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They Build Out Loud

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Christopher Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are a dapper, steel-willed couple of architects with courtly manners and tastes more catholic than some people find seemly. These enthusiasms include, but are not limited to, Italian palazzos, Las Vegas, neon, Pennsylvania farmhouses, Shakespearean sonnets, Lionel trains, Mickey Mouse, miniskirts and the mosques of Cairo.

Hence the untidy scene this summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where a retrospective exhibition of the architects’ work is running through Sept. 8.

Organized last year by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition is a bright, loud, dense show, full of the interactions between classical architecture and pop culture that have put Venturi and Scott Brown among the world’s most provocative architectural thinkers since World War II.

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The irony in all this, Venturi said at the La Jolla museum just before the exhibition’s June 2 opening, is that “very few people understand us. They don’t understand what iconography means, and they don’t understand that we’re in the electronic era, not the industrial. A lot of people don’t respect us. And a lot of people who respect us still don’t get us.”

These are just a few contradictions that Venturi and Scott Brown, who have been personal and professional partners for 35 years, carry with them.

Although both are fond of coining aphorisms (beginning with Venturi’s “Less is a bore,” circa 1966), the two former professors consider themselves advocates for architecture that pays more attention to history and context, less to novelty.

Venturi’s name is the one that rings bells internationally--he was named alone when a Pritzker Prize jury gave him architecture’s most prestigious honor in 1991--but both say that Scott Brown, with her background in architecture and city planning, brings a heightened sense of site context and social ramifications to their work.

Although the home in Philadelphia that Venturi designed for his mother in 1964 is an icon of postmodernism among architecture students, and although Venturi and Scott Brown have had about 180 of their designs built over the years, their most widely recognized work is not a signature building, but their books. Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966) won him a name as a foe of the stripped-down, industrial-flavored minimalism of the International Style. In 1972, he and Scott Brown collaborated on “Learning From Las Vegas” with Steven Izenour (who died last year after 33 years as a principal in their firm).

And although they’ve been outspoken in their admiration of commercial design and pop culture, they get most of their commissions from museums and universities, including two prominent buildings at UCLA, the McDonald Medical Research Laboratories and the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center (completed in 1991 and 1998, respectively).

They’ve never built in Las Vegas. In fact, joked Venturi, “we probably made a mistake. We probably should have said, ‘Learning From Los Angeles.’ One of my favorite things is to drive east on Sunset Boulevard and just melt into the Sunset Strip. I am just thrilled by the Sunset Strip.”

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Venturi, who will mark his 77th birthday on June 25, was born in Philadelphia, educated at Princeton and influenced by a two-year fellowship in Rome in the mid-1950s. Scott Brown, 70, was born and reared in southern Africa and came to the United States in 1958 to study at the University of Pennsylvania. She and Venturi met as fellow faculty members there in 1960--a year after the death of Scott Brown’s first husband, architect Robert Scott Brown--and began collaborating on courses.

In 1966, having accepted a position at UCLA, Scott Brown took Venturi to Las Vegas for the first time, where the two were alternately “appalled and fascinated,” and the idea for “Learning From Las Vegas” was born. A year later they married in Santa Monica but soon returned to Philadelphia.

They continue to live there while juggling clients as far-flung as France and Japan. Even so, most commercial clients “are afraid of us,” Scott Brown said. Perhaps because they are so widely known for outspokenness and challenging conventional wisdom, she said, “it’s been very hard for us, and it took us a long, long time” to reach their current position.

“No top-tier architectural firm of our time has more first-rate unbuilt work in its archives,” the New Republic’s architecture critic, Martin Filler, wrote last year. Filler blames clients, not the architects, for the record of disappointments. But whatever the root, Filler wrote, “this makes their retrospective a rather bittersweet affair.”

There is, however, only so much gloom possible in a museum full of Venturi and Scott Brown’s designs. In their buildings, as in conversation, they like nothing more than toying with words and symbols.

“Beware the urban bumpkin,” Venturi once warned in a collection of slogans. Also: “I’ll take the vulgar over the pretentious any day.”

They once proposed placing a massive red apple in Manhattan’s Times Square (it didn’t happen) and suggested a black-and-white Dalmatian print for the walls of a fire station at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida (which did happen). And both enjoy the idea of their show running roughly parallel with the retrospective of that other habitual visual punster, Andy Warhol, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

“He acknowledges the significance of the everyday and the familiar, and makes it special by giving it a new context, by changing its scale,” Venturi said. In the end, “it’s both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time"--the same strategy of ambiguity that Venturi and Scott Brown use in their designs.

As with Warhol, some audiences look, shrug and wave off the work. Writing in Building Design magazine last year, one critic complained that all three--Venturi, Scott Brown and Warhol--had embraced superficiality as a virtue and found “a perverse authenticity in commercial junk.”

When Venturi and Scott look around among their contemporaries, they like the work of Rem Koolhaas, who, like them, first made his name with books, not buildings. Among younger up-and-comers, Venturi and Scott Brown like a London-based firm called FAT.

“They haven’t done much yet, and everything is very wry,” Venturi said.

