The first edition of Venturi's explosive little book, written in the period 1962–64, appeared in a new series called Papers on Modern Architecture published under the imprimatur of the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. It was preceded by a lengthy excerpt in Yale's journal of architecture, Perspecta, the year before.1 In an introduction written for the MoMA book, Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully hailed it as the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture, “one of the few basic texts of our time—one which, despite its antiheroic lack of pretension and its shift of perspective from the Champs-Élysées to Main Street, still picks up a fundamental dialogue begun in the twenties, and so connects us with the heroic generation of modern architecture once more” (16).2
Most of the initial reviewers confirmed Scully's opinion of the book's import, although they voiced reservations about Venturi's methodology, above all his neglect of questions of function and technology and his skirting of social issues. For some, precisely these omissions, along with the author's explicitly subjective point of view (“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture”), were what made his “gentle manifesto” so radical.
Peter Blake, whose image of Main Street Venturi had appropriated from his own book God's Own Junkyard of two years earlier to make the opposite point, deemed Complexity and Contradiction less original. Writing in Architectural Forum, he allowed that “The history of art is bound to be retold in every generation,” but he found Venturi's notion of complexity superficial and his formal contradictions to be contrived: “‘accidentalism’ has been raised to a discipline.’”3
Among other early responses, Colin Rowe, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review together with Reyner Banham's The New Brutalism: Ethic …
Postmodernism: A discussion of two definitive texts
ROBERT VENTURI: COMPLEXITY AND CONTRADICTION IN ARCHITECTURE
That we should think of Venturi's book as some kind of free-spirit is a misleading assumption. Certainly, as a critique of modernist architecture it is both useful and timely, but unfortunately we have seen it all too easily and eagerly adopted as a kind of bible of postmodern architecture. The accompanying industry of postmodern promotion which surrounded its rise throughout the seventies and eighties is curiously reminiscent of the hasty assimilation of Bauhaus ideas into a modernist mainstream only half a century earlier. Again, like modernism, postmodern theory has rapidly spread around the world, and the lines between mere commentary and the active construction of manifestos has become blurred. Beset with problems, hypocrisy, and weak construction, any assumption made about postmodernism and its confused efforts to theorise and historicise the present are ultimately shackled with those same unhelpful and ill-defined parameters. Though the efforts of Venturi have contributed in their own small way to the creation of a `post-modern' world (in its literal sense, i.e., `after' modernism), this effort can really only be effectively viewed on its own terms, with the writings and buildings themselves, as ideas and buildings in their own right, rather than as postmodern ideas and postmodern buildings.
For all the theoretical radicalism (radical, that is, in its pointed oppposition to modernist theory) implied in the titles of Venturi's books - Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture , and Learning From Las Vegas (co-authored by Steve Izenour, Denise Scott Brown and a team of Yale architecture students); there is a rupture between this direction of thought (often very extreme) and his architecture. At first glance, much of Venturi's early work looks at least like a continuation of the modernist tradition. Look again, and one can identify a kind of mannerist modernism, but the gestures are at best token and tentative on essentially modern forms. Venturi is incapable of replicating a Las Vegas approach to architecture, because his attitude is so self-conscious. Venturi's efforts to study and theorise popular culture reveal it to be an incredibly resistant construct to such efforts - popular culture is everything that an academic approach is not: irreverent, unconscious, unthinking, irrational, inexplicable, and completely without the desire or much less the capacity to justify its behaviour or motivations. Though postmodernism in all its guises has sought to break down the gap between notions of high and low culture, for the most part it would appear that any perceived success in such an endeavour is either only illusory or it is simply too early to tell. Certainly many of us are still wary. The move by Venturi and his colleagues from Complexity and Contradiction to Las Vegas is a brave one, yet it flirts on the boundary of futility. The architectural results (Venturi and his partnership's buildings) to the thought experiments of his books reinforce, rather than repair, the kind of gap Venturi sought to bridge between his radical enthusiasm for Las Vegas grotesque and his pure Louis Kahn-ian training and the year he spent at the American Academy in Rome.
