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Learning from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown


It is hard to imagine contemporary architecture without the influence of provocative husband-and-wife architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Venturi is often attributed to the fatherhood of much abundant now Postmodernism in architecture. His very first built project, Vanna Venturi House, erected in 1964 for the architect’s mother together with his seminal book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”, and published in 1966 is a double manifesto. Its unprecedented critique of “puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture” which was blindly obeyed by several generations of architects single-handedly changed the course of the profession.

In his book Venturi argued that complex, contradictory and pluralistic society we live in should be reflected in contemporary architecture. “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture… I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience… I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple… I am for messy vitality over obvious unity… I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning… I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white and sometimes gray, to black or white.”

Finally Venturi blows away the untouchable modern dogma by one of the Modernism’s founders Mies van der Rohe “less is more” inverting it into “more is not less” and concluding quite simply: “less is a bore.” At this point architecture seems to steer itself onto a new kind of highway of creativity where any rules are there not to be followed, but to be broken. Ironically this freethinking led to a spectacle and expressionistic architecture which the couple now openly and wholeheartedly hates.

In 1972 no smaller resonance was caused by a new book – Learning from Las Vegas, coauthored by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and their colleague Steven Izenour, who died in 2001. Devoted to signs, symbols and commercial iconography in architecture the book attempted to categorize all buildings into decorated sheds (simple forms with decorated fronts, acting like advertisement billboards) and ducts (sculptural forms, directly communicating a message of the inner function).

Many of the written works by Venturi and Scott Brown would not be so influential if they were not prolific builders shaping their ideas in stone all over the world. The following projects are among the most memorable: Guild House for the elderly in Philadelphia, Seattle Art Museum, Reedy Creek Fire Station in Orlando’s Disney World, the Children Museum in Houston, Hotel du Departement de la Haute-Garonne in Toulouse, France and of course Sainsbury Wing of National Gallery in the heart of London, as well as numerous products and designs for such brands as Swid Powell, Alessi and Knoll.

In 1991 being at the peek of his career Robert Venturi was bestowed upon every architect’s dream – the Pritzker Prize. This award can be viewed as recognition of his early projects and writings long overdue. But it also seems very odd that only one of the two architects who claim to have equal share in collaboration for almost forty years would be privileged with the prize. Would it be given to Denise Scott Brown as well she could become the first ever woman in history to get it.

I met the architects over lunch in their busy office on Main Street in Manayunk, outside of Philadelphia. They just came back from China and were preparing for a visit to their favorite place – Rome.          


Vladimir Belogolovsky: You just came back from China. Are you working on any projects there?


Denise Scott Brown: We have a project in Beijing which we hope will be the beginning of something wonderful and there is a potentially very large project in Shanghai. In Beijing we are working on a campus plan for Tsinghua University.  We’ve been architects, urban planners, and teachers, and have worked on campuses for large parts of our lives. A great deal of the work we do is academic. Sometimes we start a project as campus planners and it leads to a large architectural commission. Tsinghua asked us to share this experience and explore how ideas of education can affect the physical form of their university.


Robert Venturi: The second job is a very different project – two 45-storey office buildings. It particularly thrills us because we have never done high-rises. We generally do institutional, educational, civic or government buildings. This project is very emblematic of what we are concerned with as architects right now.


VB: You don’t think there is a contradiction in inviting an architect from another part of the world to do a local project?


RV: Not in this era.


DSB: In Beijing the client specifically wanted us because of our American know-how. They wanted to hear about American cultural values about education, though it doesn’t mean they’ll accept those values. They want to broaden their view; they are looking for people who can get into their shoes and see their point of view, but who have another experience and know other points of view. This is a society that has done 5,000 years of thinking and Bob and I have each done 70 some years of thinking. There’s a lot we can share. 


RV: One reason that we like working on the project in Shanghai is the essential multiculturalism that this city represents. The coming together and the juxtaposition of eastern and western cultures has been happening in Shanghai in the last century and a half. Multiculturalism – that is, the juxtapositions of universal culture and local-ethnic cultures – is now inevitable, dynamic, enriching, and healthy. Shanghai has been and is a great example of this phenomenon.


DSB: Bob and I come from multicultural backgrounds. My grandparents came from Latvia and Lithuania and, through them, I have an under memory of Eastern Europe in my background -- along with their 19th century views of the world. But I was born and grew up in Africa. Our son recently visited Latvia and Lithuania and he says the people there look familiar. Bob’s family is Italian-American. We both lived in Italy.  We are both interested in other cultures. Bob and I speak some Italian and French. I also speak a little German and Afrikaans, and a very little of an African language. That is the cultural matrix we live in and enjoy, and it has helped to prepare us for working in other cultures.