Indeed, a visit to the FAT Web site reveals plenty of cleverness, several designs that draw on postmodernist thinking, and a complex, contradictory blurb of endorsement from none other than Robert Venturi: “Not boring,” it says, “but in a good way.”

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Even before the La Jolla exhibition’s promotional sign went up at the end of May--"Out of the Ordinary,” in 3-foot red letters, just below the roof line--the museum bore signs of Venturi and Scott Brown: They designed a 1996 renovation and expansion there, updating a building that was first designed as a residence by Irving Gill in 1916.

Venturi is quick to voice his respect for the original--he counts Gill’s design among the five most significant homes in North America, he says--but for even a casual visitor to the building, Venturi and Scott Brown’s sensibilities come bursting through soon enough. Stepping past Gill’s stately arches and columns into the atrium, a visitor is struck by light and looks to see a skylight shooting through the ceiling in the shape of a seven-point star, its edges lighted in white neon.

The exhibition, adapted for display here with the architects’ input, is crowded enough to make the La Jolla museum’s curators nervous. The space, acknowledged assistant curator Rachel Teagle, “is insanely tight, but it’s fun. One of their favorite aphorisms is ‘messy vitality,’ and that’s something we’re going for in this exhibition.”

The galleries teem with italicized slogans and bright-hued designs, including “The Architect’s Dream,” a multimedia display designed for the show that catalogs Venturi and Scott Brown’s many loves, including the palazzos, farmhouses, sonnets and toy trains. (Also on the list: Michelangelo, bungalows, Beethoven and ketchup, among other things.)

The exhibition brings together drawings, photos, models and videos in tight concentration. On some walls, images are stacked three high. The display is arranged by six themes: academic, commercial, civic, museums, housing, and decorative work, including a long row of playfully decorated chairs.

One central attraction is a model of the house Venturi built for his mother, Vanna, in 1964. In his first book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” Venturi used the home’s design to buttress his argument that architects and critics, then smitten with the International Style, were overlooking the immense possibilities within the “ordinary” vocabulary of American vernacular buildings.

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In awarding Venturi the Pritzker in 1991, the jury asserted that Venturi’s thinking, especially in that first book and house, “has resulted in changing the course of architecture in this century, allowing architects and consumers the freedom to accept inconsistencies in form and pattern, to enjoy popular taste.”

Another chunk of exhibition space goes to Venturi and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing addition to Britain’s National Gallery, completed the same year that Venturi was awarded the Pritzker. That project may look relatively sedate compared with other work from the last decade, but the National Gallery stands at the edge of Trafalgar Square, one of the most treasured public spaces in London, and the Venturi-Scott Brown design set of a storm of debate.

One critic called it “a virtuoso demonstration of space, light, volume and proportion.” Another complained that “outside it is all clever clowning, as short-lived and tiresome as a pun; inside it is confused, ugly and incompetent.”

Good art, Venturi has since philosophized, “cannot be universally liked in its time ... the issue is, do the right people hate it?”

Less publicized projects, built and unbuilt, make up most of the exhibition’s 291 items. There is, for instance, the Baghdad mosque that Venturi and Scott Brown proposed in a 1982 competition sponsored (and then abandoned) by Saddam Hussein; and the University of Michigan campus master plans they toiled over in the 1990s.

For the La Jolla incarnation of the show, Venturi and Scott Brown successfully lobbied for more photos and the inclusion of their unbuilt designs for a new Philadelphia Orchestra concert hall. On that project, which Scott Brown says is the unbuilt design that haunts her most, Venturi and Scott Brown first won the commission, and then lost it when one of the project’s principal financial backers lobbied instead for Argentine architect Rafael Vinoly. (Vinoly’s building, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, opened in December to mixed reviews.)

The unbuilt project that nags at Venturi most is in the show too. The Whitehall Ferry Terminal stands at Manhattan’s edge as a landmark for commuters from Staten Island, its facade doubled by reflection on the water. In Venturi and Scott Brown’s first design, the facade was dominated by an enormous clock face; later, it was covered with an LED signboard, intended to display information and images to commuters.

It was a chance for Venturi to erect a symbol of the electronic age, and to leave a Venturi-Scott Brown calling card on a piece of high-profile lower Manhattan real estate. But after prevailing in a competition and working on the project from 1992 to 1996, the two resigned the commission amid local officials’ opposition to their design. (The project, which went to Anderson/Schwartz Architects and was delayed by the Sept. 11 attacks, remains under construction.)

What keeps an architect working through such setbacks? With Venturi nodding along, Scott Brown offered two fresh explanations, each of them difficult to mount on a museum wall.

“As we flew into Toulouse recently, we saw our [provincial government] building there, a very, very big building,” she said. “We were at great pains to make it not look big from the ground. But from the air you can really see how big it is. When I looked down at that, I said, ‘I did that.’

“And at Michigan now, there’s an extremely large hole in the ground, several acres big. I am responsible for that hole. It’s a marvelous feeling, the notion that something has been in your head, and there you see it.”

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“Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates,” the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fridays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Ends Sept. 8. (858) 454-3541.


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