The evidence of Venturi's architecture seems to suggest that he took modernism seriously enough to want it to continue in a tradition, but one which demoted its heroic aspect and dictatorial grasp on tastemaking to a more democratic level. The nature of his polemical ideology (in the case of Learning from Las Vegas, the writers' tone is as close to intellectual glorification as one could get), where he seems to turn the paradox into an ideology in itself, opens a field of vision hitherto unseen in the history of architecture. In a 1991 interview with Charles Jencks, discussing his solution to the Sainsbury Wing addition to Wilkins' National Gallery of London, however, Venturi expresses regret at the current free-for-all attitude of contemporary architecture: `I think we are at a stage where eclecticism and pluralism are appropriate, but what annoys me now is the Deconstructive architecture that is all dissonance. When everything is dissonant, there is no dissonance. You need a norm to vary as well as a functional basis for contradiction' (Venturi; Vaughn and Jencks, `National Gallery - Sainsbury Wing: An Interview' Architectural Design, No. 91, 1991, London). The warnings for this potential trap were not articulated in either Complexity and Contradiction or Learning from Las Vegas. Instead, Venturi seems to clamour for everything but the norm.
`By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I aim for vitality as well as validity ... I like elements which are hybrid rather than `pure', compromising rather than `clean', distorted rather than `straightforward', ambiguous rather than `articulated', perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as `interesting', conventional rather than `designed', accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.'
(Complexity and Contradiction, p.16)
Though the norm which Venturi is contemporaneously arguing against here is that of modernist architecture, it is not difficult to see how impressionable architects could have converted Venturi's anarchistic language into architectural messes. A recent article by Venturi and Scott Brown seeks to redefine Complexity and Contradiction's impact on architecture of the last twenty years. `Although some of the theory we refer to [mainly deconstruction], and the architecture it refers to, parallels that of Complexity and Contradiction, it ignores the warning in the `Gentle Manifesto' that introduces the book, the warning against `the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture' (Venturi, Scott Brown, `Architecture as Elemental Shelter, the City as Valid Decon' Architectural Design, No.94, 1991, London).
What was not fully articulated by Venturi in his early work was the intended scale of his brand of popular complexity. Deconstruction is cities, not for individual buildings, as cities are built in a naturally dissonant manner; far removed from the fundamental requirements of a building to perform a particular set of functions. For a contemporary architect to etch out his own personal feelings of self doubt in a building whose premiss is one of eternalism reads as something of an anachronism. Though readings of monumentality have changed, one cannot deny the fact of monumentality's existence, to whatever great or small degree, in any built object which alters a landscape (or, in other words, architecture). So whilst an architect may accept and admire the principles of complexity and contradiction, ultimately, the single built work must be strong in its conception and execution, an active part of the altered visual landscape; healthily contributing, as extant fact, for further urban change in the future.
Venturi's argument in Complexity and Contradiction is constructed around a selection of examples from both modernist and pre-modernist architecture; in particular Venturi acknowledges and reveals a penchant for tendencies leaning towards Mannerism, the Baroque and Rococco. These examples are then moulded into Venturi's argument, and implicit in this process is criticism, evaluation and judgement. However, the very nature of criticism means that something is up for grabs. Though Venturi claims he is willing to admit good and bad; ultimately we are left thinking that if the buildings or architectural details are shown by Venturi's writing to be supporting his argument then they are `good', and others which do not are `bad.' There is an anxiousness in Venturi's determination to both obtain evidence for and prove the worthiness of complexity and contradiction in architecture. This anxiousness undermines the assessment of the buildings he discusses, despite his considerable grasp and understanding of architectural history and nous for observing the subtle details. Much of the analysis is tight, concise and informative; problems surface when Venturi fits this analysis into his theoretical project and the tone of self-justification borders on the overwhelming.
The book is arranged as a succession of chapters devoted to the development of Venturi's theme. At times, it becomes difficult to distinguish between chapters; the message is not so much developed as it is repeated. From chapter 1, `Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto', Venturi proceeds to address the following issues, the difference between them measured only by degrees - `Complexity and Contradiction vs. Simplification or Picturesqueness', `Ambiguity', `Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of "Both-and" in Architecture', `Contradictory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element', `Accommodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element', `Contradiction Adapted', `Contradiction Juxtaposed', `The Inside and the Outside', and `The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole'.
