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Urban Radicals Go Retro : Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown say civic buildings should be ‘gutsy’ but ‘fit like a mitten rather than a glove.’ Now, they are testing their formula on La Jolla’s art museum.

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Standing in the bright La Jolla sun--he in a navy blazer, gray trousers, sober tie and horn-rimmed glasses, and she in a nicely cut putty-colored jacket, black skirt and good, black, low-heeled shoes--Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown appear more like an upper-middle-class couple visiting from the East than a pair of world-famous architects.

Given this conservative camouflage, you wouldn’t expect the Philadelphia-based husband-and-wife team to be infamous architectural radicals, either. Their manner is kindly, unpretentious, professorial (they have taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Yale, and have lectured extensively). Their work has garnered them prestigious “mainstream” awards such as the National Medal of Arts and the American Institute of Architects’ Architectural Firm Award. Venturi was awarded the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1991.

Indeed, it was a feather in the cap of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, when Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates Inc. agreed to design the expansion and renovation of the museum’s flagship building on Prospect Street in La Jolla. (La Jolla-based David Raphael Singer is the project’s associate architect.) The expansion, which is now scheduled for completion next year, was announced in 1987, but stalled and remained in limbo until last fall, plagued by recession-related fund-raising difficulties and community opposition.

But if Venturi and Scott Brown, by virtue of age and recognition, appear to be becoming elder statespeople of the profession, they haven’t lost their edge. It has been nearly 25 years since the publication of Venturi’s landmark book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” in which he dismissed three decades of increasingly soulless modern architecture with the oft-quoted dictum, “Less is a bore,” and asked that architects re-examine historical architecture rather than bulldoze it. And it has been nearly as long since Venturi and the South African-raised Scott Brown denounced the strategies that had produced dreary, depopulated, modern downtowns by proclaiming that--in all its haphazard diversity--"Main Street is almost all right,” in “Learning from Las Vegas” (a book they wrote with their partner Steven Izenour).

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And, it has been more than 30 years since Venturi shocked his peers (and the neighborhood) by designing a house for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Pa., that subverted traditional domestic architecture (a style no self-respecting architect was doing at the time, anyway)--by taking its windows, gables and arches and breaking them up or distorting their accepted scale. But Venturi, Scott Brown continues to create buildings that are quite ordinary in their basic forms, but which bespeak their function and symbolism in surprising ways. One recent example is the emergency-services building the architects created for Disney in Orlando, Fla. Since the building houses a fire station, the architects clad part of the facade in very modern enameled metal panels--silk-screened with large-scale bricks, a reference to an earlier era of firehouse architecture, and equally big Dalmatian spots, a reference to the traditional firehouse mascot. These designers still relish the role of architectural provocateurs .

“I love the fact that (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, director) Hugh Davies is into the latest radical art, but for his building he chooses me, an old guy,” quips Venturi. (Venturi, at 69, is not exactly ancient for an architect. Philip Johnson is still architecture’s chief power broker at 88, and Frank Lloyd Wright died with his boots on at 91.)

But Venturi and Scott Brown are no architectural terrorists; they come not to deconstruct but to re-weave. When you combine an inclusive approach to design (his), pragmatic, humane and prodigiously informed theories of urban planning (hers), and an impressive knowledge of architectural history (theirs), you have a potent triple-threat design weapon.

Indeed, all that firepower seems a bit overwhelming when you consider that in La Jolla, it’s aimed at a relatively small target: an $8.3-million reworking of the MCA’s exhibition, education, art storage and retail (bookstore and cafe) facilities, with the addition of a new facade and an entrance atrium, Axline Court, that will double as a space for museum-related social events.

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But good things do come in small packages, even for big-time architects, and the MCA project is a gem--or rather, a diamond in the rough--in need of an expert cutter of stones with exactly Venturi, Scott Brown’s know-how--to make it rather than break it. While the museum’s current agglomeration of modernist-influenced structures is undistinguished, its site is an architect’s dream come true. Its back side, which includes a sculpture garden, commands a sweeping view of the Pacific, while its front faces an unusual and historically important concentration of early 20th-Century buildings--the La Jolla Woman’s Club, the La Jolla Recreation Center and the Bishop’s School--all of which were designed by Irving J. Gill.

