By Benjamin Forgey
It is hard to imagine the architecture of the past four decades without the extraordinary Philadelphia partnership of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
Thus, it is gratifying to see the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art honoring the husband-and-wife team and its associates with a full-scale retrospective exhibition. Venturi and Scott Brown are not just hometown heroes, of course. With both their buildings and their books they helped precipitate a broad rethinking of architecture's means and ends -- worldwide.
Particularly in the early years -- the 1960s and '70s -- the pair had an uncanny ability to spot and help define key architectural issues of the times. Heck, Venturi selected "Context in Architectural Composition" as the subject of his master's thesis, quoting a wise lesson from Ralph Waldo Emerson and applying it to architecture: "All are needed by each one; Nothing is fair or good alone." And Venturi was framing a debate on a still crucial issue half a century ago, when practically no one in the profession had even heard the word "context." The thesis turned out to be a pretty good beginning, indeed, to a lifelong crusade against heroic, stand-alone modern architecture and the one-size-fits-all mentality of planners and bureaucrats.
Venturi continued the attack with "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," his seminal 1966 book trolling through architectural history to celebrate, among many other things, "messy vitality over obvious unity." Together with Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Venturi followed up in 1972 with "Learning From Las Vegas," the justly acclaimed study of the architecture and iconography of the commercial Strip and urban sprawl. These polemics, and others that followed, informed the architectural work and vice versa.
Titled "Out of the Ordinary" -- a punning reference both to the exceptional quality of the work and the firm's famous love of everyday Americana -- the show contains more than 230 drawings, models, photographs and videos, along with a dozen or so pieces of furniture. It also comes with a scholarly catalogue designating Venturi and Scott Brown to be "one of the most significant partnerships in the history of art."
Such tributes did not stop the 75-year-old Venturi, in a hasty little address at the opening news conference, from comparing himself and Scott Brown, 69, to Thomas Eakins, the great 19th-century realist painter who was fired in his prime from the directorship of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In effect, he was saying: "We're not really receiving our due in our home city," -- a bit ungracious, perhaps, in the context of the first-ever major retrospective of his firm's work.
Venturidoes have grounds for complaint. The firm's fine design for a new concert hall on Broad Street for the Philadelphia Orchestra was unceremoniously dumped in the mid-1990s. As a counterpoint to the Pennsylvania Academy, also on Broad Street and designed in the 1870s by Frank Furness -- a fabulous local architect whom Venturi and Scott Brown helped to rescue from oblivion -- the building would have been the crown jewel of the firm's lifework in Philadelphia. As it happened, a major donor to the building fund didn't like the design, and the commission for the new hall (due to open in December) was awarded to Rafael Vinoly of New York.
You can see renderings of two versions of the Venturi-Scott Brown concert hall in the show, along with ample documentation of most of the important commissions -- both built and unbuilt. I must warn that there comes a point in the exhibition where many a visitor will experience an attack of symbol overload and silently say, "Enough already."
Mine came unexpectedly while I was examining a "Cabriole Leg Table" designed in the late 1970s and early '80s. Created for Knoll, the redoubtable world marketer of modernist furniture, the table is part of a whole line of Venturi-Scott Brown furnishings inspired by historical prototypes. They have long since become period pieces on their own.
Combining laminated plywood, a characteristic modernist material, with traditional references and decorative patterns -- definite modernist no-nos -- the furniture, like much of the architecture, is justly celebrated for its snappy wit and visual appeal. Nonetheless, looking at the flattened table leg, I found myself suddenly longing to see the real thing -- a genuine, elegantly rounded, 300-year-old cabriole leg -- rather than a latter-day stand-in.
Likewise, I heard myself groaning -- possibly nearby viewers heard it, too -- when confronted by the 1976-77 rendering for a mural project in downtown Scranton, Pa. To improve a beleaguered city center, the firm proposed a long row of colorful caricatures of familiar architectural images, ranging from the Pantheon to the McDonald's arches, to be pasted against a five-story building. Fortunately, this super-duper-graphic "improvement" was not actually foisted on poor Scranton.
This sort of excess, unfortunately, is an integral part of the Venturi-Scott Brown approach to design. It results from an errant combination of a knack for caricature, cleverness that sometimes turns to cutesy-pie, and an over-reliance on symbols and signs to convey architecture's messages.