Jencks, in `Post Modernism and Discontinuity' further discusses the impact of Complexity and Contradiction, arguing that contradiction has since become a conscious tactic.
`What finally killed it [the `aesthetic fascism' of late modernism] was not postmodern protest, but success and the enormous attendant boredom of this success. Anything was better than this ennui and one can see why Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction was quickly welcomed as a stimulant. Not only was it visually dramatic, it could also handle urban reality in a satisfactory way, accepting the discords and discontinuities of use and taste. ... And yet there was obviously one major problem, which philosophers pointed out: from a contradictory proposition, anything can be deduced. When one starts and ends in contradiction, there is little at stake and no chance for a coherent architectural language. This problem perhaps explains why Venturi ends his 1966 polemic with the chapter called `The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole' [Jencks' italics]: unity must be continually sought amidst the plural languages to give them sense.'
(Jencks, C. `Post-Modernism and Discontinuity', p.5. in AD Profile 65 Architectural Design, Vol.57 1/2, 1987).
Following on from the `Gentle Manifesto' issued at the beginning, Venturi engages in a battle with modernism. More specifically, he attacks the brand of modernism practised by Mies van der Rohe, who becomes an arch enemy of complexity and contradiction throughout the book. The debate is set up as `Complexity and Contradiction vs. Simplification or Picturesqueness.' Venturi's critique of Mies, initially helped here by Paul Rudolph, is a thoughtful exposé of the high priest of modernism.
`Paul Rudolph has clearly stated the implications of Mies' point of view: "All problems can never be solved. ... Indeed it is a characteristic of the twentieth century that architects are highly selective in determining which problems they want to solve. Mies, for instance, makes wonderful buildings, only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent." `
(Rudolph, P. in Venturi, R., Complexity and Contradiction, op.cit., pp.16-17).
Venturi's response to Rudolph's lead is more condemning: `He [the architect] can exclude important considerations only at the risk of separating architecture from the experience of life and needs of society. If some problems prove insoluble, he can express this: in an inclusive rather than exclusive kind of architecture there is room for fragment, for contradiction, for improvisation, and for the tensions these produce' (Venturi, R., Complexity and Contradiction, op.cit., p.17).
From here, Venturi moves on to discuss the merits of ambiguity in architecture, arguing that architecture naturally revolves around a set of oscillating relationships of form and substance, abstract and concrete. These relationships, `complex and contradictory, are the source of the ambiguity and tension characteristic to the medium of architecture' (ibid., p.20). Developing further the debate with modernist architecture, Venturi invents the term "both-and" - `The tradition "either-or" has characterised orthodox modern architecture: a sunscreen is probably nothing else, a support is seldom an enclosure; a wall is not violated by window penetrations but is totally interrupted by glass etc. - such manifestations of articulation and clarity are foreign to an architecture of complexity and contradiction which tends to include "both-and" rather than exclude "either-or" ` (ibid., p.23). Venturi further describes what he means by "both-and". `If the source of the both-and phenomenon is contradiction, its basis is heirachy, which yields several levels of meanings among elements that are both good and awkward, big and little, closed and open, continuous and articulated, round and square, structural and spatial. An architecture which includes varying levels of meaning breeds ambiguity and tension' (ibid., p.23).
Venturi's discussion of Contradictory levels continues with his explanation of the `Double-Functioning Element', which distinguishes itself from `both-and' by relating to use, structure and function rather than specifically to meaning. Again, the basis for Venturi's argument lies in a critique of the modernist approach. `Besides specialising forms in relation to materials and structure, Modern architecture separates and articulates elements. Modern architecture is never implicit. ... The versatile element which does several things at once is rare in modern architecture' (ibid., p.35).
So far Venturi's argument has remained limited to the nature of the form and content of architecture in itself. In `Accommodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element' he emphasises the `complexity and contradiction that develops from the program [of the building] and reflects the inherent complexities and contradictions of living' (ibid., p.41). Essentially, what Venturi stresses is that lives are lived by adaptation to `convention' rather than submission to `standardisation'. Convention, it is argued, allows for complexity and contradiction. Venturi cites Ackerman's study of Michelangelo's architecture as `rarely adopting a motif without giving it new form or a new meaning, yet he invariably retained essential features from ancient models in order to force the observer to recollect the source while enjoying the innovations' (Ackerman, J., cited by Venturi, R., in ibid., p.44). Updating the example somewhat, Venturi argues that, `Pop art has demonstrated that these commonplace elements are often the main source of the occasional variety and vitality of our cities' (ibid., p.44).