VB: You have done a lot of traveling and experienced many different forms of architecture. Can you name one building or a project that you learned from the most and why?


RV: I have learned most from the architecture of Michelangelo. For me his Porta Pia in Rome is the most inspiring single building. I think of Michelangelo’s and also Palladio’s architecture as Mannerist. I’ve been learning and writing about Mannerism for many years. I learned a great deal from Michelangelo’s buildings in Rome and Florence and Palladio’s churches in Venice. This is an architecture that inspired me the most and that is because of the idea of the Mannerists of accepting and acknowledging convention and then diverting from it – making exceptions and creating appropriate ambiguities. These are the ideas that I explored in “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” And then of course, we apply these ideas not only to form in architecture, but also to symbolism, which we learned from Las Vegas and the American Pop culture.


DSB: Learning from one building is less interesting to me than learning from a spectrum of places. We learn different things from different cultures and cities.  Sometimes we visit a great building and we adore it, but we also find that its context is as inspiring as the building itself. The lessons we learn from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Rome and Tokyo are as intense, maybe even more intense, than those we learn from single great buildings.


RV: And we learn from the ordinary as well as from the extraordinary. 


VB: In 1965 you traveled to the U.S.S.R. to accompany an exhibition of American contemporary architecture and to lecture there. Why did you choose to go there and what was that experience like?


RV: I went because, as a young person, I wanted to learn from different cultures, from different places. I was fascinated by what I saw there – juxtapositions of huge communist architecture which was very grand, kind of classical, and of historical architecture. I loved 18th century palaces outside Leningrad and early Byzantine architecture outside Moscow. I was very stimulated by what I saw. I remember visiting one fascinating villa in Moscow. It was very well maintained, but in one part you could see the structure behind the sophisticated 18th century classical façade behind the stucco – it was made of logs. I thought that was very fascinating.      


DSB: Bob told me that, at the end of one lecture in Moscow, people started asking him about practicing architecture in America, and he said that it was easier for young Russian than for young American architects to get started in practice because they were employed by the state. He told the audience that young American architects had to struggle, and that he was lucky that his mother needed a house and asked him to design it. He added that he was teaching to support himself, was single, and was living with his mother. Someone in the audience responded: “Come to Russia, we’ll find good work for you and get you a fine Russian wife.”


RV: Yes, I was very warmly received.


VB: You both knew Louis Kahn very closely. What did you learn from him?


RV: I met Kahn in 1947, before he became well known. He is now very much in fashion and he never went out of fashion. I have mixed feelings about Lou. He was a great architect and I learned a lot from him, but he was not a godlike architect, and I’m also bitter about him. The reason I’m bitter is that he also learned from me, and other young people around him, and he never admitted that, which is very unfair.


VB: What did Louis Kahn learn from you?  


RV: He learned from me about the elements of layering; about windows as holes in walls rather than absence of walls; about breaking the order of architecture, and about the use of inflection, which is the idea that a building can inflect beyond itself toward something else. Also Kahn was influenced by my use of historical analogy as part of the analytical process of design, which derived in turn from my professors at Princeton University, Jean Labatut and Donald Drew Egbert.


DSB: In 1984 I wrote an article, “A Worm’s eye view of recent architectural history.” The worm was me. During a long life, I have seen a lot of architectural history, but I find that history is sometimes written 180 degrees wrong, by historians who were not there. I’m not an historian, but I can write the minutes of the meetings, so to speak. I witnessed many exchanges between Bob and Lou.  All of us learned from Lou -- that’s admitted. But the lessons went both ways, Lou should have attributed some of “his” ideas to Bob, and a couple to me.


RV: We are actually old enough to know some history, not only from books, but through our own experience and we know that history is not always correct.


VB: History has its footprints not only in books, but also in places such as Rome. What is it about Rome that makes it such a special place?


RV: Last year we celebrated the 55th anniversary of my first day in Rome. The first time I went to Rome was when I was 23. Rome was always a very important place to me. From before I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an architect. My father and mother were both devotees of architecture. As an American, what fascinated me then about Rome was the fact that the city was made essentially to accommodate the pedestrian, not the vehicle, and there were also the combinations of narrow streets and wide piazzas. Particularly I’m fascinated by spatially complex baroque architecture. Also there is a very special aura of Rome and its colors – yellow and orange. I have written a lot about Rome. That first trip was a very emotional (as well as rational) experience for me. 


