Robert Venturi (3)

Since discovering this morning that a former President of the RIBA ruled that a nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for the Gold Medal was out of court, to such an extent that he offered to take his clothes off if the suggestion was pursued further, I have tried to figure out why such a likeable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, influential and all round good egg should have stirred up such deep and long-standing animosity in the British architectural profession.

Part of the answer must lie in the house which he designed for his mother in Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia in the early 1960s which, contrary to all the orthodoxies of the time, was playful, clever (possibly too clever) and based on a free, intellectually informed attitude towards the language of classicism.   It was implicitly rude to the high priests of modernism by being jocular which the high priests of modernism and their followers have absolutely hated, both then and ever since.

Next, there is Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966.   This, which is a scholarly examination of the benefits of mannerism in architecture – visual depth, historical reference, the importance of Hawksmoor – has been one of the most influential architectural monographs of all time, but I suppose is correspondingly reviled for encouraging students to think that architecture is an intellectual language, not just a case of problem-solving modernism.

Worse was to come.   Learning from Las Vegas was written jointly with, and quite obviously inspired by, Denise Scott Brown’s passionate interest in the problems posed to the architectural profession by the deep popularity of Las Vegas (although they had known one another previously, and taught courses together at the University of Pennsylvania, they fell in love in Las Vegas).   The idea that popular taste might be worth studying was, and maybe still is in some circles, taboo.

Worst of all, and most unforgiveable, was that they were offered the job of designing an extension to the National Gallery after not one, but two competitions, involving all the biggest players of the British architectural scene.   But this was hardly their fault.   They were recommended by Ada Louise Huxtable who was on the jury and Bob won over the Trustees by his knowledge of Roman architecture, his interest in Soane, and his belief that an art gallery should not just be an architectural statement, but about the display of art.

You can see where I stand on this issue.   I think Venturi and Scott Brown – slightly differently – were and are incredibly important architects, who already do, and forever will, belong to the Pantheon.


One thought on “Robert Venturi (3)

  1. If Venturi believed that ‘an art gallery should not just be an architectural statement, but about the display of art’ then good on him. It’s shocking how gallery ‘starchiteture’ has trumped the ‘content’ of the gallery. I’d challenge anyone who hasn’t been to the Guggenheim Bilbao to name one piece of work in shows. The V&A Dundee is the latest example of this – though not formally an art gallery – and the only work it show I’ve heard anyone discuss is a tartan shawl. (Among other factors, not having a permanent collection as its core attraction has saved the Royal Academy from this danger.)

    In fact, form has completely trumped function in the UK media discussion of architecture, and how buildings will (or are being) used is almost never discussed. For all her virtues the Hadid (and Schumacher) school of design has further accentuated this trend.

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