Magazine article Artforum International

Learning from Philadelphia

Magazine article Artforum International

Learning from Philadelphia

Article excerpt

BARRY BERGDOLL ON ROBERT VENTURI AND DENISE SCOTT BROWN

ROBERT VENTURI, whose seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966 is credited with returning historical concerns to the forefront of architectural theory and practice after the willful amnesia of modernism, is, it would seem, overcome with anxiety about his own place in history. Weeks before the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened "Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates" this summer, Venturi issued his latest broadside. "I am t now and never have been a postmodernist" ran the quote accompanying a frowning Venturi on the cover of Architecture's May issue. "I unequivocally disavow fatherhood of this architectural movement," he insisted in a theme issue devoted to postmodernism, a topic as taboo in academic circles as it is ubiquitous in the commercial landscape Venturi long ago emphatically declared to be "almost all right." For over two decades the Venturis (Scott Brown is Venturi's wife as well as partner) have been chafing at the d iverse interpretations spawned by their influential calls for "messy vitality." After years of combating orthodox modernism, they now find themselves up against an equally formidable nemesis: orthodox postmodernism.

A retrospective ought to have provided the occasion to reflect on the Venturis' place in relation to that offspring they now spurn (even if the textbooks long ago legitimized the line of descent). But retrospectives of living architects are inherently caught between the stock-taking of curators and the impassioned involvement of their subjects with current challenges and future projects. Indeed, the historical record suggests that the most influential exhibitions have often been the dual work of an architect and. A curator eager to act as champion. Mies van der Rohe's 1947 MOMA retrospective for instance, crafted with the helping hand and rarely equaled flair of Philip Johnson, was at once a new architectural design and a polemical and potent rewriting of Mies's earlier work in relationship to his then current preoccupations in Chicago.

Ironically enough, just as Mies has often been reduced to cliches supposedly of his own coining--"Less is more" and "Almost nothing" were available as souvenir refrigerator magnets at the Whitney Museum of American Art's recent "Mies in America"--so Venturi has been typecast by his own brilliant polemics, which makes it hard for him to shake the mantle of PoMo guru. As early as 1979 Venturi quipped that his next book would be entitled Modern Architecture Is Almost All Right. And while Robert A.M. Stern may have given full vent to anti-Miesian spleen in Michael Blackwood's 1986 documentary film on Mies, Venturi confessed regret at having coined PoMo's greatest quotable, "Less is a bore."

Venturi has continually sought to be his own historian, offering episodically new enhancements to the original explication de geste that accompanied publication of his iconic youthful masterpiece, alternately known as My Mother's House or the Vanna Venturi House, 1959-64. Its facade a giant figural gable, the coral-green house seemed the veritable rejection of modern formalism, even while the sophisticated formal gestures in both surface and spatial composition were in' fact as much indebted to modernist collage as they were to the literary theories of double meaning and ambiguity that made the text of Complexity and Contradiction such a startling sea-change manifesto. Venturi's writings of the '60s, and many of his subsequent projects, are squarely framed by questions of meaning, instability, and pluralism, issues at the core of postmodern literary criticism, social thought, and political critique. But by the early '8Os, architectural postmodernism rapidly developed into a brand name, a stylistic tag rather than a philosophical stance. One of the most effective displays in Philadelphia is the contextual model of VSBA's controversial Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery (1985-91), a complex and witty reflection on the modern history of classicism's associations. …

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