DSB: The city defines the western canon of architecture.  Even for Modernists it is the basis of architecture. For a long time I delayed visiting Rome. People asked: “How can you study architecture and not go to Rome?” Then after graduation, I did go to Italy for six months and lived and worked briefly in Rome.  The experience in Rome helped me to prepare for what I’ve done since, and friendships I formed then have lasted till now.    


RV: I was privileged to be in Rome as a Fellow of the American Academy. I learned from Baroque Rome more than from Classical Rome and also from early Christian basilicas, adorned by iconographic surfaces. We find that iconography is very important.  We recently finished a book “Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time.” The structures we are designing in Shanghai now are essentially Mies van der Rohe-like buildings with LED ornament on the facades. These towers are very symbolic and they support the idea of architecture as sign, which is very different from the dramatic, baroque form of today’s popular high-rise buildings. Much of architecture in the 20th century was based on the aesthetics of abstract expressionism.  But there was always symbolic reference in architecture of the past – in Egyptian temples, Greek pediments, mosaics of early Christian churches, or stained glass windows in great European cathedrals. These represent narratives through which these buildings try to sell you something – Catholicism, Protestantism or whatever. In our own time, iconography can be applied to buildings whether it is signage, ornament, or electronics. For example, American commercial architecture sells products through displayed iconography. All of these things interest us and we expressed these ideas in another book that was published a few years ago, called “Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture.”


VB: In your introduction to “Complexity and Contradiction in

Architecture” you said that this book is both an attempt at architectural criticism and an apologia for your own work.  Why do you think contemporary architecture needs to be explained?


RV: You don’t have to explain anything. But if an architect cannot build because he or she is not in fashion at the moment, then at least his or her ideas can be expressed through writing.


DSB: I think the kind of architecture we do needs words to explain it.  


VB: Don’t you do architecture that’s inspired by everyday and ordinary? Ordinary means familiar, understandable, something that doesn’t require much explanation, right?


DSB: No, because if you find inspiration from the everyday environment that surrounds their lives, people think that, as “high design” architects, you must be laughing at them. So you need to explain that this is a serious attempt to get to an essence. Another reason for explaining is that people have stereotypes.  When we offer high-art interpretations of the everyday, we cross stereotypes.  People who did not expect to see a soup can in an art gallery thought Warhol was putting them down. That’s why there should be an elaboration in words.    


 VB: Is your architecture more about communication than about space?


RV: Yes, that is exactly it.


VB: Then how is architecture different from other disciplines such as art or music?


RV: I think all the visual arts are essentially saying something, employing narrative, symbolism, and representation.  


DSB.: Architecture has a role that art and music don’t have. It houses things, including people. Architecture provides both shelter and communication – a shed and decoration. When we said most buildings should be designed as decorated sheds, this was an extreme statement. But it was intended to help us get away from the notion that space is all that architecture is about. Space is just one of many components of architecture. 


VB: In your design process, who does what? Who is the idea generator? 


RV: We are both equally important in generating ideas. Denise was very influential on me in pointing out the significance of the ordinary and in introducing me to Las Vegas and Pop culture. I can say she corrupted me. But also I influenced her by introducing the notion of comparative analysis. We both critique each other and critiquing is a very important part of design.


DSB: The world doesn’t see it this way, but we have a joint creativity. People in architecture believe creativity can’t come from two minds. Therefore, in their minds, I have to be anything other than the designer -- a typist, a manager, a planner.  In reality, I’m a spectrum of things. There are artists who work together.  Some paint together: he signs one side of the painting and she the other. And in our office, although we lead, we have the creative collaboration of 35 people in our work.  


VB: When clients ask you to do a project what do you think they really want you to do for them?


DSB: Different clients want different things. Our clients in Beijing, for example, heard Bob talking about campus planning in a way that interested them. They didn’t say – “Let’s hire a famous architect and use his name to raise money.”  They felt there was a meeting of minds between us and that we had an experience and a methodology that could help them in their aim to produce a wonderful environment for the future. 


RV: There is a notion right now that in order to do great architecture the architect has to be imported from abroad. Many American museums are being redesigned by European architects and a lot of American architects are working all over the world.


DSB: Art museums, in particular, flock to hire the latest architectural “star,” who will design “signature architecture.” They want to be seen as nonconformists -- to join the crowd of nonconformists who are hiring that architect. There’s an irony here.


VB: Irony and paradox play a big role in your architecture, right? How does it enrich architecture?


RV: I don’t think you start out by saying – I want to be ironical. But if you are designing valid architecture in our complex and contradictory era, then I think it turns out as mannerist architecture. So irony can become an element of such architecture.


