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Exhibit showcases work of architects Venturi and Scott Brown

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

If Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown had their druthers, "Out of the Ordinary" would be a different exhibit from the one that opened Saturday at Carnegie Museum of Art. He would have included more photographs of finished buildings. She would have preferred more sequential drawings showing how ideas evolved.

Robert Venturi mixes it up in his Eclectic House Series, elevation drawings from 1977.

Points well taken, but neither of those drawbacks is a fatal flaw in a retrospective that looks back over a two-in-one career that has spanned six decades (so far) and changed the course of architecture around the world.

The movement away from dry, knee-jerk Miesian modernism and toward a modernism rooted in contextuality, historical forms, symbolism, ornament and sometimes even -- who would have thought? -- fun, began in the late 1960s and early '70s with the books Venturi and Scott Brown wrote analyzing and celebrating classical and vernacular traditions in Rome and Las Vegas.

Some of that verve is on view in the smartly titled "Out of the Ordinary" (doubly alluding to extraordinary work, rooted in the vernacular). But it's an exhibit with a split personality, even more so here than at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it originated last year.

In Philadelphia, the two large, bold, provocative panels Venturi and Scott Brown designed for the exhibit were integrated with the curators' show but relegated to the rear, where they faced off against each other and created a corridor of instant immersion in the theory and practice of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

 
 

"Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates" continues through Feb. 2 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Oakland. Information: 412-622-3131.

   
 

Here, the panels are installed in the museum's Hall of Sculpture with the conventional bulk of the exhibit -- models, drawings and photographs -- in the Heinz Architectural Center and Scaife Galleries. The panels' monumental scale is muted by the lofty Hall of Sculpture, but viewers less familiar with VSBA's work are better served by the chance to see this part of the exhibit first, because it so powerfully communicates what that work has been about -- especially the graffiti manifesto wall screaming "Viva vulgar vitality!" and other VSBA aphorisms.

And, as Scott Brown pointed out in the gallery last week, the hall's classical sculptures offer some "amusing ironies" when juxtaposed with the classical buildings in one of the panels -- their remake of Thomas Cole's 1840 painting, "The Architect's Dream," updated with 20th-century commercial buildings and signs.

Now in their 70s, Scott Brown and Venturi continue to chase their dream, working 7 1/2 days a week. As long as their good health holds, they see no reason to stop. Their work is their life.

The graffiti wall behind Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi collects the principles they've espoused for more than 40 years. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

That shared life began when they met after a University of Pennsylvania faculty meeting in 1960, when Venturi told Scott Brown he agreed with her arguments against Penn's proposed demolition of Frank Furness' campus library -- a building that, several decades later, they would restore.

Venturi, after all, had grown up in Philadelphia and had grown to love the highly original, exaggerated forms and fantastic, decorated surfaces of Furness' buildings. The Venturis had been in Philadelphia since 1890, when the architect's grandfather, a builder in Abruzzi, Italy, immigrated and began a new life as a produce dealer. Venturi's father developed it into a prosperous wholesale business, which Venturi himself later ran for more than a decade after his dad's death.

His Italian-American mother was a pacifist and socialist who sent her son to a Quaker elementary school and to the well-to-do Episcopal Academy. From there, he was on to Princeton. In 1948 he visited Rome for the first time, the city that would become his Mannerist muse.

Scott Brown, born Denise Lakofsky, had a privileged upbringing in an International Style house in South Africa, where, like her mother, she studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand. She landed in Philadelphia in 1958 with her first husband, architect Robert Scott Brown, where they hoped to study under Louis Kahn at Penn. But when last-minute applications left no time for portfolio review, they joined the land and urban planning graduate program.

Both teaching at Penn in the early 1960s, Venturi and Scott Brown, whose husband had died in a car accident within a year of their arrival, formed a friendship based on mutual interests in vernacular buildings, commercial signs and the sociological aspects of architecture.

