Robert Venturi stands out among the architects in the second half of the 20th century for his rejection of what he saw as architecture’s reductive goals. He outlined his approach in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (published by MoMA in 1966), which grew out of his research at the American Academy in Rome in the 1950s and his teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s. The book has been described as a gentle manifesto for a non-straightforward architecture. History, popular culture, Mannerist complexity, and symbolic meaning achieved through signs and context became the richly layered basis of his work. The highly acclaimed house he designed for his mother, the Vanna Venturi House (1964, Philadelphia)—with its references to classical and Mannerist architecture in its monumental façade’s broken pediment and applied ornament; International Style modernism in its ribbon window for the kitchen; and 19th-century shingle-style American architecture with its pitched roof—succinctly illustrated his ideas about formal complexity and contradiction. In his influential critique of modernism, Venturi was at the forefront of postmodernism.
In the early 1960s, Venturi met Denise Scott Brown, a planner and architect who also taught at Penn. They forged a remarkable professional partnership, and in 1967, they married. Taking the rhetorical question that concluded *Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture*—“Is not Main Street almost all right?”—seriously, they expanded their interest in the everyday landscape and in popular art and culture. Teaching together at Yale University in the late 1960s, they famously led studios on subway systems, the so-called Levittown suburban developments of mass-produced ranch houses built after World War II, and Las Vegas. These interests culminated in another publication, Learning from Las Vegas (with Steven Izenour, 1972), a controversial reading of the ugly and ordinary, and of that city’s iconic commercial strip.
Venturi continued to emphasize the communicative function of architecture through signs and symbols. One of the clearest examples is his firm’s design for the Best Products catalog showroom. An instance of what the architect called a “decorated shed,” the large, boxlike building was clad in decorative panels painted with oversized, colorful flowers—a pattern derived from the commercial wallpaper in Venturi and Scott Brown’s own bedroom, but also an homage to Pop art and popular culture.
The architects continued to develop their ideas across a wide variety of projects, including furniture and product designs, houses, institutional commissions (including art museums), and urban planning programs. Venturi retired in 2012.
Introduction by Peter Reed, Senior Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, 2016
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