The Architect Who Wanted More

The weird, unpopular, and important ideas of Robert Venturi, the most influential architect of his generation.

The Children’s Museum of Houston
Children’s Museum of Houston Photo by WhisperToMe/Wikipedia.

Robert Venturi did not like Boston City Hall. “It’s all a big symbol, though it won’t admit it,” the architect told writer Paul Goldberger in 1971 of the hated Brutalist landmark that opened in 1968. “How ridiculous —trying to make a piazza publico, like an Italian city‐state! If they really wanted to make it so monumental, they should have built a plain loft building and put a sign up top saying, ‘I Am a Monument.’ That would have been appropriate to today’s American city.”

It was not an idle proposal. Previously, perhaps joking a little, he had written that the very concept of the plaza was un-American. “Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square,” he wrote. “They should be working at the office or home with the family looking at television.” The next year Learning From Las Vegas, the book that made him as famous as an architecture theorist could be, included just such a sketch of a building and its sign, labeled “recommendation for a monument.”

It was classic Venturi: funny, irreverent, maybe a joke but maybe something he would really do. In 1992, fresh off his winning the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, his firm designed the Children’s Museum of Houston. The entrance looks like a toy Greek temple, painted blazing yellow, and for a frieze are big red letters spelling out “MUSEUM.”

Venturi, who died Tuesday at 93, might have been the most influential architect of his era. Alongside his wife and partner, the architect Denise Scott Brown, he helped lead a rebellion against the austere stylings and grandiose pretensions of midcentury American architecture. If Mies van der Rohe, doyen of the International Style, counseled “less is more,” Venturi’s riposte was “less is a bore”—or as he wrote, using the positive language of the practicing architect he was: “More is not less.”

His buildings are not widely admired. If Postmodernism is due for the Instagram-friendly rehabilitation that Brutalism has recently enjoyed, it’s unlikely that the projects he designed for Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates will lead the charge. His best-loved creations, like the house he built for his mother in suburban Philadelphia, were modest and precise. The wildest of them, for better or worse, were never built. The firm’s 1994 proposal for the Midtown Manhattan Westin included a giant pink starburst crown, like a rooster’s comb, prompting critic Witold Rybczynski to observe that “architectural jokes quickly get stale.”

Venturi’s greatest legacy is his writing. Learning From Las Vegas, a study of the Strip that Venturi and Scott Brown wrote with the architect Steven Izenour, was an ode to America’s gaudiest landscape. The book is one of the defining documents of Postmodernism, the sprawling movement that would encompass everything from Phillip Johnson’s corporate skyscrapers to Ettore Sottsass’ effervescent Memphis furniture to Ricardo Bofill’s astounding housing projects in the suburbs of Paris. It was theory, but it was lighthearted. Rigorous maps documented the locations of wedding chapels, or the words on signs that could be seen from the Strip.

Las Vegas famously laid out a dichotomy of “ducks” and “decorated sheds”: Boston City Hall, for example, was a duck—a building that was itself a symbol. A better model in most situations, Venturi thought, was a conventional structure to which symbols could be easily affixed. “I Am a Monument” was a decorated shed. Architecture, the authors argued, should be less concerned with space and structure and more with signs and symbols. Up with the “ordinary and the ugly,” down with the “heroic and the original.”

As theory goes, it was populist. Like Jane Jacobs, Venturi and Scott Brown valued the old buildings that most Americans loved—they met working to save the University of Pennsylvania’s Furness Library—and decried the arrogance of their peers who advocated razing city centers and starting fresh. Not surprisingly, they won praise in Tom Wolfe’s like-minded but sloppy anti-modernist book From Bauhaus to Our House. Wolfe, in turn, had helped lay the groundwork for Las Vegas with his Esquire essay, “Las Vegas (What?) … LAS VEGAS (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) … LAS VEGAS!!!!”