In chapter 7, `Contradiction Adapted', Venturi acknowledges the dangers of senseless adaptation of contradiction merely for the sake of itself. His summation is somewhat pessimistic. `It seems our fate now to be faced with either the endless inconsistencies of roadtown, which is chaos, or the infinite consistency of Levittown, which is boredom. In roadtown, we have a false complexity; in Levittown, a false simplicity. One thing is clear - from such false consistency real cities will never grow. Cities, like architecture, are complex and contradictory' (ibid., p.54). One wonders, however, whether Venturi felt the Las Vegas which he so enthusiastically studied to have indulged in the kind of false complexity he warns against here. Hidden somewhere in the divide between roadtown and Levittown lies Venturi's real aim for architecture, and one suspects - though one can never be sure - that it lies somewhat closer to what Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto were doing than what was happening in Las Vegas.
Frequently throughout Complexity and Contradiction, Venturi quotes Louis Kahn. In a sense, this obvious debt to Kahn may well provide us with some clue to Venturi's intention. Kahn is considered a transitional figure between modernism and postmodernism by some, but like the work of Aalto, Kahn's buildings are perhaps better understood as exceptional variations from an indeterminate modernist norm. That the work of Kahn, Aalto, and Le Corbusier (the three modernist architects to whom Venturi frequently and favourably refers) is inexorably tied to a modernist program suggests that Venturi wanted much the same from his book. Though modernism is the target of much of Venturi's criticism, it is a criticism levelled within the discourse, accompanied by an implicit acceptance and genuine love of much of what modernism has to offer (i.e. Kahn, Aalto and Le Corbusier) and its further potential. However, for what ever reason, Venturi, to the excitement of a lot of second-rate postmodern practitioners and theorists, had already let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. The sense that Venturi was really striving for a continuation of the modern tradition, but in a more permissive and less doctinaire manner is mostly underdone in Complexity and Contradiction, and is unfortunately completely absent from the over-indulgences of Learning From Las Vegas. Mies therefore becomes not necessarily an evil, but a starting point from which form and content can then fracture. Venturi notes that `Le Corbusier today is a master of the eventful exception [as] a technique of accommodation' (ibid., p.48), and that [contrasting with Mies' and Johnson's Seagram Building] `in many works of Le Corbusier and Aalto, ... a balance, or perhaps a tension, is acheived between the rectilinearity of standard techniques, and the diagonal which expresses exceptional conditions' (ibid., p.50).
In chapter 8, Venturi issues a call for `Contradiction Juxtaposed', or what he describes and demonstrates through the use of various examples as `superadjacencies.'
`Superadjacency is inclusive rather than exclusive. It can relate contrasting and otherwise irreconcilable elements; it can contain opposites within a whole; it can accommodate the valid non-sequitur; and it can allow a multiplicity of levels of meaning, since it involves changing contexts - seeing familiar things in an unfamiliar way and from unexpected points of view.'
In modern architecture, Venturi feels that superadjacency is rare, mostly unintentional, and almost always unwanted, despite its above mentioned `merits'. By way of further explaining what he means by superadjacency, Venturi notes that, `a vivid tension evolves from all these juxtaposed contradictions [illustrated by Venturi's various examples]. Sometimes close changes of scale are encountered in our cities, but these usually occur more through accidents than by design, like the vestigial Trinity Church on Wall Street, or some juxtapositions of expressways and existing buildings, which are perversions of the hyperproximities of little houses and grand cathedrals or city walls in medieval cities' (ibid., p.68).
