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Your views: 50 years of Complexity and Contradiction: Denise Scott Brown’s response


Denise Scott Brown responds to Martino Stierli’s review of Robert Venturi’s seminal text

Read Martino Stierli’s review here

Scan Complexity and Contradiction and you will find no mention of Giuseppe Vaccaro. This was because Bob did not know him then. Robert Scott Brown and I had worked for him in 1956 and formed a warm friendship with Giuseppe, his wife Leda, and Carolina their daughter, now an architect in Rome. In 1968 a letter from Leda asked me, ‘Is the architect Venturi that you have married the same one who wrote C&C?’ But Bob did not meet the Vaccaros until 1969, when we lunched with them in Rome. It was a good meeting, but sadly Giuseppe died shortly thereafter. Bob and I have each explained the importance of his work and of his and Leda’s outlook in the formation of our thought.

Why should Martino Stierli call Giuseppe a Fascist? In the 1970s, Leda told me, ‘We had little work, first because the Fascists were powerful and we were not Fascists, and then because the Communists became powerful and we were not Communists’. And Carolina adds: ‘My father was a Socialist and he belonged to the Partito D’Azione (not Fascist nor Communist)’. Does Martino know, I wonder, that Giuseppe was half Jewish? Leda explained to us how architects and artists during Fascism clung to the ideals of Early Modern architecture, to keep their hearts up. The two of them were touched by the fervour for Early Modernism of their two young employees from South Africa, and saw in us themselves when young.

‘Leda Vaccaro explained to us how architects and artists during Fascism clung to the ideals of Early Modern architecture, to keep their hearts up’

Another history slip: Bob discovered that Mannerism was his true interest just two weeks before he left Rome. Most of his study of it occurred in Philadelphia when he returned. Martino writes that Bob did not care that Brasini was a Fascist. Judging the work and not caring what the creator believes can apply too to the Coliseum or Chartres Cathedral, so I do not disagree. But this is a fraught point for many Italians and perhaps Bob cared more than Martino thinks, given that his mother was a Socialist and pacifist, and an avid reader of George Bernard Shaw. She and his father became Quakers in 1931, and through the 1930s and ’40s were strongly anti-Fascist. Bob, at seven, stuffed envelopes with his mother for the Pennsylvania Society for Total Disarmament, and in the 1960s he marched in Washington against the war in Vietnam.

These are not good times to combine Fascism, uncaring and architecture, so I am glad Martino turns in his essay to the last few chapters of C&C and the early ’60s, when Bob – but few others in architecture at Penn – was responsive to the urban social furore around us. Creative thinking was emerging from the planning department and especially from the social planners. Complexity was a theme in landscape architecture, social planning and systems planning. but the social planners brought it to the city. Amelioration not revolution was their slogan, as they ascribed the harm of ‘human removal’, via urban renewal, to the rigid Cartesian vocabularies of Late Modern architecture and the authoritarianism of architects.

‘Historians erect their own mountains and see whose yodel is the loudest’

The city, they suggested, might not need that much fixing, small steps taken immediately could be more useful, and some of the urban mess could be a sign of vitality. These thoughts lay behind C&C’s ‘messy vitality’, Bob’s question: ‘Is not Main Street almost all right?’ and one half of the title. The other half, ‘Contradiction’, came from Mannerism. Bob fleshed this out, creating Mannerism – everyday, latter-day rule-breaking – as he designed the Vanna Venturi House and his theories course. Mannerism was also a thing of the Brutalists and a subject of cogitation in London since the 1940s, so it was an interest we shared. But Phil Finkelpearl, Bob’s college friend and scholar of Jacobean poetry, was the one who heard Bob’s ideas, post-Rome, and asked, ‘Aren’t you really talking about complexity and contradiction in architecture?’

Platform building seems to be the order of the day in this year-50 celebration. Historians erect their own mountains and see whose yodel is the loudest. Martino has chosen form. He claims Venturi is the ultimate formalist – ‘Forget Postmodernism’, he says. ‘Forget PoMo’, I say, but see Postmodernism as a loyal updating of Modernism for our time. And return for a moment to Early Modern precepts, and to the post-Holocaust philosophy and theology of non-architectural Postmodernism, which helped define the social ethic of the 1960s.

And yes, Bob is great at form, but he says ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or’. An old friend, a philosopher and musicologist, used to complain, ‘When I talk of form, they say I am a traitor to structure! When I talk of structure, I am a traitor to form!’ So Martino too, may single out one aspect for study, but not claim hegemony for it, or disdain other aspects. Form is not a flag, and separating it for study should be part of a process that will eventually include other aspects of architecture. Look again at Vanna’s house. There are maybe 15 good ways of explaining it. All, not only the formal one, are correct. As designers, we must be responsible eventually for the lot. Our secret is how much fun this is.