Gill, who is now considered a Southern California icon but who died in relative obscurity in 1938, is regarded as an architect’s architect for his transformation of the Mission Revival Style into elegantly austere compositions of unadorned planes and volumes that heralded the arrival of International Style modernism. Gill’s abstraction of the historic makes him a particular favorite of Venturi’s. “One good test of art is tension, and there is an ambiguity in Gill,” he notes. And in the 1960s, Scott Brown was one of the people who fought (in vain) the demolition of Gill’s 1916 Dodge house in Los Angeles. Moreover, the museum’s original home, now obscured under decades of additions and renovations, was a 1916 house that Gill designed for noted philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. It was purchased by a group of artists and civic leaders from Scripps’ estate in 1939 to house the Art Center of La Jolla, which was incorporated in 1941 and which evolved into the present-day MCA.

Venturi, Scott Brown’s design for the museum’s Prospect Street facade pays homage to Gill by using the abstracted arches, unembellished surfaces and pergolas that characterize the late architect’s work. Also incorporated into the facade will be the front of Gill’s Scripps house, which will be restored and used as a garden entrance (the museum’s main entry will be through Axline Court).

But the architecture firm was not interested in a simplistic mimicry of the museum’s historic surroundings, so the new elements of the street facade are designed at a larger scale than that of the Scripps house facade, to connect them to the contemporary urban fabric. “The arches are the exact proportion of Gill,” explains Venturi, “but bigger. It’s not 1915 La Jolla; it’s 1995 La Jolla.” (Fortunately, notes Scott Brown, the museum’s downtown San Diego building, which opened last year, precluded the need to expand the La Jolla building to a point that would destroy its intimate scale.)

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While the La Jolla project presented the firm with a jewel-box context, it has had plenty of experience with museums in far more challenging settings. Indeed, while waiting for the La Jolla project to revive, Venturi, Scott Brown completed a new downtown home for the Seattle Art Museum as well as the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery, a controversial design (replacing in turn one that inspired Prince Charles’ famous “carbuncle” remark) that ultimately opened to critical acclaim.

And while both those museums were larger and situated in grittier urban settings, their connection to the sunny, affluent backdrop of La Jolla’s museum is not so far-fetched. “The issues they face are similar,” Scott Brown points out. “There is the outreach to more people, the widening scope of a museum to involve education and public-private partnerships.” Furthermore, civic buildings--the nature of which she discusses at length in her 1990 book “Urban Concepts"--have to be what Scott Brown calls “tough and gutsy,” but they also have to work for diverse users. “They should fit like a mitten rather than a glove, so many hands can fit into them,” she argues.

The mitten theory extends to the design of exhibition spaces too. At the National Gallery, Venturi, Scott Brown created suitably traditional galleries for the display of a collection of early Renaissance paintings. Here, the firm has designed relatively neutral spaces befitting contemporary art--or, as Venturi puts it, “The galleries are appropriately recessive places to show art. A lot of museum architecture in the ‘80s was too ‘whammo.’ The art--by the time you got to it--was an anticlimax.”

The only part of the La Jolla design that qualifies in Venturi’s book as “whammo” (a word that takes on new richness when uttered in Venturi’s clipped manner, with a slight but unmistakable Philadelphia accent) is the lantern--a sort of extruded skylight--that crowns Axline Court. It was redesigned last fall from its original elliptical shape to that of an irregular seven-pointed star.

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It is, says the architect, the scheme’s one “bit of fanfare.” Even then, it is meant to be a surprise; you don’t see it full-on until you’re in the court, which will also have a patterned terrazzo floor that is as eye-catching as the lantern above it. Ultimately, it is the one flamboyant gesture in a design that Venturi calls “generic architecture that gets its quality not from being ‘whammo’ originally but from being careful in detail and proportion.”

