"Less is a bore." Robert Venturi famously quipped in response to Mies van der Rohe's famous, "Less is more." (Venturi had since taken back the often-quoted line, according to the Chicago Tribune.) In the second edition of Complexity and Contradiction, he wrote, “I have sometimes felt more comfortable with my critics than with those who have agreed with me."
Robert Venturi, Philadelphia-based architecture legend and inspiration to many, died on Tuesday, September 18 at the age of 93. Venturi was widely regarded as one of the initiators of the postmodernist movement, though he did not embrace postmodernism as a term. He was an important and influential figure who supported the inclusion of historic and local identity references in architecture: that the built environment could itself communicate meaning. Venturi wrote, "I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning."
He is best known for his wit and architectural works like Vanna Venturi House, Guild House, Lieb House, Western Plaza (Freedom Plaza), Seattle Art Museum, Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Medical Research Laboratories UCLA, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Episcopal Academy Chapel. The Guild House building had, “a perverse assortment of details that sets other architects’ teeth on edge,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1971. "It is meant to make the educated viewer look twice, to see why the ordinary is extraordinary.”
He authored influential written works including (the AIA Medal-winning manifesto "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" and "Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room." He co-authored "Learning from Las Vegas" and "Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time." In addition to writing, Venturi was involved with the academic side of architecture through teaching at the Yale School of Architecture.
Venturi was born and raised in Philadelphia. He studied Architecture at Princeton as an undergrad, and received his MFA degree from the university in 1950,—already as an award-winning architect. He worked under Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn before teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his future partner and wife, Denise Scott Brown.
From 1969 on, Venturi's work is inseparable from Scott Brown's and they share many accolades, including the National Medal of Arts (1992), Vincent Scully Prize (2002), SEGD Fellow Award (2003), Design Mind Award (2007) and AIA Gold Medal (2016). Venturi was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, crediting Scott Brown for her contribution. Their firm, Venturi Scott Brown Associates,an architecture and planning studio, continues their life's work in Philadelphia. Their son, James Venturi, is a founder and principal of ReThink Studio (New York).
Members of the SEGD community remember Robert Venturi:
Robert Venturi knew the value of experiential graphics way before many other architects, he used graphics in his projects as a strong component. His contribution to postmodernism is great and his architectural theories resonate to this day. He will be missed by the design community at large.
—Jan Lorenc, FSEGD | Lorenc+Yoo Design
I often think of a saying by this intriguing designer who saw creativity through depth and humor: “ Less is more, ‘‘tis said, but less also is a bore.”
—Jane Davis Doggett, FSEGD
Among all the superstar architects of the last thirty years so, Venturi seemed most to appreciate and value graphics as part of buildings and cities.
A highlight of my professional life was a visit to Venturi’s office in 2004 as part of the SEGD conference. Eight or so of us got a hands-on tour by both him and Denise Scott Brown. After the tour, on the way out to the bus there was the great Robert Venturi waiting by himself on the curb for Denise to pull the car around.
In their seminal 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi and Scott Brown upended the design world with praise for vernacular and even narrative architecture. Sometime in the early 2000s I asked him during a panel discussion if he liked the highly thematic casinos and buildings going up in Las Vegas at that time. His surprising answer, paraphrasing, was, “No. I don’t like it when it gets institutionalized.” Always the provocateur.
—Wayne Hunt, FSEGD | Hunt Design
Scan the list of SEGD Fellows and you’ll note that in 2003, Robert and Denise became the first honorees who were pure architects. This alone is testimony to the extraordinary impact they had on our profession and their commitment and support of what SEGD does. I never got to know them personally, but fondly remember a reception they graciously hosted during our annual conference held in Philadelphia in 2004. I vividly recall their offices as more a museum than an antiseptic workspace typical of architects of the times and very expressive of their views on design and graphics. Of course, their book Learning From Las Vegas, was an important treatise that focused on elements of signage and in many ways, forecast our morphosis to experiential graphic design. They understood, valued and incorporated what SEGD does as a seamless part of their practice. We are sorry to lose Robert.
—Richard Burns, FSEGD | GNU2 Consulting
Bob was a wonderful artist as well. I have his “Vegetarian Thanksgiving” painting in my kitchen and we toast it every November.
—Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD | Cloud Gehshan
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