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Remembering Robert Venturi

By Nancy Rogo Trainer, Associate VP and Drexel University Architect

September 21, 2018

Robert Venturi (1925-2018) – architect, theoretician, and educator – died peacefully at his West Mount Airy home on September 18, 2018, after a brief illness.  Known for changing the course of modern architecture through his projects and writing, his body of work includes the 1970 Institute for Scientific Information – the “decorated shed” that is now home to Westphal’s URBN Center.  He was a mentor and friend to many of Drexel’s architecture faculty, students, and alums, a number of whom spent formative years at the Philadelphia firm he founded with his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown.

In the past few days, steady streams of obituaries and tributes have described his work, his collaboration with Denise Scott Brown, and his profound influence on architects since Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture – his “gentle manifesto” – was published in 1966. Someday, maybe, I’ll be able to place my recollections into the larger context of his life and career; in the meantime, I offer the following partial view – partial in both meanings of the word -- as it picks up his career in media res

Photographs of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s 1982 Wu Hall at Princeton were published in architectural journals when I was in graduate school, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Highly contextual, with sly historical references, it also seemed like something very new and somehow uniquely American – fresh, brash, pop, and maybe even a little impolite.  But it was also elegantly nestled into its campus setting, incredibly intimate in scale and full of natural light – an extraordinarily civilized and humane place. Its beauty and strength were somehow created in that space between two opposing ideas. 

This “both-and” characterized Bob as a person, too, I think. He was exceeding gracious, sure of himself and occasionally audacious, but he could also seem a little shy -- charmingly awkward, even.    

When I joined Bob and Denise’s firm in 1987, they were already famous. (Everyone in the office called them by their first names, and it would feel weird for me to call them anything else.)  The office was very, very busy with London’s Sainsbury Wing, the Seattle Art Museum, the restoration of Penn’s Furness Building, and many other projects. Over the course of my first year there, the firm grew from about thirty people to somewhere around a hundred. Bob would spend Saturdays in the conference room, seeing team after team – and drawing sketches with a big fat black marker, sketches as precise as the drawing instrument was crude. He had the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.  

When I finally got to work closely with him on the genesis of a project – on a winning but never-built competition entry for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam – I was surprised (and frankly relieved) to learn that he was an incredibly supportive, generous, and gentle critic.  Desk crits with him taught me about history, design, and the relationship between the two – but always left me feeling empowered and valued, both student and collaborator. 

All these years later, those conversations still feel fresh to me.  A building by Luigi Moretti was one I hadn’t paid much attention to when I saw its photograph in Complexity and Contradiction -- but it’s one Bob had seen and learned from as a young man, and his friend Carolina Vaccaro insisted I see it when I visited Rome in 2013. It contained the kernels of so much of what Bob had taught me over the years – about scale, subtle historical references, spatial complexity, the power of gentle inflections, and the importance of the facade as billboard and sign.  

Bob’s work could be playful – I’m pretty sure he’d prefer “mannerist” – but he was passionate and serious about it. Design was both an act of will and an open-ended voyage of discovery, one that he and Denise embarked on together.  He took criticism to heart – though if he felt the critic had missed the mark he wore it like a badge of honor. (“Ugly and ordinary” was emblazoned on the hats sold at Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2000 retrospective of the firm’s work.)  Still, he was his own most exacting critic; of a particular curtain wall, for example, he confessed years later – and apropos of nothing in particular that I can remember -- that he wished he’d been thinking about Mies’ white-framed Farnsworth House instead of the dark-framed Crown Hall.

Bob, Denise, and their collaborator and friend (and Drexel professor), the late Steve Izenour, taught their students – and so many of the rest of us – to find delight in the ordinary and to appreciate the beauty in its contradictions and juxtapositions. When I started at the firm I promised myself I would only stay as long as I was learning – and I stayed until after the firm’s succession was complete in 2013.  

So what did I learn from Bob? Much more than I can articulate, but here’s a start: that the creative process is a collaborative one; that there’s beauty and strength in that space between opposing truths; that design is both intention and serendipity. That hard work and honest self-questioning are as intrinsic to the artistic process as talent and intellect. That humility and mild manners can co-exist with confidence and courage – and that there is immense beauty in being ethical, gracious, and kind.