Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

I have just read and enjoyed Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and contradiction in architecture” (1966),  an important work for coming to terms with some of the problems of modernism.

I suspect the development of my attitude to modernism is fairly common. From an originally positive stance to increasing doubts about the perceptual monotony of many buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, a feeling that hard zoning of areas into residential, industrial and commercial sounded good but worked less well in practice and distaste for the disrespectful destruction of historical city centres. An increasing awareness of the need for communities to be able to relate to their history, that there was more space than I once was willing to admit between a static celebration of the status quo and a tabula rasa approach.

Architecture has (thankfully) moved on from some of the worst brutalist excesses. I find a lot of new modern architecture exciting and interesting and am at the same time critical of attempts to humanise architecture by disguising industrial building techniques behind familiar forms from earlier epochs (Leon Krier).

However, I have difficulty in relating these “person in the street” reactions to the discussions that have taken place within architecture during the development/retreat from high modernism. I would like to be able to do this, which is where Venturi comes in.

It’s a well-written book but not altogether easy as it was produced more with architects in mind.

He appreciates the achievements of, for example, Le Corbusier (though he is unsympathetic to many who followed on and applied Le Corbusier’s ideas dogmatically, crudely and disastrously).

His arguments are closely related to some of the main themes of modernism. As the title indicates, complexity and contradiction are important for him. He makes his point polemically that less is not more as Mies van der Rohe would have it, but less can be a bore.

He draw attention, for example, to how apparently some of the forms of classical architecture, for example, Doric columns, are much more complicated than they look, based on an intricate relationship between the form of the building and how the viewer perceives it.

He points out too how other art forms, literature, art etc. express the often complex and contradictory nature of our reality, whereas architecture in its high modernist period tried to move in the other direction, towards an exaggerated desire for simplicity and separation of function, which expresses our lives poorly.

I like Venturi’s approach, tentative and sometimes expressing himself with humility (for example, he was critical of Giovanni Michelucci’s Church of the Autostrada in the original edition (“willful picturesqueness”, “haphazard structure”) but in the later edition writes that he has now visited this church and regrets writing these words as it is a beautiful and effective building. I approve of people who don’t try to waffle over their past mistakes and who are capable of changing their minds!

He has also written about Las Vegas. This feels rather alien to me but I would like to know what it’s about.

It was a good book to start with, to try to organise one’s ideas about architecture better. I have to go back to read some of the foundation texts of modernism (for example, Le Corbusier’s writings) to have a clearer idea of what Venturi is criticising. And then tackle some of the important texts on Postmodernism (Jencks) and on Deconstruction where the darkness in my brain becomes particularly opaque…..

And after that perhaps I’ll re-read Venturi concentrating more on his comments on actual buildings in the latter half of his book… probably do have to look at buildings to understand anything about architecture.

But now I have another couple of tomes to get through – “Modern Architecture” by Kenneth Frampton, which seems to be a standard textbook on many architectural courses on the history of modern architectural ideas and “A Critical History of Contemporary Architecture 1960-2010”  by Haddad and Rifkind.



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