Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are some of the most important figures in modern architecture. They present a very different idea about the field, which foregoes flashy, overstylized expressions of the architect’s own creative endeavors in favor of a melding of the old and the new. This creates a complex, contradictory method of architecture that allows the ideas of the client and the viewer to dictate the message, not the architect shoving it in their face. In this Venturi/Brown interview, there are several quotes that sum up their particular ideas about architecture. In this paper, these quotes will be explored, as well as several books and projects they are responsible for, which are expressions of these thoughts.
Venturi says in the interview about his style, “At this time, architects should acknowledge complexity, contradiction and ambiguity.” What he means by this is an emphasis on the idiosyncratic and the formless – having a straightforward style that is unadventurous is dangerous, and people should strive to maintain a certain ambiguity regarding their work. This allows the client to impart whatever values and aesthetics they see fit upon it.
Later in the interview, regarding style, Venturi says, “Artists should leave the naming of what they do to historians.” He means to say that artists run into their own problems when attempting to actively use a style, or create something in a particular tradition. Baroque artists did not know they were baroque, and as such artists must be less self-aware. They must strive to make things according to their own tastes and the tastes of the client, and not get bogged down in labels of style.
Brown says of deliberate attempts and idiosyncrasy, “If everyone was striving to be revolutionary, you will be really revolutionary when you are ordinary.” The entire world of art is full of people attempting new and strange ideas; this leads to an overflow of wacky, nonsensical notions that all start to blend together. However, if you remain traditional and go against the grain by providing something slightly more familiar, you can make a bigger impression. It will be unlike anything anyone else is making at the moment.
Venturi’s two books, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” and “Learning from Las Vegas” (architectural symbolism) are fantastic examples of his first quote. “Complexity and Contradiction” explores architectural form, and how complicated and fascinatingly idiosyncratic architecture can be. He calls for a return to “the difficult whole,” the sense of creating a building for simplicity’s sake, and eschewing the elite modernism that plagued architecture at that time.
“Learning from Las Vegas” is a book about architectural symbolism; instead of focusing on Las Vegas strictly, it instead talks about how buildings should reflect the people who live in them, not the architect’s whims and selfish artistic expressions. Modesty is the name of the game, and listening to what the regular people who will enjoy your piece want. Making a statement for yourself is self-aggrandizing and pompous, and no one wants to hear it unless they share the same view already.
One project the pair worked on together is the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London (1991). This plays up perfectly their ideas of taking from the greats, but making sure to honor original ideas and using architectural symbolism. Here the neo-classical architecture is a clear expansion of the existing building, while some idiosyncracies and contradictions occur; the plate-glass sections in the back clash nicely with the classic façade, giving it a strange dualism that fits perfectly with their philosophies. It is not flashy, nor does it make a specific statement; it is merely what they wanted to do, done in a simple and unassuming way.
In conclusion, the work of Venturi and Brown is a rebuke of flashy, overly stylistic architecture. According to them, there should be an element of function and classicism in the work; what’s more, an artist should be honest about the work that they are doing, and just have it come from both their desires and the desires of their clients. One needs to forget belonging to a specific niche, and instead let someone else decide what that niche is for you. Taking inspiration from those who came before is good, rather than attempting to randomly forge your own style. Instead of trying to make a revolutionary point and go against the grain, one can focus on the elegance of simplicity and contradiction, and leave the message of the architecture more ambiguous.
Venturi, R., & Brown, D. S. (n.d.). American Architecture Now: Venturi and Brown, 1984. YouTube. Retrieved August 2, 2011, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4RJcNHWu7Y