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Vanna Venturi House, Philadephia, 1959-64

Making the Common Uncommon

Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates

By Ellen S. Wilson


The Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art

November 8 through February 2, 2003


“Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates is almost alone in continuing the project of Modernism—engaging in an artistically unpreconceived way the real conditions of contemporary society, construction, and culture.


-- Robert Miller, AIA, Washington, DC

Architectural Record, May 1998


The architectural firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) introduces itself by posting this quote on the firm’s web site.  That Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are revolutionary architects, and proud of it, is clear not only from what they design and what the critics say, but from what they themselves have said and written about architecture and its place in society.  Their approach to a project includes a respect for its built environment that was rare when they first began working together in the 1960s.   As they say in the opening of their influential book Learning from Las Vegas,  “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.”


It was Venturi and Scott Brown who declared “Main Street is almost all right;” “Billboards are almost all right;” and that buildings should look like buildings. Both have found it easier than some to think in unorthodox ways, to stand aside from the prevailing influences of their time, and analyze.  “Architects,” they write, “are out of the habit of looking nonjudgmentally at the environment, because orthodox Modern architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian, and puristic; it is dissatisfied with existing conditions.  Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.”

VSBA, however, brings an appreciation for what was there, not to mention a playful exploitation of it.  When Venturi was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, the jury citation stated:  “His understanding of the urban context of architecture, complemented by his talented partner, Denise Scott Brown, with whom he has collaborated on writings and built works, has changed the course of architecture in this century, allowing architects and consumers the freedom to accept inconsistencies in form and pattern, to enjoy popular taste.”


Out of the Ordinary:  The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates, is the first retrospective of the firm’s work in architecture, urban planning, and decorative arts.  Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition contains drawings, photographs, models, and decorative arts objects, as well as replicas of some of the large-scale decorative elements that often adorn their buildings.


A Shift in Architectural Thinking


“Venturi and Scott Brown have been more influential as thinkers than as the direct inspiration for architectural form and style,” says Tracy Myers, associate curator of architecture, at Carnegie Museum of Art.  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972) were responsible for making people look beyond architect-designed buildings.  They are responsible for creating a shift in thinking about architectural style, for leading people to recognize that there is much in the everyday environment, in vernacular architecture, that is worthy of celebration.”


Scott Brown, born Denise Lakofski in 1931, spent a privileged childhood in Johannesburg.  Her mother grew up in Zambia, where she dressed as a boy and hunted in the bush, and later studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand.  Scott Brown knew from an early age that she, too, wanted to be an architect and enrolled at Witwatersrand.  In 1955, after three years of study in London, she married Robert Scott Brown, whom she had met at Witwatersrand, and the couple spent three years traveling and working in Europe, London, and South Africa.  She then applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Land and City Planning, where she studied housing, economics, statistics, and urban sociology.  Urban planning came to be one of the most important aspects of Scott Brown’s work, drawing on her natural interests, the diverse influences of her background, and her own inclination toward social science. 


Robert Scott Brown was killed in a car accident in 1959.  Denise Scott Brown completed her degree, joined the faculty at Penn, and threw herself into her work.  She met Robert Venturi, who was also teaching at Penn, at a faculty meeting in 1960, and the two found that, despite their very different backgrounds, they shared many of the same views.  They married in 1967.


Venturi’s father was a produce merchant in Philadelphia and his mother an active socialist, and both had an interest in architecture and design that they instilled in their son.  Venturi studied at Princeton for both undergraduate and graduate degrees and then traveled in Europe.  His master’s thesis stressed the importance of context in building design and became the first of his many arguments against the International Style and its insistence that buildings stand isolated from both time and place. 


A house Venturi designed for his mother in Philadelphia between 1959 and 1964 is, according to David B. Brownlee in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, “the most significant house of the second half of the twentieth century.”


Myers elaborates. “You might say that Mother’s House liberated architects from the formal dictates of both strict historicism and so-called International Style modernism.  The house alludes to or incorporates elements of both but does so with a thoughtfulness that erodes the extreme seriousness of pure stylists.  It’s almost as if Venturi was saying, ‘I know what the rules are, but I’m tweaking them to create something that simultaneously is recognizable and gives you pause.  If you think you know what a house is, look at this and think again.’”


A house the firm designed for a Pittsburgh couple similarly toys with the typical residential form.  Its humpbacked roof echoes the shape of a stone bridge on the property, while the color scheme and window framing device on the entrance façade assume the form of broad sunbursts.


