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They Build Out Loud

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and their bright, busy architecture are the subjects of a crowded retrospective in San Diego. Messy vitality, that's their style.

June 16, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

LA JOLLA — Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are a dapper, steel-willed couple of architects with courtly manners and tastes more catholic than some people find seemly. These enthusiasms include, but are not limited to, Italian palazzos, Las Vegas, neon, Pennsylvania farmhouses, Shakespearean sonnets, Lionel trains, Mickey Mouse, miniskirts and the mosques of Cairo.

Hence the untidy scene this summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where a retrospective exhibition of the architects' work is running through Sept. 8.

Organized last year by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition is a bright, loud, dense show, full of the interactions between classical architecture and pop culture that have put Venturi and Scott Brown among the world's most provocative architectural thinkers since World War II.

The irony in all this, Venturi said at the La Jolla museum just before the exhibition's June 2 opening, is that "very few people understand us. They don't understand what iconography means, and they don't understand that we're in the electronic era, not the industrial. A lot of people don't respect us. And a lot of people who respect us still don't get us."

These are just a few contradictions that Venturi and Scott Brown, who have been personal and professional partners for 35 years, carry with them.

Although both are fond of coining aphorisms (beginning with Venturi's "Less is a bore," circa 1966), the two former professors consider themselves advocates for architecture that pays more attention to history and context, less to novelty.

Venturi's name is the one that rings bells internationally--he was named alone when a Pritzker Prize jury gave him architecture's most prestigious honor in 1991--but both say that Scott Brown, with her background in architecture and city planning, brings a heightened sense of site context and social ramifications to their work.

Although the home in Philadelphia that Venturi designed for his mother in 1964 is an icon of postmodernism among architecture students, and although Venturi and Scott Brown have had about 180 of their designs built over the years, their most widely recognized work is not a signature building, but their books. Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" (1966) won him a name as a foe of the stripped-down, industrial-flavored minimalism of the International Style. In 1972, he and Scott Brown collaborated on "Learning From Las Vegas" with Steven Izenour (who died last year after 33 years as a principal in their firm).

And although they've been outspoken in their admiration of commercial design and pop culture, they get most of their commissions from museums and universities, including two prominent buildings at UCLA, the McDonald Medical Research Laboratories and the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center (completed in 1991 and 1998, respectively).

They've never built in Las Vegas. In fact, joked Venturi, "we probably made a mistake. We probably should have said, 'Learning From Los Angeles.' One of my favorite things is to drive east on Sunset Boulevard and just melt into the Sunset Strip. I am just thrilled by the Sunset Strip."


Venturi, who will mark his 77th birthday on June 25, was born in Philadelphia, educated at Princeton and influenced by a two-year fellowship in Rome in the mid-1950s. Scott Brown, 70, was born and reared in southern Africa and came to the United States in 1958 to study at the University of Pennsylvania. She and Venturi met as fellow faculty members there in 1960--a year after the death of Scott Brown's first husband, architect Robert Scott Brown--and began collaborating on courses.

In 1966, having accepted a position at UCLA, Scott Brown took Venturi to Las Vegas for the first time, where the two were alternately "appalled and fascinated," and the idea for "Learning From Las Vegas" was born. A year later they married in Santa Monica but soon returned to Philadelphia.

They continue to live there while juggling clients as far-flung as France and Japan. Even so, most commercial clients "are afraid of us," Scott Brown said. Perhaps because they are so widely known for outspokenness and challenging conventional wisdom, she said, "it's been very hard for us, and it took us a long, long time" to reach their current position.

"No top-tier architectural firm of our time has more first-rate unbuilt work in its archives," the New Republic's architecture critic, Martin Filler, wrote last year. Filler blames clients, not the architects, for the record of disappointments. But whatever the root, Filler wrote, "this makes their retrospective a rather bittersweet affair."

There is, however, only so much gloom possible in a museum full of Venturi and Scott Brown's designs. In their buildings, as in conversation, they like nothing more than toying with words and symbols.

"Beware the urban bumpkin," Venturi once warned in a collection of slogans. Also: "I'll take the vulgar over the pretentious any day."

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