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‘Complexity and Contradiction changed how we look at, think and talk about architecture’

Vanna Venturi House

Robert Venturi’s book has enduring significance in a complex and contradictory age

Not many architecture books have defined a specific historical moment in the way Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture has; a book that, published 50 years ago and in print to the present day, fundamentally changed how we look at, think and talk about architecture. The architectural historian Vincent Scully’s famous assessment of Venturi’s treatise as ‘probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture’ has proven to be to the point in many ways, and few architecture books since have achieved a comparable significance in shaping the discipline’s discourse.

Venturi’s ‘gentle manifesto’ has often been hailed as a symptom of crisis in architecture (a much overused concept in more recent debates). Indeed, it has always been seen as a remarkable coincidence that Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was published the very same year as Aldo Rossi’s L’architettura della città (although Venturi’s book in actual fact was delayed and didn’t make it to the bookstores until the spring of 1967). Despite their considerable differences in argument and tone, both books signalled the exhaustion of the Minimalist and abstract paradigm of postwar Modernist architecture and in their respective ways argued for what Venturi calls ‘inflection’: a stance, not least guided by insight from gestalt psychology, that visual phenomena – and, by extension, buildings – are meaningful only in the context of their surroundings.

‘Venturi’s inspiration was the urban facades of Italy’

Even though Complexity and Contradiction was not really a book about urbanism, it was again Scully who pointed out that underlying Venturi’s argument was an essentially urban understanding of concave space, as opposed to Le Corbusier’s interest in the plasticity of volumes: ‘Le Corbusier’s great teacher was the Greek temple, with its isolated body white and free in the landscape, its luminous austerities clear in the sun. […] Venturi’s primary inspiration would seem to have come from the Greek temple’s historical and archetypal opposite, the urban facades of Italy, with their endless adjustments to the counter-requirements of inside and outside and their inflection with all the business of everyday life: not primarily sculptural actors in vast landscapes but complex spatial containers and definers of streets and squares.’

As a matter of fact, Complexity and Contradiction can in many ways be understood as an intellectual digest of Venturi’s two-year tenure at the American Academy in Rome from 1954 to 1956, where he not only pursued his passion for Baroque and Mannerist architecture, but also became acquainted with the work of leading architects of the Italian postwar period, among them Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Luigi Moretti (whose splendid Casa del Girasole Venturi included in his treatise and later singled out as one of his favourite buildings). Both architects paved the way for Venturi’s revision of the tenets of Modernism in seminal ways.

‘Hailed as a source text of postmodernism’

Like Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Complexity and Contradiction has been hailed as a source text of architectural Postmodernism, even though Venturi consistently insisted on being a Modernist. Whereas some of his acolytes have firmly established the notion that Complexity and Contradiction reintroduced history into contemporary architectural discourse as well as an appreciation of the formal repertoire of the Classical language of architecture, that was precisely not what Venturi argued for. Rather, he was interested in using the history of architecture – entirely subjectively and guided by his own taste preferences – not as a repository of forms, but of abstract compositional rules that, in his view, had currency throughout the history of architecture, most pronouncedly in Mannerism and the Baroque, and that were, as he argued, to be emulated for contemporary production.

Indicative of this stance is Venturi’s use and understanding of ‘mannerism’ as a suprahistorical category that could relate to works of architecture and art from any time in history. Moreover, concepts such as ‘ambiguity’, ‘contradictory levels’, ‘the inside and the outside’, and ‘the obligation toward the difficult whole’ were all presented with an abundance of visual examples but entirely devoid of any historical context, and analysed exclusively for their compositional value. This decontextualised (and essentially ahistorical) reading is most evident in Venturi’s appreciation of the works of architects such as Giuseppe Vaccaro or Armando Brasini, whose entanglement with the Fascist regime was simply not of any interest (or concern) to the author.

Does Complexity and Contradiction still speak to a younger generation of practising architects? It seems that quite a number of them indeed have recently taken an interest in the notion of the ‘difficult whole’ as a compositional device that manages to produce clear and readable volumes combined with complex plans and interior spaces. The wonderfully idiosyncratic plans and elevations of the Vanna Venturi House (which has recently found a new owner) make evident that its architect was by no means merely interested in the symbolic dimension of architecture (as he often would claim himself in later years), but an erudite virtuoso of the art of space. As twisted and non-straightforward as his spatial research appears, this building also calls into question an understanding of Venturi’s work as mainly contextualist: the Vanna Venturi House is clearly conceived as an object in its own right, an observation that also holds true for many of his other projects of the period. Once stripped of the postmodern polemics that for too long obscured Venturi’s message, it is the intellectual rigour of his formal investigation with which he approaches the design process that has caught the attention of a younger generation of contemporary architects.

‘Activism is not the only way architecture can be political’

That said, Complexity and Contradiction is certainly a child of its time. Relating to complexity theory and the age of cybernetics as well as to Op and Pop Art, the ‘New Criticism’ approach of literary interpretation, and to a certain infatuation with Mannerist poetics in architectural design (championed by Colin Rowe and others), the book was in many ways a bit arrière-garde in the politicised climate of the 1960s. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a book of architectural theory today that is so exclusively and idiosyncratically focused on a formalist interpretation of specific aspects of the architecture of Western Europe; and one might indeed wonder about the book’s place in a discipline that has finally started to come to terms with its shortcomings and biases in terms of gender, geography and ethnicity.

But activism is not the only way architecture can be political – and perhaps the best way to be so remains, as Venturi’s project would seem to argue implicitly, through the project itself. And while his treatise was certainly not intended as a political statement, his words read to us today as a strong plea for civility, and as a call for a society that is inclusive rather than exclusive: ‘I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art … I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties … I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure”, compromising rather than “clean”, … accommodating rather than excluding … I am for messy vitality over obvious unity … I prefer “both-and” to “either-or”, black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white … An architecture of complexity and contradiction must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.’ It is this lesson we must keep in mind above all else, be it in terms of architecture or not.

Martino Stierli is Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art and author of several books including Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film (2010).

Image: Robert Venturi, Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, Scheme III A (1959-64). Source: MoMA.