DSB: Mannerism breaks the rules. In architecture you can’t follow all the rules of all the systems all the time, because many are in conflict in our complex society. Following one set will require breaking another. So that’s one reason for the existence of mannerist architecture. Also, it’s good for architects try not to build climaxes where they don’t exist – that they be a little self-deprecating and ironic. The great monumental buildings are often, in some way, anti-heroic. They mix awe and human scale.    


RV: As in the Porta Pia by Michelangelo.


VB: Could you explain your “Eclectic House Series” drawing?


RV: They were just about having fun one Saturday afternoon many years ago.  They were related to the idea that architecture can involve layering, symbolism, representation, and can be decorative; that architecture can be inconsistent and contradictory; and also to the idea of just having fun, making abstractions of historical styles. This is a series of decorated sheds par excellence – one of them has been built in the state of Maine.


DSB: They were a study of multiple symbolisms. They find the essence of a particular style and apply it to a very simple structure in an almost childlike way.  At that time, we were looking at lots of modest suburban houses, particularly in Levittown. We were also reading about the 19th century English architect, Loudoun, who wrote about eclecticism. In one of his essays he showed how a very small structure could be treated in different ways stylistically. Bob’s drawing was influenced by Loudoun.    


VB: Las Vegas is probably as influential in your architecture as Rome. What did you see there that was so special to you?


RV: We were very impressed by the vitality, the fanfare, the ugliness/beauty and the signage/symbolism. We said – hey, we can learn from this. We are not only going to learn from Le Corbusier, but also from what is considered the ordinary.


DSB: We were impressed by bright signs against a very blue sky. There’s an almost Greek clarity of light and color there. It’s simple-minded to consider Las Vegas only at night. Also we thought that the city’s chaos was an order we had not yet understood. We loved this intriguing notion.


RV: Just as Rome is thrilling as a pedestrian city, the Las Vegas of then was thrilling as an automobile city. After Las Vegas we no longer see Rome as space only, but also as the city of symbols.


VB: You once said that “What beautiful about architecture is not the sculptural effects, but the signage on the form.” But according to one source your “iconic designs look overly flat and posterish, as if the exteriors of otherwise generic boxes are wrapped with fancy wallpaper a snakeskin tile pattern for the Lewis Thomas Laboratory at Princeton University or a cutout classical temple for the facade of an unbuilt concert hall in Philadelphia.” The same source continues: “At a time when architects from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas are exploring highly expressive sculptural forms, Venturi and Scott Brown's smooth-faced buildings look tight and parsimonious, as if they don't know how to loosen up.” How do you respond to this criticism?


RV: I think the critic you have quoted is not very sensitive and is duped by sensational/dramatique abstract-expressionist arty-ness that is irrelevant for our Information Age and Electronic Age. Viva art and architecture again engaging representation rather than expressionism.


DSB: Also it is important to understand that we are functionalists. A primary function of the Guggenheim Museum building in Bilbao was to produce a symbol to attract tourists and to help turn around the economy. Its function is to have magic. But that’s not the function for most buildings, most of the time. Most are houses, schools, labs and commercial buildings. Most have no good reason to bulge out in “loose” artistic ways.  Most need to make the best use possible of the space available to them and to be clad in the most practical skin. The Modernists claimed to make beauty out of just such considerations. Your “source” – and the Neomodernists – have forgotten the root motivation of Modernism.


RV: Our buildings are not constricted! I find excessively sculptural architecture more constrictive.


DSB: To me Zaha Hadid’s buildings are very personal abstract expressions that have little to do with architecture.


RV: They are bombastic sculptures!


VB: Isn’t it wonderful?


DSB: No, it is boring! These buildings are overdone and their personal expressions are inappropriate. Look at our University of Michigan Life Sciences complex and you’ll find magic there – the kind that we find in, say, early Modern Dutch architecture, (the Zonnestraal sanatorium, the Van Nelle factory) but also magic at the scale of the complex, via its meeting places and pathways, direct yet winding, modern but modeled on those of a medieval town.


VB: What do you think about Postmodernism? How do you relate to it?


RV: I think Postmodernism involves a complete misunderstanding. We have nothing to do with it. In “Complexity and Contradiction” I employed references to historical architecture for purposes of comparative analysis. But historic architecture should be analyzed not copied.  I think there is nothing wrong in employing historical reference, but there should be no ambiguity about what is historical and what is contemporary. For example, if you look at our project for the Philadelphia Performing Arts Center, its façade appears to include a classical pediment. But the pediment is a reference – a representation not a reproduction – and the lower level of the façade engages LED billboards. This is architecture as communication and it is the opposite of architecture as expressionist sculpture. 


