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Urban Radicals Go Retro : Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown say civic buildings should be 'gutsy' but 'fit like a mitten rather than a glove.' Now, they are testing their formula on La Jolla's art museum.

August 28, 1994|Pilar Viladas | Pilar Viladas is a free-lance writer and contributing writer for Architectural Digest. and

SAN DIEGO — Standing in the bright La Jolla sun--he in a navy blazer, gray trousers, sober tie and horn-rimmed glasses, and she in a nicely cut putty-colored jacket, black skirt and good, black, low-heeled shoes--Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown appear more like an upper-middle-class couple visiting from the East than a pair of world-famous architects.

Given this conservative camouflage, you wouldn't expect the Philadelphia-based husband-and-wife team to be infamous architectural radicals, either. Their manner is kindly, unpretentious, professorial (they have taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Yale, and have lectured extensively). Their work has garnered them prestigious "mainstream" awards such as the National Medal of Arts and the American Institute of Architects' Architectural Firm Award. Venturi was awarded the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1991.

Indeed, it was a feather in the cap of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, when Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates Inc. agreed to design the expansion and renovation of the museum's flagship building on Prospect Street in La Jolla. (La Jolla-based David Raphael Singer is the project's associate architect.) The expansion, which is now scheduled for completion next year, was announced in 1987, but stalled and remained in limbo until last fall, plagued by recession-related fund-raising difficulties and community opposition.

But if Venturi and Scott Brown, by virtue of age and recognition, appear to be becoming elder statespeople of the profession, they haven't lost their edge. It has been nearly 25 years since the publication of Venturi's landmark book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," in which he dismissed three decades of increasingly soulless modern architecture with the oft-quoted dictum, "Less is a bore," and asked that architects re-examine historical architecture rather than bulldoze it. And it has been nearly as long since Venturi and the South African-raised Scott Brown denounced the strategies that had produced dreary, depopulated, modern downtowns by proclaiming that--in all its haphazard diversity--"Main Street is almost all right," in "Learning from Las Vegas" (a book they wrote with their partner Steven Izenour).

And, it has been more than 30 years since Venturi shocked his peers (and the neighborhood) by designing a house for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Pa., that subverted traditional domestic architecture (a style no self-respecting architect was doing at the time, anyway)--by taking its windows, gables and arches and breaking them up or distorting their accepted scale. But Venturi, Scott Brown continues to create buildings that are quite ordinary in their basic forms, but which bespeak their function and symbolism in surprising ways. One recent example is the emergency-services building the architects created for Disney in Orlando, Fla. Since the building houses a fire station, the architects clad part of the facade in very modern enameled metal panels--silk-screened with large-scale bricks, a reference to an earlier era of firehouse architecture, and equally big Dalmatian spots, a reference to the traditional firehouse mascot. These designers still relish the role of architectural provocateurs .

"I love the fact that (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, director) Hugh Davies is into the latest radical art, but for his building he chooses me, an old guy," quips Venturi. (Venturi, at 69, is not exactly ancient for an architect. Philip Johnson is still architecture's chief power broker at 88, and Frank Lloyd Wright died with his boots on at 91.)

But Venturi and Scott Brown are no architectural terrorists; they come not to deconstruct but to re-weave. When you combine an inclusive approach to design (his), pragmatic, humane and prodigiously informed theories of urban planning (hers), and an impressive knowledge of architectural history (theirs), you have a potent triple-threat design weapon.

Indeed, all that firepower seems a bit overwhelming when you consider that in La Jolla, it's aimed at a relatively small target: an $8.3-million reworking of the MCA's exhibition, education, art storage and retail (bookstore and cafe) facilities, with the addition of a new facade and an entrance atrium, Axline Court, that will double as a space for museum-related social events.

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