In stressing symbolic communication in actual buildings and furniture designs, the team is simply practicing what it has preached (especially in "Learning From Las Vegas"), but there is no denying that the practice can spin out of control. The references get tired, or we get tired of the whole idea that there have to be references. Either way, the effect is profoundly irritating.
My advice to those who suffer from symbol surfeit in this show is to pause, breathe deeply and look again -- carefully. Ofttimes, the use of super symbols is perfectly apt. The unbuilt competition design for a U.S. pavilion at the 1992 World's Fair in Seville, Spain, is a brilliant example. It was to have a long, billboardlike facade covered with an astutely cropped image of a waving American flag. Jeez, it would have been great -- in Venturi-Scott Brown parlance, a splendiferous "decorated shed."
In other exemplary designs, symbols applied to walls or plaza surfaces are at once peppy and subtle. Many Washingtonians will be familiar with this quality. An enlarged, stone version of the central portion of Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the capital makes up the surface of Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue -- the firm's only D.C. commission.
The effect is quite magical although, unhappily, the surface was the only major portion of the design that got built. Scale-making pylons and models of the Capitol and the White House were just too daring back in the late 1970s, when the design was conceived, and were excised simply to smooth some important ruffled feathers in the bureaucracy.
There are many other examples of symbols that work on several levels. The large-scale frieze at the second-floor level of the Philadelphia concert hall design, for instance, comprises a staff with musical notes, derived from the last movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. Thus the engaging decoration refers to the most popular classical composer, symbolizes music in general and, in an even wider sense, suggests a certain urban vitality.
The closer you examine many of these designs, the more you begin to see. There is an awful lot going on. The firehouse for Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, completed in 1993, looks like a minuscule barn with a modern shed attached. But, noticing the four-wide truck bays, you realize the building actually is quite large. Everything in the design -- oversize brick patterning, bright colors, window sizes, even the pitch of the roof -- serves both to create a playful, eye-deceiving scale and to convey the symbolic impression of a genial American icon.
In Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton University, built in 1983, a heraldic stone pattern above the main door distantly references historic architecture and dramatizes the building's key position in a new campus quad. Like everything else in the design -- the brick and stone materials, the window mullions, the building's irregular shape -- the symbolism here contributes to a sense of place.
"I like elements which are hybrid rather than 'pure,' compromising rather than 'clean,' distorted rather than 'straightforward,' ambiguous rather than 'articulated,' " wrote Venturi in "Complexity and Contradiction." Outside and inside, the 1991 Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London, perhaps the firm's best-known building, is an almost phrase-by-phrase transmutation of these principles (written down a quarter-century earlier) into three-dimensional form.
In its form, materials, placement and ornamentation, the addition defers to the original building, a bulky 19th-century structure. Yet everything rather quietly asserts the presence of a new, less assured, more ambiguous attitude toward history. The Corinthian pilasters of the main facade, echoing the columns of the old, classical structure, start in a forceful cluster and become fewer as the new facade extends away from the old. Finally, they disappear altogether. There is nothing strident here -- just powerful poignancy.
Venturi is a native Philadelphian. His family, immigrants from Italy in the late 19th century, established a successful wholesale food business on South Street. Scott Brown, the child of Jewish Latvian and Lithuanian immigrants to southern Africa, came to Philadelphia in 1958 to study architecture and planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where Venturi was then teaching. She was widowed when her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, was killed in an automobile accident in 1959.
Venturi and Scott Brown began collaborating as teachers in the early 1960s, got married in 1967 and officially became architectural partners in 1969. The partnership is divided in a sensible way: Venturi is the ace designer, Scott Brown the chief urban planner and critic. Given their intellectual predispositions, it is fitting that their office is a renovated 19th-century building on Main Street in an old mill district on the city's northwestern edge.
It is an interesting time to be looking back over the Venturi-Scott Brown legacy. Modernist architecture is resurgent. The kind of history-quoting symbolism favored by the Philadelphia pair is on the wane. And yet, as this exhibition demonstrates, things are not so simple. In their own highly original ways, Venturi and Scott Brown are modern architects, too. They are Philadelphia's treasures, and also ours.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company