“We Learn From the Ordinary as Well as From the Extraordinary”: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

There are so many complexities and contradictions in life in general and architecture in particular. I am writing this intro to an interview I held in 2004 with Robert Venturi and his life-and-architecture partner Denise Scott Brown, while visiting Beijing’s Tsinghua University where I was invited to teach this fall. Was it simply a coincidence when, at the last moment before leaving my New York City apartment I would, almost by chance, grab a 2001 issue of Architecture magazine with Venturi on its cover and his contradictory quote, “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist.

I learned of Venturi's passing last week on my first day of teaching at Tsinghua; the news arrived as I and the students discussed their proposals to improve their campus. In yet another strange coincidence, Venturi and Scott Brown had, just prior to our interview, been working on their own proposal for the very same campus. It was a pleasant and bittersweet surprise then to hear my students speak of freeing up the campus in much the same ways as Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture attacked then domineering architecture of minimalism and abstraction over 50 years ago.

His and Scott Brown’s ideas for this campus did not materialize but their analytical and often rebellious thinking greatly influenced how students here and architects all over the world approach architecture. It was Venturi who freed our discipline, it was him who set us all free and encouraged to ask our own questions, to get away from all kinds of dogmas and to provoke ideas of hybridization. What follows is an excerpt from my conversation with the architects at their office in Philadelphia 14 years ago.  

“We Learn From the Ordinary as Well as From the Extraordinary”: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown - More Images+ 8

VB: You just came back from China where you are working on a campus plan for Tsinghua University in Beijing and two 45-story office buildings in Shanghai. You don’t think there is a contradiction in inviting an architect from another part of the world to do a local project?

Robert Venturi: Not in this era.

Denise Scott Brown: In Beijing the client specifically wanted us because of our American know-how. They wanted to hear about American cultural values about education, though it doesn’t mean they’ll accept those values. They want to broaden their view; they are looking for people who can get into their shoes and see their point of view, but who have another experience and know other points of view. This is a society that has done 5,000 years of thinking and Bob and I have each done 70-some years of thinking. There’s a lot we can share.  

RV: One reason that we like working on the project in Shanghai is the essential multiculturalism that this city represents, the coming together of Eastern and Western cultures that has been happening in Shanghai in the last century and a half. Multiculturalism – that is, the juxtaposition of universal culture and local-ethnic cultures – is now inevitable, dynamic, enriching, and healthy. Shanghai has been and is a great example of this phenomenon.

DSB: Bob and I come from multicultural backgrounds. My grandparents came from Latvia and Lithuania and, through them, I have an under-memory of Eastern Europe in my background – along with their 19th century views of the world. But I was born in Zambia and grew up in South Africa. Our son recently visited Latvia and Lithuania and he says the people there look familiar. Bob’s family is Italian-American. We both lived in Italy. We are both interested in other cultures. Bob and I speak some Italian and French. I also speak a little German and Afrikaans, and a very small bit of an African language. That is the cultural matrix we live in and enjoy, and it has helped to prepare us for working in other cultures.

VB: You have done a lot of traveling and experienced many different forms of architecture. Can you name one building or a project that you learned from the most and why?

RV: I have learned most from the architecture of Michelangelo. For me his Porta Pia in Rome is the most inspiring single building. I think of Michelangelo’s and also Palladio’s architecture as Mannerist. I’ve been learning and writing about Mannerism for many years. I learned a great deal from Michelangelo’s buildings in Rome and Florence, and Palladio’s churches in Venice. This is an architecture that inspired me the most and that is because of the idea of the Mannerists to accept and acknowledge convention and then divert from it – making exceptions and creating appropriate ambiguities. These are the ideas that I explored in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. And then of course, we apply these ideas not only to form in architecture, but also to symbolism, which we learned from Las Vegas and American Pop culture.

DSB: Learning from one building is less interesting to me than learning from a spectrum of places. We learn different things from different cultures and cities.  Sometimes we visit a great building and we adore it, but we also find that its context is as inspiring as the building itself. The lessons we learn from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Rome, and Tokyo are as intense, maybe even more intense, than those we learn from single great buildings.

RV: And we learn from the ordinary as well as from the extraordinary. 

VB: You both knew Louis Kahn very well. What did you learn from him?

RV: I met Kahn in 1947, before he became well known. He is now very much in fashion and he never went out of fashion. I have mixed feelings about Lou. He was a great architect and I learned a lot from him, but he was not a godlike architect, and I’m also bitter about him. The reason I’m bitter is that he also learned from me, and other young people around him, and he never admitted that, which is very unfair.

VB: What did Louis Kahn learn from you?  

RV: He learned from me about the elements of layering; about windows as holes in walls rather than absence of walls; about breaking the order of architecture, and about the use of inflection, which is the idea that a building can inflect beyond itself toward something else. Also Kahn was influenced by my use of historical analogy as part of the analytical process of design, which derived in turn from my professors at Princeton University, Jean Labatut and Donald Drew Egbert.

DSB: In 1984 I wrote an article, A Worm’s eye view of recent architectural history. The worm was I. During a long life, I have seen a lot of architectural history, but I find that history is sometimes written 180 degrees wrong, by historians who were not there. I’m not an historian, but I can write the minutes of the meetings, so to speak. I witnessed many exchanges between Bob and Lou.  All of us learned from Lou – that’s admitted. But the lessons went both ways; Lou should have attributed some of “his” ideas to Bob, and a couple to me.

RV: We are actually old enough to know some history, not only from books, but through our own experience and we know that history is not always correct.

VB: History has its footprints not only in books, but also in places such as Rome. What is it about Rome that makes it such a special place for you?

