In remembrance of Robert Venturi who sadly passed away on 19 September: the pair of Learning from Las Vegas fame, whose mannerist inquisition of taste will be their enduring legacy
Tom Wolfe had Venturi as ‘gray’. That was a bit mean, and he hardly mentions Denise. Searching for a mix of populist/academic flirtation, I once came up with Indiana Jones (Venturi was trained in archaeology at Princeton, and Denise Scott Brown is a strident free spirit from lion country) but that was a bit silly.
In fact, Robert Venturi’s mother was a strong-willed second-generation immigrant Quaker, her husband, a successful greengrocer. Denise was born Lakofski, her grandfather had been a timber merchant whose family members steadily made it from Russia to Johannesburg. Her first husband died tragically in a car crash as she weaved her way via London to Philadelphia where she first met Venturi in 1960. After her further reconnaissance west, they became a couple in 1967.
With Corb mouldering in the grave, Venturi published his first book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966. Although spiritually indebted to Kahn, Venturi perceived an ongoing problem with ‘the heroic’ and a burgeoning of interest in ‘the everyday’: a need for a gentle manifesto. The heroic would be subject to quotation, and the plastic event in the service of poésie would become the analysis of the structure of poetry itself.
Generations have waded through this book, just as generations have tried to like the house Venturi created for his mother to illustrate it. The house presents a thoroughly ambiguous trade in signs and symbols, that is to say that despite the use of abundant popular imagery, folks still have to be told how to like it. This technique, much indebted to the New Criticism in literature of Cleanth Brookes, has left many ordinary people, from Michael Eisner down, puzzled. To the Venturis it was no big deal, since they loved playing the game ‘I can like something worse than you can like’.
But the main difficulty was when to stop. Soon, as Venturi+Rauch, the method was extemporised over and over with a series of mildly eccentric residences featuring quotes from Lutyens, Palladio, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Corbu at the same time. Here the big became small and the small big and things intentionally got in the way of other things. Meanwhile there were urban proposals featuring lots of billboards that were usually directed by Denise and larger commissions where the term ‘ugly and ordinary’ was coined. These included such purposely unadventurous epics as Guild House (1961), Fire Station No 4 (1966) and an unrealised project for Yale Mathematics Building (1969); an ungainly (but much praised and competition-winning) lump stretching out over a road, with a core plan that looked as if it was wriggling to get out.
They garnered heavyweight academic support from Vincent Scully but irritated the hell out of the more muscle-bound moderns who found themselves eruditely consigned to history as designing ‘ducks’; buildings far too obvious for their own good. Bob’s your uncle, the Venturis had found their cultural niche; individuals enjoyed their unique (but somehow commonplace) private residences, institutions almost enjoyed wry commentary on their corporate dullness, while the public would definitely enjoy public spaces just like they were burgers. They managed to be gentle, virtuous and opportunistic all at the same time; and appeared to be so at least until the oil crisis of ‘73.
Meanwhile ‘Main St is almost alright’ was a phrase positively Jeffersonian in character and ‘less is a bore’ rehabilitated kitsch as the authentic American way. ‘I am a Monument’ consolidated both the ubiquity of the shed, but also the power of advertising and communication. ‘Ducks’ remained necessarily ambiguous, but dismissive in a nice way.
1925 - present
Denise Scott Brown
1931 - present
Contradiction and Complexity in Architecture (1966)
Learning from Las Vegas (1972)
Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia (1964)
Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London (1991)
‘A painter can do anything he wants, he might starve because he cannot sell a painting, but at least he can do it. An architect cannot. So you write to get your ideas out’
They pursued an interest in the everyday that meant for the first time TS Eliot met Tom Wolfe, Jasper Johns and Herbert Gans (DSB’s mentor who found Levittown far more interesting than people had thought or think) in a car park. Obviously the next step was Vegas.
Learning from Las Vegas (1972) is the only book about Las Vegas to hardly mention gambling. Dismissing programme it concentrates on signs and symbolism and compares it to a Rome beyond Caesars. Vincent Scully had championed C&C, and wrote an introduction for LFLV that was never used (and which hardly mentions Vegas). He had qualms. To what extent they actually ‘learnt’ from Las Vegas is a moot point.
LFLV is a less gentle manifesto, with charts unambiguously delineating the old from the new. Modernism was ‘paranoid’; Postmodernism was ‘schizophrenic’; Modernism was ‘the father’; Postmodernism ‘the holy ghost’.
Such reasoning laid the foundations for something the Venturis weren’t going to like at all (being paradoxically ill disposed to both brashness and garbology): mainstream Postmodernism.
Venturi’s leftist core values certainly could not be reconciled with neoliberal ‘greed is good’. Dan Graham went so far as to describe Venturi Scott Brown ‘the most anti-corporate architecture in the world today’ as cash cow Postmodernism became precisely that (especially in Las Vegas). Indicative of the shift, Eisner, looking for high concept Postmodernism, chose Michael Graves over VRSB to build the Disney hotels the Dolphin and Swan.
Even with their ambivalence about liking it or not, Bob and Denise went on learning from Las Vegas, which was by now building ‘ducks’ par excellence (or architecture as giant scenography) for a newly corporatised, junk- bonded USA. In this landscape of luxury you couldn’t get students to compare and contrast anything much more than lap dancers perfumery; Vegas architectonics, such as they were, had vaporised, and LFLV became instantly quaint. Hence the Venturis found themselves blazoned on campuses demonstrating tipsy Queen Anne subtlety in buildings such as Wu Hall (1980) and we can begin to think of Venturi as a Postmodernist only in so much as he was post-Corbusian, or them both in the sense that Led Zeppelin never actually went to Kashmir.
Correspondingly, the rise of identity politics made it fashionable to peep behind their collaboration. The practice was trading as just Venturi+Rauch until 1980, and even in the commemorative volume for the National Gallery extension (1991), an imposing photograph of a smiling Bob and Denise faced the bold headline ‘Robert Venturi and his design’. Denise became an icon for women in architecture; after all she had invented the ‘duck’ (Bob ‘the decorated shed’) and she had brought Pop Art to America. No wonder students recently campaigned (unsuccessfully) to get Denise retroactively on the 1991 Pritzker.
The Venturis’ mannerist inquisition of taste will be their enduring legacy. Venturi called British practice FAT ‘bad in a good way’ and bid them ‘keep up the bad work!’ FAT have since disbanded, but the jokes, and the pertinent questions − bad/good, ordinary/extraordinary, should we have this or that or both? − endure. Hence Venturi retired in 2012 as the most significant theorist post-Corbusier and pre-Koolhaas. Meanwhile, we find ourselves stranded in vast undecorated sheds with a Main Street that is definitely not all right.