In 1966, Venturi, aided by Scott Brown, distilled a decade of thinking, teaching and designing into "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," the landmark book that proclaimed "Less is a bore" and championed "messy vitality over obvious unity." As a model for city-making, it looked to Rome, with its public piazzas and Mannerist buildings that used classical elements in dramatic, unorthodox ways.

That same year, Scott Brown, then teaching at UCLA, introduced Venturi to Las Vegas, where they were both "jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins," as she later wrote. Along with their theories, the friendship evolved; they were married in July 1967. And in their 1972 book "Learning from Las Vegas," Venturi and Scott Brown analyzed the commercial strip's wild exuberance and power to communicate, lessons they had begun to apply in their own work.

At a media walk-through tour last week, Venturi stopped in front of his marker-on-yellow-paper drawing of the Columbus, Ind., firehouse they designed back then, between 1966 and 1968.

"It's hard for someone of your generation to realize how daring that was at the time," he said, with its supergraphic number "4" at the top of a hose tower shooting up from the flat roof.

Today, "We don't get the vernacular work," Venturi said with some regret.

And unfortunately, so much of the important, recent work featured in this exhibit was never built, like New York's Whitehall Ferry Terminal with its LED facade, a chameleon-like building that could change its image at will, showing perhaps a tapestry of marathon runners or a waving American flag.

"It would have been the great electronic equivalent of the Statue of Liberty," Venturi said. It was one of eight projects VSBA designed for New York's riverfront, none of which, for various reasons, went forward.

Venturi believes the industrial aesthetic of so much of today's modernism is wrong for our electronic age. VSBA's modernism, rooted in the Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo buildings he soaked up like a sponge in his ancestors' homeland, deploys historical forms in willfully, even playfully exaggerated poses -- appropriate, he said, because it "accommodates complexity and contradiction and allows elements that relate to our time."

While VSBA's freewheeling appropriation, crossbreeding and caricaturing of historical and commercial forms have put them out of modernism's mainstream and out of favor with some American critics, their work remains popular abroad with clients and students. On a visit to China, Venturi said, he "felt like a rock star," with architecture students furiously scribbling notes.

Their last big, high-profile commission in the West was the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery, represented in the exhibit by a large (9 by 12 feet) model.

These days, a good deal of their work in America involves campus planning and building. In education, experience and temperament, it is work for which the former academics are well suited, and they have produced dramatic and memorable places and spaces.

Due to gallery limitations, Heinz Architectural Center associate curator Tracy Myers was able to take only about 60 percent of the show, cutting entire projects rather than leaving many thinly represented. As in Philadelphia, it's organized by building type rather than chronologically, which makes one kind of sense, but lacks a sense of evolution.

The firm's decorative arts work is only fractionally represented by a single table, several place settings and a few chairs.

And the full-scale replica of the now-iconic facade of Mother's House -- Venturi's second project and the one that thrust him onto the international stage -- didn't travel with the exhibit.

Venturi said he painted the house green "because Marcel Breuer said never make a building green." The house, he said, "was fun for my mother to live in; she was a widow and people were visiting all the time." Even with new owners, the Venturis still have Thanksgiving dinner there every year.

While VSBA has interviewed for a number of jobs here, including a Market Square makeover in the 1980s and the recent Riverlife Task Force riverfront plan that went to Chan Krieger and Associates of Cambridge, Mass., their only Pittsburgh building remains the Irving and Betty Abrams house in Shadyside, a small, spacious building perfectly suited to its site.

At an informal luncheon last week at the house, Scott Brown said Betty Abrams won a few battles over the size of the kitchen (she wanted a bigger one) and the placement of the interior staircase. In retrospect, Scott Brown had to admit, "she was right."

The exhibit's amply illustrated, 272-page catalog ($60 hardback, $40 softcover) puts the work in a broader historical context. At 3 p.m. on Feb. 1 at the museum, Venturi and Scott Brown will provide their own perspective on the work -- a rare opportunity to hear from a pair of revolutionaries cleverly disguised as mild-mannered septuagenarians.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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