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Robert Venturi’s Theory of Architecture Cultural Context 02 (CARC 5003/CIAD 5005) Interior Architecture and Design – Stage 2 Word Count: 2960 ELLA WARD 1206464


ROBERT VERNTURIS THEORY OF ARCHITECTURE Starting with a focused program, the wide-ranging design methods that have been accepted by modernist architects took knowledge of neither cultural meaning nor context. Although they were criticised for these faults by post-modern theorist, no means of bringing forward such concerns into the planning process has ever been recommended. This essay sets out the understanding of the ways in which Robert Venturi has employed theory into his buildings. I will be exploring the different ways in which Venturi has developed a relationship with theory and how this has influenced his designs and gone on to influence the development of modern architecture. Robert Venturi is one of the key architectural figures in the twentieth Century and has played a major role in shaping the way that architects and students experience and think about architecture. The architecture of Venturi along with his writings helped redirect American architecture away from modern architecture in the 1960’s, to a more exploratory design approach which openly drew lessons from architectural history and responded to the everyday context of the American city. “I like elements which are hybrid rather then “pure,” compromising rather then “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather then “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather then simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather then direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.” (Venturi, 2008:16) This is adopted in Venturi’s buildings as they typically juxtapose architectural systems, elements and aims. This is evident in one of his most famous buildings – the Vanna Venturi House. Venturi developed this inclusive approach into his buildings, which contrasted the typical modernist styles and ways of thinking. “It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather then the easy unity of exclusion.” (Venturi, 2008:16) Venturi believed that the modernist idea of one form of building couldn’t work in any real society, as one form cannot simply suit every situation, context or people. “Architecture is form and substance – abstract and concrete – and its meaning derives from its interior characteristics and its particular context.” (Venturi, 2008:20) Again highlighting the importance of inclusive approach in Venturi’s theoretical understanding of architecture, but also the importance of context in relation to the building – which was widely overlooked by the modernist architects during the 1960s as they saw one form of building suiting every situation. Venturi was interested in the complexity of architecture and believed that a building should tell more than one story. “The calculated ambiguity of expression is based on the confusion of experience as reflected in the architectural program. The promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning.” (Venturi, 2008:20) Venturi exaggerated the importance of richness of meaning within a building, and advocated that it only helped clarify the meaning of a building as appose to it possibly adding to the ambiguity.

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In Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi outlined his views on modern architecture in his ‘Gentle Manifesto’ arguing the need for an inclusive approach towards architecture as appose to the modernist ‘less is more’ approach adopted by architects such as Mies Van Der Rohe. Venturi asserted that modernist architects had over simplified a complicated and contradictory art form to the extent that it was not practical for the user – also stated the architecture should derive “…from the experience of life and the needs of society”. (Venturi, 2008:20) Venturi feared that the over simplification resulted in bland architecture that neither pleasing to the eye or the needs of society – which he stated with is famous rewording of Mies Van Der Rohe’s statement, “less is a bore”. (Venturi, 2008:16) One of the most contradictory as well as inspiring aspects of the book was the way Venturi embraced historical architecture as a way of breaking free from the modernist over simplification, which in many ironical ways modern architecture was a way from breaking free of such architecture. His views and methods of designing lead to an architectural revolution ‘post-modernism’. Venturi goes on to develop the reasons as to why modern architecture does not work by expressing the flawed Wiley House by Philip Johnson in a very crude way. “He explicitly separated and articulated the enclosed “private functions” of living on a ground floor pedestal, thus separating them from the open social functions in the modular pavilion above. But even here the building becomes a diagram of an over simplified program for living – an abstract theory of either-or. Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results.” (Venturi, 2008:17) Here, Johnson designs a very successful modern piece of architecture, but not good architecture – in the sense of its awareness for the way people use the space. The building splits two functions almost entirely apart, as if to say its not part of the same building – whereas the building should be considered as a ‘whole’. Johnson almost denies the existence of the modern space, using it for a platform for which the social aspect of the building to stand upon – much like a pedestal. The building speaks for the modern architects, denying the need for stone buildings and almost exaggerating the modern aspects of the first floor, which struggles to even fit on its own pedestal. The Wiley House sums up Venturi’s arguments against modern architecture and it lack of sensitivity to human needs.