DSB: Postmodernism was a theme not only in architecture, but also in literature, philosophy and theology. It had to do with a post-Holocaust loss of innocence, and with understanding different value systems, helping to mediate multiculturalism artistically.  With all that we are certainly in agreement; and looking at Las-Vegas was a socially-concerned act. That type of Postmodernism had a well thought through view of the relation between “is” and “ought” and as artists we agree that “ought” should evolve from “is.” But look at what architects did with that theory. They said – we can be free.  We don’t need to be socially concerned. Now the Neomodernists say they have abandoned the doctrine of functionalism. My theory is that contemporary Neomodernism is itself a form of Postmodernism.


RV: We gladly accept and acknowledge the ordinary and the culture and symbolism of everyday. Unlike many contemporary architects we don’t have to impose a superior convoluted cultural ideology and personal taste on other people.    


VB: Some critics say that Vanna Venturi’s House is the most significant house of the second half of the XX century; others say it is the first postmodern house. What do you think?


RV: I think it is the first modern house that employs symbolic references. It says I’m a house, I’m a shelter. Modernists would never do that. On the other hand I love the Villa Savoye by Corbusier and I learned a lot from it. It also employs symbolism, but industrial symbolism, within, ironically, its abstract aesthetic.


DSB: I think the Vanna Venturi House did influence what architects call Postmodernism. But architects misunderstood its direction, what it stood for. For me, it has in it, in embryo, almost everything we have done since. If you look at our later projects, such as the Sainsbury Wing in London, you can find Vanna Venturi’s House in there. So its roots are important for our own subsequent work.  And since it was built, it has served as a touchstone for the ideas of successive generations of architects. This is more important than its temporary distortion by Postmodernists. 


VB: Right now I’m working on a house with my partners on Long-Island.  At the beginning of the project the clients gave us a tour of the neighborhood and as we were passing one particular house they pointed to it and said: “That’s a wonderful house. We want you to design our house just like that.” And of course, it was a typical suburban house with a colonnaded pediment. What should I do as a contemporary architect if the client says I want a Tudor house?


RV: I think you should listen to the client and ideally accommodate the client’s wishes and also accommodate your architectural ideas. That of course can be difficult and some compromise can turn out well: but in the end your name is on the building, so to speak, and you must back out of the project if necessary.


DSB: When you are a young architect you get what we call tea-and-sympathy clients. They are close to you. They get involved in what you are doing and they help you. The architect’s mother is the best example of that type of client. But in the real world there are lots of sour surprises.


VB: A teacher wants to make people educated, a doctor wants to make people healthy, and a writer wants to share a story. What do you think does an architect want? 


RV: I think an architect should want to enrich life and a particular context and often that means being recessive. Not all buildings should scream and yell – hey look, I’m a building!  I’m here and I impose myself – my ego – on all of you!  Sometimes it is appropriate, but in general, architecture should be a background for life and living. I love Beethoven, but you can’t listen to his symphonies constantly.


DSB: Doctors have a precept – at least, do no harm. We should want that too.  Architects have to realize that they can’t make better people by giving them beautiful spaces. All the arts give pleasure. Beautiful spaces also give pleasure.  But what I love about architecture is that its problems – the project briefs or programs – challenge both my intellect and my creativity to find the right resolution, one that could last 300 years or more. Yet at the same time, I love to make the results beautiful. When we visit our buildings and see that they are used as we intended them to be – that people have discovered what we put there for them; when we see something out there in front of us which was once just an idea in our minds; and when we find it beautiful – this gives us a very deep pleasure. I don’t know which other arts can bring that marvelous combination of feelings. 


After the interview I looked at architecture yet again from a slightly different perspective. I discovered architecture which is not only about inventing new forms and space, but also about the use of known forms in new and untested ways.

Leaving the office I couldn’t help noticing an unusually bright and screaming advertisement right in the architects’ window display. Catchy electronic messages were saluting a current Philadelphia Graphic Design Fair: “We love graphic design in our projects! We welcome all graphic designers in Philadelphia! Viva architecture of information age!” Such surreal scene on a cozy city block of the suburban looking Main Street appeared awfully messy.

Main Street is almost alright” is a well known Venturi’s expression regarding similar main streets in many American provincial towns having to do more in common with stenographic decorations than a lively urban street. Such awkward presence of a chaotic showcase is one more provocation by Venturi and Scott Brown as well as their calling for yet another of their famous phrase: “Viva messy vitality!” And that is the lesson.


July, 2004, Philadelphia