The Clarity of Robert Venturi
Robert Venturi, who died last week at 93, was not an urbanist as such. But in rejecting modernism and bringing honesty to discussions about aesthetics, Venturi deserves a debt of gratitude from planners and other architects alike.
Robert Venturi was, in many ways, not a postmodernist but an anti-postmodernist.
While 20th century Continental philosophers like Derrida, Lacan, and Lyotard were writing incomprehensible prose that argued, in part, that language is fundamentally meaningless, Venturi was breaking ground—literally and figuratively—with complementary ideas that were no less sophisticated and yet expressed with infinitely greater clarity. Learning From Las Vegas, which Venturi, who died last week at age 93, co-wrote with his wife and design partner Denise Scott Brown and Steve Izenour, was one of the first architecture books I ever read. I loved it in part because it was fun to read. The postmodernist architect was a better writer and, I think, a more compelling thinker, than the actual postmodernist writers.
Clarity and fun were key tenets of Venturi’s built work too. This was at a time when Modernist design was pretending to be clear (in its simplicity) but anything but fun. Rather than compete with his contemporaries to see who could write the most incomprehensible prose or make the most bombastic claims, Venturi was a conscientious objector to the theory wars. From the Guild House onward, he often included near, prominent labels to express what his buildings were. His classical allusions were deliberately two-dimensional, saying, “hi, I’m Classical,” rather than, “I am investigating the interstitial and I have no idea why.” Looking at you, Peter Eisenman.
My favorite moment in Robert Venturi’s books isn’t so much a quotation as a visual joke. In Complexity and Contradiction, he included a doodle of a typical suburban house, in front of which, somewhere among the hedges, was a typical water meter. With a thought bubble, the water meter says, “You’re not supposed to see me.”
In a single cartoon panel, Venturi deconstructs the entire American Dream.
Venturi didn’t resist inauthentic experiences. He reveled in them. He took them for what they were—illusions that the eye takes in—and he turned the tables on them. For Venturi, the picket fence is no more or less authentic than the water meter or the garden gnome. I never saw him as an advocate so much as a truth-teller, reading the modern landscape not as God’s own junkyard and not as a Bacchanalian pleasure dome but rather something in between and much more interesting than either. Venturi and his colleagues figured out that ornament, if not sophisticated and if not skillful, was nonetheless an important part of the visual landscape and a crucial element of 20th century aesthetics and commercialism.
On face, Venturi should offend planners. An extreme, but not implausible, reading of his work would conclude that Venturi prized inauthentic experiences, promoted pastiche, and didn’t particularly care how cities feel or function. Learning from Las Vegas is, in part, an endorsement of Las Vegas—not exactly an urbanist’s favorite town. A purely Venturian city would be all facade, signage, and advertising with nary a glimmer of history or an honest construction material in sight. John Ruskin, he is not.
This is, of course, the opposite of what most planners are trying to do these days. Compared to them, Venturi seems like either a nihilist or a hedonist, which is sort of the same thing. He advocates for design that is deliberately superficial, which would seem to be the opposite of what great cities are.
I see him differently.
Contemporary planners can find fellowship with Venturi if for no other reason than that he was a mortal enemy of high modernism, with all its pretentiousness and vacuity. He just attacked it from a different perspective than smart growthers and New Urbanists do. And Venturi liberated architecture. He didn’t say that every building has to be insubstantial or a visual pun. He made the world safe not only for ornament but also for variety, which are, I’d say, two of the hallmarks of great cities.
He also implicitly contributed to the anti-parking revolution. Just as we shouldn’t ignore the water meter, nor should we ignore driveways, garages, and the multi-acre parking lots that surround his “ducks” and "decorated sheds". In acknowledging cars' existence—and their inherent connection to high modernism and technocratic automobile culture—he enabled planners to start thinking about getting rid of them.
Ultimately, Venturi championed honesty. So much of architecture-speak is gibberish. The same can be said of planning-speak, especially in the Modernist era. Stripping away the high-minded themes frees planners to design places (with the help of all the necessary stakeholders, of course) according to their best estimations and their aesthetic preferences, not according to some impenetrable theory or cooked-up set of numbers.
Most importantly, Venturi advocated for joy. Funny that joy even needs advocates, but it does.
He knew that Modernism is not joyful. But I don’t think he prescribed what is joyful. Today, progressive planning tries to follow older, pre-Modernist patterns. I think Venturi would be fine with that. His love of ornament and historical allusion and Jane Jacobs’s love of textured neighborhoods and actual historical streetscapes are, I think, two sides of the same coin. Not coincidentally, both were great writers. For his part, Venturi and Scott Brown, through their firm VBSA, were perfectly capable of designing both detached, if nicely detailed, monoliths (many of their university buildings) and sensitive pieces of urban acupuncture (the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego).
I was connected to Venturi, albeit indirectly. We attended the same college, many decades apart. That college was Princeton, which upholds just about any standard of architectural beauty you’d care to assign. I can’t help but think that the campus intrigued and inspired Venturi. It is arguably the most complete, authentic rendition of “collegiate Gothic” architecture in the United States. And yet, “collegiate Gothic” is itself a fraud, as its very name makes clear. Venturi surely knew that and fretted over it, even as his classmates waxed poetic about spires and gargoyles.
In part because of his rhetorical clarity, Venturi helps us think differently about cities. But, because he does not try to overwhelm with theory or use the imperious tone of his contemporaries, he invites readers to decide what to think.
Venturi’s passing could be said to mark the end of an era—the postmodern era. But even that doesn’t make sense. “Postmodern” literally means “after Modernism." In Venturi’s case, it means, “disdain and mockery for modernism.” I’d like to think that we are not in a new era necessarily but rather that, owing for some gems, the Modern era was but a decades-long aberration in the centuries-long history of cities. In his short life, Robert Venturi helped get us back on track.