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Robert Venturi : Denise Scott Brown : An Architectural Team to Reshape the American Landscape

August 18, 1991|James Sanders | James Sanders is an architect. His book, "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies," will be published by Alfred Knopf. He interviewed Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their office

MANAYUNK, PENN. — The husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown has long been considered among the world's most influential architects. Venturi's first book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" (1966), exploded a half-century of modernism's iron grip on architecture. It described a new architecture, incorporating historical allusion, irony and a concern for context--the basis, in short, for post-modernism and many of the ideas that reshaped America's landscape in the past two decades.

Their controversial joint work, "Learning from Las Vegas," asked architects and planners to look to automobile-oriented "strip" environments of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and learn from them about scale, space and symbolism. Subsequent articles turned a sharp eye to the prejudices and assumptions of elitist architects and planners--to force a confrontation with reality. This uncompromising approach angered many professionals, but not even their harshest critic can deny the couple's role in changing the course of architecture.

Yet only now is the firm's design work fully appreciated. Here, too, their influence has been enormous--starting with Venturi's design for his mother's house. Its broken pedimental roofline became the emblem for a generation's architecture, finally reaching above the Manhattan skyline, for example, in Philip Johnson's AT&T headquarters. But the firm was often considered too far out of the mainstream for large commissions. Appreciation of the subtlety, spatial richness and striking, sometimes difficult compositions has been a sort of secret pleasure for architects reviewing Venturi-Scott Brown designs for smaller buildings.

But this has changed, as demonstrated most dramatically with the opening last month of the long-awaited Sainsbury wing of London's National Gallery. Their design was the beneficiary of Prince Charles' biting comment on the earlier selection: "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an elegant and much loved friend." That plan was dropped and Venturi-Scott Brown were chosen instead. This follows other major commissions, including the Seattle Art Museum, a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the MacDonald Laboratories at UCLA's Medical School. In addition, the Pritzker Prize, architecture's Nobel, was recently awarded to Venturi--although the jury ignored Scott Brown.

In conversation, Scott Brown's piercing gaze and clipped Anglicisms--she is from South Africa--complement Venturi's retiring pose and dry, ironic responses. His occasional deference to her incisive commentary gently masks the fact that they share an intellectual and artistic edifice of ideas, built jointly over nearly three decades. While having gone directly, as they say, "from Young Turks to old fogeys," they have remade not only architecture, but our entire culture's sense of its built environment.

Question: The new National Gallery wing is a focal point of the architectural debate that's been raging in England between the classicists and the modernists. How do you see yourself fitting into Prince Charles' program--are you in sympathy, or do you stand apart from it ?

Denise Scott Brown: We're right in the middle, and each side thinks we're doing the wrong thing.

Robert Venturi: It's a building that people will love or hate, and extremists will not like it. The extremist modernist will not like it and the extremist traditionalist will not like it, because it's in between, in many ways.

DSB: You decide whether it's classical or not. If it is, it certainly bends the vocabulary.

RV: Our view of classicism (is) that it gets a lot of its strengths from the fact that you can break the rules. The glory of classicism is not that it's so good that you can never break the rules, but that it is so good, so universal, that you can break the rules. That is especially characteristic of English classicism. But there is some sort of an irony that the current proponents of classicism in England are not really aware of that quality: The English genius in classicism was in taking Italian classicism and treating it in a quite mannerist way, and that's what we're doing.

Q: Recently Mr. Venturi won the Pritzker Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize of architecture. What were your reactions when you learned it had been given to Mr. Venturi solely, and not jointly to you both?

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