners has been positive for us in many ways. Denise is an architect and a planner, I am an architect. For us, a large part of design is setting out ideas and critiquing them. You try something and then you criticize it. I love that we constantly critique what we are doing – and do it as partners. But one life is all we have and when we come home at night we don’t talk about work.

Andrea Tamas wishes to thank Frederic Schwartz and Tracey Hummer (NY) for making this interview happened.

© Frank Hanswijk



(1) Denise Scott Brown, “The Redefinition of Functionalism,” Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp142-174).

(2) Robert Venturi, Electronics upon a Generic Architecture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

(3) Denise Scott Brown, “Activities as Patterns,” Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time, op. cit. pp120-141.

(4) “Towards an Active Socioplastics,“ Having Words, by Denise Scott Brown, London: Architectural Association 2009, pp22-54.

(5) Reprinted in Having Words, ibid. pp79-89.

About this author
Cite: Sebastian Jordana. "Interview: Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, by Andrea Tamas" 25 Apr 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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