Modern architecture was intolerant, the pair believed. The study of the commercial landscape of the American highway, they wrote in the Las Vegas preface, could be “as important to architects and urbanists today as were the studies of medieval Europe and ancient Rome and Greece to earlier generations.” After Scott Brown introduced Venturi to Las Vegas, they led a class of architecture students to the Strip where they stayed in comped rooms at the Standard. The students smoked weed, and the professors flew around in Howard Hughes’ helicopter taking photographs. Students took to calling the course “the Great Proletarian Cultural Locomotive.” The second edition of the book, printed in 1977, was half the size so it could be cheaper to buy.

The same year that St. Louis detonated the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, the academy’s architectural hubris incarnate, Las Vegas questioned what architecture could really do for America. “Symbol dominates space. Architecture is not enough,” they wrote. “Architecture defines very little: The big sign and the little building is the rule of Route 66.” These days, this kind of elite fetish for Americana might feel trite; at the time, it was still iconoclastic. Venturi was for mess, compromise, hybrids, distortion, ambiguity, richness, and vitality. The Strip delivered.

For five decades, Venturi and Scott Brown put their ideas into practice. Critics, supporters, and journalists all tended to credit the theory and execution to Venturi while ignoring his wife. He issued periodic reminders that the work belonged to them both (Las Vegas was her idea, after all). Still, in 1991, the Pritzker Prize was awarded to him alone. In protest, she declined to attend the ceremony; it was not until 2004 that the Pritzker was awarded to a woman, the late Zaha Hadid. A 2013 petition (which Venturi signed, along with a number of other prizewinners) to recognize Scott Brown was rejected. In 2016, the couple was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal Award—the first ever given to a collaborative pair, and the first to a living female architect. Venturi had refused to accept it alone.

To their critics, their analysis was crass, kitschy, consumerist, apolitical, oblivious. To Venturi and Scott Brown, those people were snobs. Reading Learning From Las Vegas, Aron Vinegar and Michael Golec have suggested, requires the kind of mental dualism about America that allowed Lawrence Ferlinghetti to decry “a concrete continent spaced with bland billboards illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness” and in the same volume confess, “I have ridden superhighways and believed the billboard’s promises … I have risked enchantment.”

The images in Las Vegas now appear historic. The iconic sign welcoming visitors to Sin City is still there and all over Vegas marketing, but it’s a calculated nostalgia act now. The forest of signs lining the Strip is as outdated as the brick-painted ads and illuminated marquees and hanging restaurant names that characterize old photos of New York and Chicago. Today, Las Vegas has reverted to corporate modernism, and while the signs are no less blaring, there are fewer of them. There are, Venturi be damned, piazzas. “Why,” Alissa Walker asked in Curbed last year, “is the Strip trying so hard to be just like the boring city you left behind?”

Still, the ideas persist in a Las Vegas of the mind. New cityscapes today feel less decorated than ever, bound up by market-sensitive developers (if not by city laws). It’s a world as faceless as the one Venturi rebelled against. Billboards are now antiques. Branded skyscrapers outmoded. It’s not even clear, as navigation increasingly occurs between visitor and phone, that communication (except in an abstract sense) is any longer the architect’s responsibility.

In 1994, Venturi Scott Brown won a competition to design the new Manhattan terminal for the Staten Island Ferry. Their proposal: a barrel vault higher than Grand Central Terminal, adorned with a 10-story clock said to be the world’s biggest. “Outrageous,” said the Staten Island borough president. “To have a Disneyland clock sitting right in the middle just destroyed the ambiance of the wonderful skyline.” Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani cut the budget, VSBA dropped out, and an entirely forgetful terminal was completed some years later.

Looking back, confronting the Serious Face of the New York waterfront, it’s hard to ignore that the things people like best are the weird ones: The lighted advertisements for toothpaste and soda that have become landmarks; the lurid, colossal statue of a woman with a torch; the overbuilt stone suspension bridge. The tastemakers did take over. Perhaps Venturi’s work has something in common with Boston City Hall after all: With its columns and colors and jumbo labels, it could widen your eyes, even from a speeding car.