Robert Venturi : Denise Scott Brown : An Architectural Team to Reshape the American Landscape

<i> James Sanders is an architect. His book, "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies," will be published by Alfred Knopf. He interviewed Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their office</i>

The husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown has long been considered among the world’s most influential architects. Venturi’s first book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966), exploded a half-century of modernism’s iron grip on architecture. It described a new architecture, incorporating historical allusion, irony and a concern for context--the basis, in short, for post-modernism and many of the ideas that reshaped America’s landscape in the past two decades.

Their controversial joint work, “Learning from Las Vegas,” asked architects and planners to look to automobile-oriented “strip” environments of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and learn from them about scale, space and symbolism. Subsequent articles turned a sharp eye to the prejudices and assumptions of elitist architects and planners--to force a confrontation with reality. This uncompromising approach angered many professionals, but not even their harshest critic can deny the couple’s role in changing the course of architecture.

Yet only now is the firm’s design work fully appreciated. Here, too, their influence has been enormous--starting with Venturi’s design for his mother’s house. Its broken pedimental roofline became the emblem for a generation’s architecture, finally reaching above the Manhattan skyline, for example, in Philip Johnson’s AT&T; headquarters. But the firm was often considered too far out of the mainstream for large commissions. Appreciation of the subtlety, spatial richness and striking, sometimes difficult compositions has been a sort of secret pleasure for architects reviewing Venturi-Scott Brown designs for smaller buildings.


But this has changed, as demonstrated most dramatically with the opening last month of the long-awaited Sainsbury wing of London’s National Gallery. Their design was the beneficiary of Prince Charles’ biting comment on the earlier selection: “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an elegant and much loved friend.” That plan was dropped and Venturi-Scott Brown were chosen instead. This follows other major commissions, including the Seattle Art Museum, a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the MacDonald Laboratories at UCLA’s Medical School. In addition, the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel, was recently awarded to Venturi--although the jury ignored Scott Brown.

In conversation, Scott Brown’s piercing gaze and clipped Anglicisms--she is from South Africa--complement Venturi’s retiring pose and dry, ironic responses. His occasional deference to her incisive commentary gently masks the fact that they share an intellectual and artistic edifice of ideas, built jointly over nearly three decades. While having gone directly, as they say, “from Young Turks to old fogeys,” they have remade not only architecture, but our entire culture’s sense of its built environment.

Question: The new National Gallery wing is a focal point of the architectural debate that’s been raging in England between the classicists and the modernists. How do you see yourself fitting into Prince Charles’ program--are you in sympathy, or do you stand apart from it ?

Denise Scott Brown: We’re right in the middle, and each side thinks we’re doing the wrong thing.

Robert Venturi: It’s a building that people will love or hate, and extremists will not like it. The extremist modernist will not like it and the extremist traditionalist will not like it, because it’s in between, in many ways.

DSB: You decide whether it’s classical or not. If it is, it certainly bends the vocabulary.

RV: Our view of classicism (is) that it gets a lot of its strengths from the fact that you can break the rules. The glory of classicism is not that it’s so good that you can never break the rules, but that it is so good, so universal, that you can break the rules. That is especially characteristic of English classicism. But there is some sort of an irony that the current proponents of classicism in England are not really aware of that quality: The English genius in classicism was in taking Italian classicism and treating it in a quite mannerist way, and that’s what we’re doing.


Q: Recently Mr. Venturi won the Pritzker Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize of architecture. What were your reactions when you learned it had been given to Mr. Venturi solely, and not jointly to you both?

RV: Well, we had very mixed reactions. Of course, it is very nice to be recognized: Artists need encouragement, the way children do. Artists are like children, they’re constantly growing, so recognition, support and encouragement is very nice. At the same time, it is sad that there was not the acknowledgment that this is very much one practice--in our thinking and our work--over the 30 years we have been together. That is kind of a difficulty of perception that Denise can talk to, but that I have been aware of and witnessing for several decades, a sort of difficulty in acknowledging two people at once and maybe a woman versus a man . . . .

DSB: Let me say first that when you think of Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier, the last thing you’re interested in is whether they won a medal . . . .

The part of architecture that we give maximum prestige to is also the most unmeasurable part. And, just the way sailors put a beautiful lady on the prow of a ship and navigated over the ocean by magic until they got navigation instruments--so architects, who, even if they work very hard, may not necessarily get to be good designers, need magic to get them over these dangerous, unmeasurable waters, and they create gurus. Critics help in that process.

Between the critics and the architects, there’s a need to make male gurus. You can’t make a mom-and-pop-guru, for a great many psychological reasons--not only to deal with the fact that most architects and critics are men, because I feel that the women will do the same thing until something changes in architecture, maybe 20 years from now, when we are more acculturated--when feminism is part of the culture, not something that people are fighting against.