Wiley house, 1952

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In 1972, Robert Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour published ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ one of the most influential architectural books of its time. The book explored the unity of inclusion rather then easy unity of exclusion in more detail in the form of the Las Vegas strip as it embodies the philosophy effectively. The book argued that aesthetic sensation might be produced by the treatment of walls, proportion of windows, the relation of wall-space to windowspace. The book analysed the importance of signage on the ‘strip’ and how that solved design problems in a very simplistic manner – allowing the building to visually communicate the purpose of the building through mass use of colour and virtual volumes created by clever use of lighting techniques that make it a very unique place to visit. “…it is symbols and not architecture which dominate the space with their sculptural form, their silhouettes and their lighting effects. In spite of the chaos and ugliness, which the authors do not dispute, they find clues for the design of an animated, multi-facetted and contradictory city, which exists in mockery of modern ideals.” (Evers,Thoenes, 2011:792) Each of the signs on the ‘strip’ possesses symbols borrowed from another era – something that has been very much incorporated into Venturi’s buildings such as the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Venturi uses classical features to allow the new wing to emulate and be a part of the National Gallery, while it slowly detracts away from it allowing it to form a new more modern façade as it progresses away from the National Gallery – a very nice idea that was founded throughout ‘complexity and contradiction in architecture’ and adopted throughout post-modernism. Specifically, the book analysed the use of representation on the ‘strip’ as a basis for understanding symbolism as an important component of architecture. The buildings of the ‘strip’ were nothing more then a “decorated shed” juxtaposes the late structures of modernism that imposed a lack of decoration, were unrecognisable in program and structure. The authors summarised that the decorated shed had more relevance and a moderately inexpensive response to modern conditions than the costly expressionism of the modernist monuments. Both ‘Complexity and Contradiction’ and ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ caused significant controversy, but they were embraced by an increasing generation of architects who shared the disappointment with the limitations of conventional modernism and were searching for effective alternatives. Robert Venturi and Scott Brown continue to develop and evaluate their theories.

Fremont Street Neon Signs, Las Vegas, 1956

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In contradiction, Venturi also considers symbolism unnecessary since modern technology and historical symbolism rarely harmonise. Two terms that clearly define this believe are “duck” and “decorated shed”. These two terms were collated in the book ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ in 1972. The book debates that there are two distinctly different types of buildings and that all buildings can be categorised as one of another. Ducks are what they seem, for example a building in the form of a hotdog stand, tells you hotdogs are sold there. “…decorated shed, which is no more than a functional box. It’s decorations and the sign – an ad on the roof, on the grounds, or simply as a fake second front wall – which indicates its function are totally independent of its architecture.” (Evers,Thoenes, 2011:792) Sheds are only what they appear to be – a decorated shed is a simple structure with added ornaments, giving meaning to the structure. A petrol station is a prime example of a decorated shed, a simple cheap structure with no relevance, significance or communicative of its purposes until the signage is added is it then only able to communicate its purposes. A sketch describing these two terms by Venturi, defines the decorated shed as a ‘modest building with a big sign - the shelter with symbols over it’ and the duck, ‘the building is the sign’. Robert Venturi adopts similar ideas on the Guild House, adding a large sign on the front of a rather plain and simple looking building ‘Guild House’ signifying not only its purpose but its only purpose – its is clear the building is not meant to be extravagant nor does it want to be, it simply wants to portray its purpose – a decorated shed. “Guild House is…a function – orientated shed with some ornaments and symbols (it is topped by an ironically placed golden television antenna). (Evers,Thoenes, 2011:792) An example of when Venturi designs a ‘duck’ is the Vanna Venturi house, this was done in the shape of a childlike drawing of a house – this therefore communicates that it’s a dwelling in a very traditional form that is easily understandable and distinguished.

Robert Venturi, Duck and decorated shed theory

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Robert Venturi designed the Vanna Venturi House for his mother in the early 1960s. “This building recognises complexities and contradictions: it is both complex and simple, open and closed, big and little; some of its elements are good on one level and bad on another; its order accommodates the generic elements of the house in general, and the circumstantial elements of a house in particular. It achieves the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts rather then the easy unity of few or many motival parts.” (Venturi, 2008:118) The house is the pinnacle of the post modern movement as it set about a standard for which post modernist can look to. In many ways its plays and almost mocks architectural styles, whilst also providing both functional and non-functional elements at the same time. The design is very complex and contradictory and tells many stories, the building works as a whole but when looked at individually some parts fail. This relates to Venturi’s ideas of how a building should work as a whole and incorporate all problems of a real project rather then simply disregard them and try and create something that is ‘perfect’. The façade is isolated from the building and has no function, opposing modern architecture. It’s as if the façade slots onto the building behind, not fitting perfectly; overlapping the boundaries – compared with modern architecture which is seamless in form and shape. The form of the house reflects a traditional home, relating to a child’s drawings; square in shape, door situated in the centre with windows either side, a gable roof and central chimney. Contradicting the ideas of a conventional house, Venturi split the building into two; incorporating a false chimney, not being entirely symmetrical and having a hidden entrance, where doors either side lead to separate sides of the house. The strip that runs across the façade also has no function and is merely an ironic feature that is originally used in the interior to separate the paint and wallpaper. “The inside spaces, as represented in plan and section, are complex and distorted in their shapes and interrelationships. They correspond to the complexities inherent in the domestic program as well as to some whimsies not inappropriate to an individual house” (Venturi, 2008:118). Here Venturi states that the complexities within the house are simply there because of the complexities in being inside a house – however he also states that some where added simply because it’s a house for a certain individual. This is very important as it shows his disregard for the modernist way of thinking that there is a perfect architectural form for everyone – Venturi is stating that every client and context will call for different styles and approaches that can not be met by a uniform way of thinking. Venturi was interested in the complexity of architecture and believed that a building should tell more than one story, much like the Vanna Venturi house – it is not as straight forward as it first appears; including a complex layout that had function and practicality but also character. “The little “nowhere stair” from the second floor similarly accommodates awkwardly to its residual core space: on one level, it goes nowhere and its whimsical; at another level, it is like a ladder against a wall from which to wash the high window and paint the clerestory.” (Venturi, 2008:118)