This notion of generic architec ture--which by nature you can’t really categorize stylistically--is a thread that has run through the architects’ entire body of work, but it seems more on Venturi’s mind than ever these days. Even though he is considered the theoretical godfather of Postmodernism, which revived architects’ interest in historical styles, Venturi pooh-poohs the movement, with its dependence on a Classical tradition, as irrelevant to modern life. Neither does he approve of the neo-Modernist style, with its pristine, elegant forms and highly crafted steel structures, that is now fashionable among younger architects; it continues “to depict the image of an old engineering technology,” that has long been obsolete, he recently wrote in Architecture magazine.

So what’s so great about generic architecture? For one thing, explains Venturi, it has been great for thousands of years. Plain buildings have been made expressive of their use and their symbolic value to their communities through the ornament and information that was applied to them, rather than through the willful creation of new forms. As examples, Venturi cites Egyptian temples, with their hieroglyphic reliefs, or Early Christian basilicas, which were basically just long sheds of buildings, the walls of which were adorned with mosaics. As he explains in his Architecture article, “These images are signs--explicit sources of information virtually independent of the planar forms and sheltering surfaces of the generic architecture they are applied to. . . . “

Venturi has been singing the praises of these “decorated sheds” for years, but now, in our high-tech-information age, they seem more engaging to him than ever. The hieroglyphics and mosaics of the past have been replaced by giant video screens and Gargantuan electronic billboards, where, as Venturi explains in his Architecture article, “Images can change over time, information can be infinitely varied rather than dogmatically universal, and communication can accommodate diversities of cultures and vocabularies, vulgar and tasteful, Pop and highfalutin. . . . Electronic sparkle can parallel the glitter of mosaics.”

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The ability to effect this major change in architecture won’t come, Venturi continues, from the profession’s academically oriented avant-garde, but from young people “who are attuned to computer techniques of our time, and who can exploit the substance of a real electronic technology, rather than continue to depict the image of an old engineering technology. . . .” Here Venturi speaks not only from observation but from parental pride as well. His and Scott Brown’s son, Jim Venturi, is a 23-year-old computer whiz who makes a living in New York designing, among other things, computer systems for architects.

Venturi, Scott Brown are using such technologies right now in their major renovation of New York City’s Whitehall Ferry Terminal, the front of which will have a gigantic clock, and the interiors of which will incorporate large-scale electronic signs.

Given Venturi’s interest in “electronic sparkle,” why didn’t he use it in La Jolla? Not appropriate, replies the architect. “We couldn’t do the electronic thing there. We’re in a very sacred kind of place,” he explains, referring to what he calls the museum’s “Gill precinct.” “You can’t always practice what you preach,” he continues. “Your buildings should not be a justification of your theories. Jean Labatut, who was trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and who was my teacher at Princeton, referred to ‘creative forgetfulness.’ When you design, you have to forget everything you know and focus on the immediate.”

Ironically, it is precisely this absence of dogma that has worked against making Venturi and Scott Brown quite as famous as some of their colleagues. They have, after all, no AT&T; Building to their credit like Philip Johnson (although Venturi would dearly love to design a skyscraper), no seat on the Disney board like Robert A. M. Stern (“We get to design their little buildings,” deadpans Venturi), no magazine ads for kitchen appliances featuring their faces like Michael Graves (although Venturi has created well-known furniture and tableware designs).

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It isn’t really that Venturi, Scott Brown lacks an identifiable style; its “generic” buildings with historical and pop-culture references are pretty easy to pick out. But what they aren’t is splashy; if anything, they’re a little too subtle. Neither are they “easy.” Sometimes, the firm’s distortions of scale seem awkward, making buildings appear almost frumpy (like the schoolmarm you know would be a dish if only she’d take off her glasses and let down her hair), and its cultural references can be disquietingly ironic.

But the architects can’t be faulted--nor are they willing to be--for creating buildings that aren’t “architecture lite.” “You’re building a background for life, not a stage set for actors,” insists Venturi.

“Some clients are afraid of us,” says Scott Brown. “They want architects like themselves. One told us, ‘We want a vanilla building.’ But we’re not good at second-guessing, at giving a bad building to get a good one.”

And they don’t care--as well elder statespeople shouldn’t--that they’re not easy to pigeonhole. “Are we avant-garde?” asks Scott Brown rhetorically. “Are we rear-guard? It doesn’t matter. We’re cooking with gas."*

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