RV: It’s not irrelevant that architecture is among the most collaborative of the arts, so prizes should acknowledge that . . . . Usually two people don’t paint a painting. But very often two people design a building.


Q: You have shied away from calling yourself post-modernists. But the ideas you promulgated 30 years ago changed the shape of the American landscape, from shopping malls to corporate office buildings. How did it feel, in the 1980s, to watch your influence spread across the entire architectural community?

RV: You have very mixed feelings. In some ways it’s been wonderful to have been influential, and in other ways you’re sort of horrified that a lot of the manifestations of what you’ve been saying and doing are perversions--or at least not very good quality. To some extent, you say to yourself, the same old people are doing the big volume work, even though they’re using our vocabulary . . . .

DSB: They just hire our students.

Q: How do you feel about the new styles of architecture, such as “deconstructivism,” that have tried to supplant post-modernism, and about the current need to have a new style of architecture every few years--a “flavor of the month,” to keep everyone interested?

DSB: I was talking to a commercial retail developer recently and he said, “I have to give my shopping centers a face lift once every five years--not because the buildings have gotten old or grubby, but because people get bored.” . . .

I really believe that sweeping aesthetic changes tie in with social movements--and certainly we were very influenced by the civil-rights movement, and the thinking of the social planners in particular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, as we began to question modern architecture. There was a definite social change that gave people new eyes. Although this wasn’t the reasoning behind most of the post-modernists, it certainly was for us.

And maybe there’s another social change which is making deconstructivism seem something that is interesting to people . . . . They have jettisoned the whole of the modern architectural value system--which we haven’t. They say they’re not interested in functionalism, and a museum can have 14 doors--they don’t care . . . . My feeling is that Walter Gropius (head of the Bauhaus School) would probably hate them more than he hates the post-modernists.


RV: There’s enormous irony in that. All I would add is that I find myself saying recently that architecture has become frozen theory. And I think that is very dangerous. I don’t like criticizing it because I don’t want to be an old guy who is criticizing young people. I had enough of that when I was young.

You were decrying, I think rightly, the superficiality involved in the need for a new style every few years. And I think that is not right, but on the other hand, there is something right about it in a way, and that is, we feel strongly that this is not the period where there is one dominant style, one dominant ideology. In a way that is what’s most invalid now about modernism . . . .

The idea was that the industrial process was progressive, was good, and was going to take over the whole world, and there would be an enormous unity and enormous harmony that would come out of this. Now the irony today is that is just the opposite. The more there is communication among people, the more this place becomes a global village, we are finding, in political and nationalist dimensions, and also in cultural ones, everyone wants to express their own differences, and wants to acknowledge their ethnic diversity . . . .

So the point is that we have an eclectic approach--saying that every building is different, in every different place. It relates to the ethos of the place, the culture of the place, the architectural quality of the place. So we enjoy saying that there are many styles, but they should be in tandem, not one after the other as the ultimate style for everybody.

Q: Your most controversial writing, “Learning from Las Vegas,” legitimized the strip-oriented pattern of Los Angeles--which until then had always been attacked by critics as anti-urban. You pointed out it was a new kind of urban American environment that architects would do well to study. Seeing Los Angeles today, and especially the new downtown, would you amend what you wrote 20 years ago?

DSB: . . . The Penn Planning School was a big influence on our thought and they taught that the cities of the American Southwest were very important to study; that they were a new form that was emerging in relation to the automobile--and that it wasn’t necessarily a bad form. For example, that the journey to work in fact got shorter, not longer, because work decentralized, and you got sub-nuclei. So they would have interpreted Los Angeles a set of nuclei, almost like London, in a region linked by transportation routes, with the downtown being, in that case, slightly more important than the rest--not much more.


But many years ago I heard those planners predicting that downtown would get more intense as the city developed. So I have always seen it as a kind of balanced multi-nucleated city with the possibility of riding to where you are to walk. Now, I gather . . . it might be reaching another stage, where maybe some more transit facilities are needed, although gracing Los Angeles with a rail transit system may not be the way to go . . . .

When I got to UCLA, I asked Bob Venturi to come . . . to Las Vegas, because I knew it was something he would want to see. So we said that, “Las Vegas is Florence and Los Angeles is Rome.” (Our book) was really an interest in both.

RV: I think what’s happening of the sort of denser downtown is kind of a natural phenomenon, it’s usually the kind of opposite of what’s happened in these cities. But we still love Los Angeles, and what it stands for. That doesn’t mean you love every inch of it; you don’t love every inch of any city in the world, probably.”