In chapter 9, Venturi argues that modern architecture broke down the division between the inside and the outside of architecture. `Perhaps the boldest contribution of orthodox Modern architecture was its so-called flowing space, which was used to achieve the continuity of inside and outside. ... Its emphasis on the oneness of interior and exterior space was permitted by new mechanical equipment which for the first time made the inside thermally independent of the outside' (ibid., p.70). Venturi argues for a re-evaluation of the negation of the inside/outside dynamic, suggesting that it becomes a site of tension. Taking a lead from Kahn - `A buiding is a harbouring thing.' Venturi begins with the assumption that `the essential purpose of buildings is to enclose rather than direct space, and to separate the inside from the outside' (ibid., p.70). Further -
`Designing from the outside in, as well as the inside out, creates necessary tensions, which help make architecture. Since the inside is different from the outside, the wall - the point of change - becomes an architectural event. Architecture occurs at the meeting of interior and exterior forces of use and space. These interior and environmental forces are both general and particular, generic and circumstantial. Architecture as the wall between inside and outside becomes the spatial record of this resolution and its drama. And by recognising the difference between the inside and the outside, architecture opens the door once again to an urbanistic point of view.'
Chapter 10 discusses `The Obligation Toward the Difficulat Whole', which, as we have seen from Jencks' assessment is a crucial part of Venturi's total conception, though it is unfortunately under-emphasised elsewhere in the book. Here, in the final chapter, Venturi stresses that, `an architecture that can simultaneously recognise contradictory levels should be able to admit the paradox of the whole fragment: the building which is a whole at one level and a fragment of a greater whole at another level' (ibid., p.104).
Ultimately, the sense one gains from a reading of Complexity and Contradiction is one of confusion. As an instructive text, particularly for a generation of purely modernist trained architects the message of Venturi must have come as somewhat of a shock. It is perhaps no wonder that some of the more desperate attempts to fit into a postmodern schema, having taken a lead from Venturi's book, to have been so disastrously inadequate and at times laughably bound up in an excess of pastiche. Venturi has perhaps emphasised the idea of complexity and contradiction a little too much, and maybe even too consistently. For as Venturi readily admits, complexity and contradiction are almost a natural and due processes of urban planning anyway. Rome was not built in day, nor by one person, and neither is any other city - complexity and contradiction is bound to occur. Though Mies' and Johnson's Seagram Building is considered the arch enemy of Venturi's program, it could be argued that even it too participates in the construction of an ideal of complexity and contradiction. It, after all, rises in New York, a structure of simplicity and restraint, contradicting, and lending complexity to a skyline composed of the art-deco and neo-gothic experiments of the Chysler Building and the Empire State Building et.al.. The open plaza in front of the Seagram Building breaks up the endless, canyon-like facade of the New York streetscape, further contradicting its surroundings. To an extent, as much as Complexity and Contradiction is based on a critique of modernism, its usefulness as such is undermined when the target itself can be used to great effect in supporting Venturi's argument. A look at Venturi and his partnership's buildings suggests that he is equally unsure whether the stance taken in relation to modernism is critical, accepting, or possibly more accurately, a mixture of the two.
In the North Penn Visiting Nurses Association Headquarters Building of 1960,
|Venturi and Short|
|North Penn Visiting Nurses Association HQ|
View of entrance
The pattern established by the Headquarters Building of retaining a kind of modernist base with an attached symbolism is essentially what Venturi's architecture more or less engages in. The success of such projects is variable, but it is when Venturi exerts a controlling hand and suppresses the symbolism so that it does become ambiguous that the buildings work more effectively. In other words, `The Venturi Effect', as described by Robert Maxwell is perhaps better left under-emphasised.
`His architecture too evinces a degree of playfulness and an enjoyment of deliberate effect - in short, a theatricality - which has made him appear vulnerable. His joyful embrace of polemic, and his willingness to offer his own designs as illustrations of his theories, have together had the inevitable effect of raising the standard of the criticism which is subsequently turned on his built works; and if these works are idiosyncratic, as many of his houses for private clients must be said to be , or if they run very close to the Disneyesque, as do his schemes for expressways, parks and city regions, it may be all too possible to dismiss them as shallow, wilful and transitory, if not downright commercial. In any case, not relevant to the main problems on hand, that is, the central discipline of architecture considered as a serious social service.'
(Maxwell, R., `The Venturi Effect' in Architectural Monographs 1: Venturi and Rauch, Academy Editions, London, 1978)
`Contemplation and congregation in the popular urban art museum: two projects by Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown' Lotus International, no.55, p.84-117, 1987.
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[The Burlington Magazine]
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