An Appreciation for Whimsy


Clients were not always happy. Grand’s Restaurant (1961–1962) in Philadelphia provided another opportunity to subvert the dictates of the International Style and its emphasis on a clean, unadorned exterior.  The storefront restaurant owned by Harry and Marion Grand was labeled with large, brightly colored signboards and decorated with an oversized, three-dimensional coffee cup of blue and yellow panels that split the owners’ name in half.  It was only a short time before the Grands moved the cup up and out of their name and eventually, they substituted a plastic, internally lit sign for Venturi’s original.  The cup had done its work, however, and the firm began to be known for decorated exteriors and an appreciation of whimsy.  A replica of this cup is included in the exhibition. 


Another of the firm’s early projects, Guild House (1961–1968), a home for the elderly, was commissioned by the Friends Neighborhood Guild and came to be, as Brownlee says, “both a social product and a social symbol.”  A dark brick building with simple lines, Guild House contains apartments that are traditional in form, admit plenty of sunlight, and are easy for the inhabitants to interpret. 


The one controversial element was an aluminum sculpture on the roof that resembled a television antenna.   Venturi wrote in Complexity and Contradiction that the sculpture was “a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at T.V.,” a statement that set off a storm of criticism.


“I can understand why people found it offensive,” comments Myers, adding that a replica of the sculpture is included in the exhibition.  “But I can’t imagine that the firm intended to insult anyone.  There is a degree of irony and wit that was misunderstood at the time.”


Ducks versus Decorated Sheds


While Complexity and Contradiction ends with an appreciation of popular culture, Learning from Las Vegas begins there, stressing that the most important function of architecture is communication.  Another observation that informs their work is drawing a distinction between the duck, as Scott Brown called it, and the decorated shed. The term “duck” comes from the famous Big Duck on Long Island, in which the duck-shaped building itself signifies its purpose – selling Long Island duckling.  Another, and perhaps more glorious, example of a duck cited by the architects is Chartres Cathedral in Paris. 


A decorated shed, on the other hand, announces its purpose with external signs and symbols.  VSBA’s Fire Station Number 4 (1966–1968), in Columbus, Indiana, itself a showplace for modern architecture, is clearly a decorated shed.  Taking to heart its job of communicating, the station’s hose-drying tower, which rises from the middle of the building, provides an obvious spot for the super-sized “4” that helps to identify the structure. 


VSBA tends to design more decorated sheds than ducks.  A series of successful residential projects in their early years led to a commission at Oberlin College (1973-1977) to design an addition to the Allen Memorial Art Museum, a building designed by Cass Gilbert in 1915–1917.   As Brownlee writes, “Never before had the architects’ respect for context been put to such a test, and they reveled in it.”  The context, in this case, was not only the elegant older building, but also the rather simple Midwestern surroundings, with a gas station across the street.   The resulting addition, with its clean lines and subtly decorative brickwork pattern, fit easily into the campus.  The oversized Ionic column on one of the walkways, a playful bow to the building’s classical heritage, was, as Brownlee writes, a “spiritual brother” to the porch columns of the houses across the street.


With the success at Oberlin, the firm began to receive an impressive list of larger academic commissions, most notably several buildings at Princeton University, and cultural buildings, such as the Seattle Art Museum and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London.


VSBA’s design for the Hotel Mielmonte Nikko Kirifuri (1992–1997), in Nikko, Japan, is the firm’s largest commercial building to date.  Venturi’s preliminary proposal stressed the importance of not only the hotel and spa’s natural context, but also its “cultural ethos.” The lobby is clearly patterned after a Japanese village street, decorated with flattened images of flowers and lanterns, as well as oversized signs indicating telephones, mailboxes, and other utilitarian aspects of a hotel lobby.


As they wrote in their conclusion to Learning from Las Vegas, “Pop artists have shown the value of the old cliché used in a new context to achieve a new meaning—the soup can in the art gallery—to make the common uncommon.”  In Out of the Ordinary, we see work that takes the stuff of everyday life, the common or ordinary, and finds not only the art within it, but also the art that can arise from it.


This exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art with the support of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and administered by The University of the Arts, Philadelphia.


The programs of the Heinz Architectural Center are made possible by the generous support of the Drue Heinz Trust.  General support for the exhibition program at Carnegie Museum of Art is provided by grants from The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.




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