RV: Last year we celebrated the 55th anniversary of my first day in Rome. The first time I went to Rome was when I was 23. Rome was always a very important place to me. From before I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an architect. My father and mother were both devotees of architecture. As an American, what fascinated me then about Rome was the fact that the city was made essentially to accommodate the pedestrian, not the vehicle, and there was also the combination of narrow streets and wide piazzas. Particularly I’m fascinated by spatially complex baroque architecture. Also there is a very special aura of Rome and its colors – yellow and orange. I have written a lot about Rome. That first trip was a very emotional, as well as rational, experience for me.  

DSB: The city defines the Western canon of architecture. Even for Modernists it is the basis of architecture. For a long time I delayed visiting Rome. People asked: “How can you study architecture and not go to Rome?” Then after graduation, I did go to Italy for six months and lived and worked briefly in Rome. The experience in Rome helped me to prepare for what I’ve done since, and the friendships I formed then have lasted until now.     

RV: I was privileged to be in Rome as a Fellow of the American Academy. I learned from Baroque Rome more than from Classical Rome, and also from early Christian basilicas, adorned by iconographic surfaces. We find that iconography is very important. We recently finished a book Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time. The structures we are designing in Shanghai now are essentially Mies van der Rohe-like buildings with LED ornament on the facades. These towers are very symbolic and they support the idea of architecture as sign, which is very different from the dramatic, baroque form of today’s popular high-rise buildings. Much of architecture in the 20th century was based on the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. But there was always symbolic reference in architecture of the past – in Egyptian temples, Greek pediments, mosaics of early Christian churches, or stained glass windows in great European cathedrals. These represent narratives through which these buildings try to “sell” you something – Catholicism, Protestantism or whatever. In our own time, iconography can be applied to buildings whether it is signage, ornament, or electronics. For example, American commercial architecture “sells” products through displayed iconography. All of these things interest us and we expressed these ideas in another book that was published a few years ago, called Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture.

VB: Is your architecture more about communication than about space?

RV: Yes, that is exactly it.

VB: Then how is architecture different from other disciplines such as art or music?

RV: I think all the visual arts are essentially saying something, employing narrative, symbolism, and representation.   

DSB: Architecture has a role that art and music do not have. It houses things, including people. Architecture provides both shelter and communication – a shed and decoration. When we said that most buildings should be designed as decorated sheds, this was an extreme statement. But it was intended to help us get away from the notion that space is all that architecture is about. Space is just one of many components of architecture.  

VB: When clients ask you to do a project, what do you think they really want you to do for them?

DSB: Different clients want different things. Our clients in Beijing, for example, heard Bob talking about campus planning in a way that interested them. They didn’t say: “Let’s hire a famous architect and use his name to raise money.”  They felt there was a meeting of minds between us and that we had an experience and a methodology that could help them in their aim to produce a wonderful environment for the future.

Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London (1991). Image © Timothy Soar

RV: There is a notion right now that in order to do great architecture the architect has to be imported from abroad. European architects are redesigning many American museums and a lot of American architects are working all over the world.

DSB: Art museums, in particular, flock to hire the latest architectural “star,” who will design “signature architecture.” They want to be seen as nonconformists – to join the crowd of nonconformists who are hiring that architect. There’s an irony here.

VB: Some critics say that Vanna Venturi House is the most significant house of the second half of the 20th century; others say it is the first postmodernist house. What do you think?

RV: I think it is the first modern house that employs symbolic references. It says, “I’m a house; I’m a shelter.” Modernists would never do that. On the other hand I love the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier and I learned a lot from it. It also employs symbolism, but industrial symbolism, within, ironically, its abstract aesthetic.

DSB: I think the Vanna Venturi House did influence what architects call postmodernism. But architects misunderstood its direction, what it stood for. For me, it has in it, in embryo, almost everything we have done since. If you look at our later projects, such as the Sainsbury Wing in London, you can find Vanna Venturi House in there. So its roots are important for our own subsequent work.  And since it was built, it has served as a touchstone for the ideas of successive generations of architects. This is more important than its temporary distortion by postmodernists.

VB: A teacher wants to educate his students, a doctor wants to cure his patients, and a writer wants to share a story with his readers. What do you think an architect should want?  

RV: I think an architect should want to enrich life and a particular context and often that means being recessive. Not all buildings should scream and yell, “Hey look, I’m a building!  I’m here and I impose myself – my ego – on all of you!” Sometimes it is appropriate, but in general, architecture should be a background for life and living. I love Beethoven, but you can’t listen to his symphonies constantly.

DSB: Doctors have a precept – first, do no harm. We should want that, too.  Architects have to realize that they can’t make better people by giving them beautiful spaces. All the arts give pleasure. Beautiful spaces also give pleasure.  But what I love about architecture is that its problems – the project briefs or programs – challenge both my intellect and my creativity to find the right resolution, one that could last 300 years or more. Yet at the same time, I love to make the results beautiful. When we visit our buildings and see that they are used as we intended them to be – that people have discovered what we put there for them – when we see something out there in front of us which was once just an idea in our minds and when we find it beautiful – this gives us a very deep pleasure. I don’t know which other arts can bring that marvelous combination of feelings.  

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985(TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which originally premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

About this author
Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "“We Learn From the Ordinary as Well as From the Extraordinary”: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown" 24 Sep 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/902511/we-learn-from-the-ordinary-robert-venturi-and-denise-scott-brown> ISSN 0719-8884

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Best Products Showroom, Langhorne, Pennsylvania (1978). Image © Tom Bernard


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