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Vanna Venturi house, 1964

The Guild House, a retirement home built in 1965, was built to be ugly and ordinary in the eyes of the modernists. It attempted to relate to the modest brick commercial and residential buildings around it. “…yet the urban character of the street suggested a building that would not be an independent pavilion, but instead would recognize the spatial demands of the street in front.” (Venturi, 2008:116) Once again Venturi is seen to highlight the importance of the site and that modernist architects were very wrong in thinking that a uniform way of building could suit every site and client – Venturi sought to ensure that this building sat comfortably within its site rather then obscure and detract from the context around it. Seeing as the occupants from the building were to be from the nearby neighbourhood, the architects knew it would be best to design a building that drew from similar styles of which they are accustomed to – as to ensure their comfort. The building is similar to the Vanna Venturi House in the sense that the façade has been brought forward and separated from the rest of the building – So the façade is just a façade/front cover, which introduces you to the building behind. The entrance is also tucked away within the building, which makes the sign grander. “The central window on the top floor reflects the special spatial configuration of the common room inside and relates to the entrance below, increasing the scale of the building on the street and at the entrance. Its arch shape also permits a very big opening to penetrate the wall and yet remain a hole in a wall rather then a void in a frame.” (Venturi, 2008:116) Venturi is constantly playing with the scale of this building, working to make it seem grandeur – the arched window is very common in classical architectural styles and such architecture seems much grander in size due to its elements. The large block print sign reflects similar ideas brought up in ‘learning from Las Vegas’ – making the Guild House a decorated shed. Due to the Guild House having a very simple structure and shape it can be almost unidentifiable as to what its purpose really is, the large sign helps address that. Venturi shows contradiction within this building through the change in windows each time the façade steps back.

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Modern architecture of this time used the same materials throughout the exterior and interior of their buildings – to produce a more simplistic appeal. This also applies to the white strip that runs across the upper part of the façade. The dark brown brick walls with double-hung windows address the similar styles of traditional Philadelphia row houses, “Their effect is uncommon, however, because they are subtly proportioned and unusually big. The change in scale of these almost banal elements contributes an expression of tension and equality to these facades, which now read as both conventional and unconventional forms at the same time.” (Venturi, 2008:116)

Guild house, 1964

In summary Robert Venturi had a strong opinion on his theoretical views on architecture that greatly contrasted those of the many during the modernist movement of the 1960s. During which, architects were looking into ways of bringing about a uniform style that would unite the world through equality in architecture – this was done through very simple and sophisticated forms that eliminated the unnecessary. However this made the designs unpractical, cold and boring – a uniform style of architecture meant the buildings did not relate to their context resulting in an obscure form of architecture that does work. Robert. Robert Venturi strongly argues for the complexities within architecture “By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I aim for vitality as well as validity.” (Venturi, 2008:16) He argued that architecture could not simply have one form of communication through a glass box, but must have multiple meanings and ways of communicating ideas. This theory was realised through his ideas of “duck” and “decorated shed” buildings. Venturi picked up on the failures of modern architecture and highlighted them in his book ‘complexity and contradiction in architecture’ and went on to develop his theories established in his ‘gentle manifesto’ in ‘Learning From Las Vegas’. These theories were further exaggerated and improved upon within his designs that went on to start a revolutionary movement within architecture – post modernism.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY Robert Venturi. (2008) Complexity and Contradiction in architecture, pp.16-20, 116-121 Bernd Evers, Christof Thoenes. (2011) Architectural Theory from the renaissance to the present - Volume 2 National Trust for Historic Preservation, (2009) Wiley house, www.preservationnation.org (Accessed on 15.12.13) Bundleboy (2009) HubPages-Blog. Learning from Las Vegas – Connecting with symbolism in architecture. www.bundleboy.hubpages.com/hub/Learning-fromLas-Vegas Adelyn Perez. (2010) Vanna Venturi house. www.archdaily.com/62743/adclassics-vanna-venturi-house-robert-venturi/ (1994) Guild house. www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Guild_House.html. David Gissen. (2008) History, Theory, Visiting buildings, Guild house image. http://htcexperiments.org/2008/10/10/visiting-the-widows-of-late-modernity/ INDA Pathawee Khunkitti. (2013) Duck and Decorated shed. www.sskypathawee.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/duck-and-decorated-shedcomplexity-and.html Michael Wildman. (2001) Duck and Decorated shed. www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/sijpkes/arch374/winter2001/mwildm/ (2013) Postmodernism – the Duck and the decorated shed. http://eawsivigoonp.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/postmodernism-duck-anddecorated-shed.html

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Implications of robert venturi’s theory of architecture