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CS 2120 Architecture and Culture II

Instructor: Alex Maymind

Building vs. Text

2GA Fall 2015

Upon initial observation of the Vanna Venturi house; or as Robert Venturi refers to it, “Mother’s House,”

as a relatively unseasoned student in architectural discourse—I find it very hard not to grimace. Aside from the deceptive familiarity of the façade, or the jarring disparate mixing of the vernacular with classical form, I am most bewildered with my inability to be completely sold on what so many architectural critics and architects attribute to this seminal work. Despite much rationalization of the importance of this work and the appreciation of what Venturi’s work stands for, it’s simply difficult to like something that I intuitively do not like. This work is enigmatic and causes my perhaps untrained eye frustration as I am told how to unpack and how to like the work. As such I am going to challenge my view and attempt to further investigate this work.


Robert Venturi’s influential book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966, two years after the completion of his mother’s house, is devoted to expounding why this elusive house is so important. In his “Gentle Manifesto,” Venturi crafts a careful non-clarity and control in deliberate mistake making in architecture championed by Vincent Scully as an, “alliance of visual method with intellectual intention.”[1]


In Vincent Scully, Venturi, I suspect by virtue of luck and acumen, unmistakably has a not so gentle advocate, having infamously touted Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture as, “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, of 1923.”[2] Much like Siegfried Gideon’s exalted praises for Les Corbusier[3] a generation earlier, Scully surmises the genius of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, further validating Venturi’s once four year long pet project for his mother’s house into a pivotal work. Scully packs a punch in the introduction with his calculated and carefully crafted juxtaposition of Venturi to Le Corbusier[4]. Scully is keen to note that his daring statements are sure to annoy Le Corbusier’s devout followers[5]. Much to the Modernists’ displeasure and undoubtedly generations of befuddled students such as myself to come, the anti-hero[6] Venturi is placed in the same realm as the hallowed and iconic Le Corbusier.  Even for this, thus far, agnostic of both camps, I can admire Venturi’s bold, grandiose interrogation of Modernism’s shortcomings. Venturi’s disruption of perfection in favor of ‘richness of meaning rather than clarity,” calls for a non-straightforward architecture[7] in his ‘Gentle Manifesto.’ He outlines what is good and what is bad[8]:




























The façade of Vanna Venturi house, as Scully aptly puts it, is, ‘disarmingly simple.’[9] The simplicity—simplicity in the ordinary sense—of the façade is one of the reasons why upon first examination, instinctually I am hesitant in declaring it a work of genius. It is not so unlike the gable roofs of early work by Frank Lloyd Wright or Bruce Price.[10] Venturi’s strategy in the unexpected split down the center of the gabled roof revealing the exaggerated central chimney signifies something different. Venturi flips one’s expectation by simultaneously luring with the subtle use of the vernacular gabled roof—something familiar—and confounding in the play on scale and deliberate disruption of the façade—offering more than what initially meets the eye. Something is not quite right and this series of calculated moves beckons for a more in depth look, taunting as if saying, “hey, did you see what I did there?” Also as if attempting to re-invigorate the game he’s playing with form. At the bottom of the chasm of the façade is an applied arch, not holding anything up as it too is split down the middle and is merely applied on the surface, serving as ornament; while also, according to Scully suggesting the half vault in the living room and as such the, ‘whole house is rising and being split through the middle.’[11] Venturi’s form of play is operating at a seemingly both simple and complex level. Is it gauche to suggest that this split is symbolic of his break from the Modernism of the generation before him? Probably. While this no doubt sophomoric assumption is not novel, Venturi’s interest in double entendre and a declaration for change is evident. Though his claim is a ‘Gentle’ one, it is only so by name.


Venturi has a lot at stake. He is making a very pointed argument against the long reigning Modernist views established by the masters before him. After the completion of ‘Mother’s House,’ with only three completed works under his belt there is a real possibility of dismissal of ‘Mother’s House,’ as a quirky little blip in architectural history. What if he didn’t have the support from Vincent Scully or collaboration with Denise Scott Brown? Scully introduces Venturi’s work as, “hard to see, hard to write about, graceless and inarticulate as only the new can be.”[12] One can imagine how daunting that must be. While I still maintain that the aesthetics of ‘Mother’s House,’ is, frankly, ugly, Venturi’s challenging endeavor is admirable and it is undeniable the major impact he has had on contemporary architecture. 



[1] Vincent Scully, Introduction to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.9.


[2] Ibid.


[3] Siegfried Gideon, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete.


[4] Vincent Scully, Introduction to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.9.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.10.


[7] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 22


[8] Ibid.


[9] Vincent Scully, ‘Venturi’s Gentle Architecture,’ The Architecture of Robert Venturi.10.


[10] IBID.,12.


[11] IBID.,12.


[12] Vincent Scully, Introduction to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.9.




Anderson, Richard. 2006. “Tired of Meaning”. Log, no. 7. Anyone Corporation: 11–13.


di Carlo, Tina. 2005. “Observations on Mothers' Houses”. Log, no. 4. Anyone Corporation: 28–28.


Venturi, Robert, and Vincent Scully. "Robert Venturi's Gentle Architecture." The Architecture of Robert Venturi. Ed. Christopher Curtis. Mead. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1989. 7-33. Print.


Somol, R. E.. 1998. “Still Crazy After All These Years”. Assemblage, no. 36. The MIT Press: 84–92. doi:10.2307/3171366.


Stierli, Martino. 2007. “In the Academy's Garden: Robert Venturi, the Grand Tour and the Revision of Modern Architecture”. AA Files, no. 56. Architectural Association School of Architecture: 42–55.


Schwartz, Frederic, Vincent Scully, and Robert Venturi. Mother's House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi's House in Chestnut Hill. New York: Rizzoli, 1992. Print.


Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.


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