Out Of The Ordinary: The Architecture And Design Of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown And Associates

by | 30. Aug 2012

Exhibitions and Events

Collection of Venturi, Scott Brown and AssociatesUnited States Pavilion, Expo ’92, Seville, Spain(Competition Entry), 1989Airbrush and colored plastic film on foam core 

The exhibition, with a wide variety of objects, including architectural drawings, models, and photographs, as well as furniture, textiles, and decorative arts, documents more than four decades of the firm’s eye-catching, iconoclastic work.

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) is known for combining design elements in unexpected ways; an approach that has spurred some to include Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown among the founders of architectural Post modernism.

Though they reject the Post- modernist label, Venturi and Scott Brown are guided by design principles that contrast sharply with Modernism’s tendency to pare structures to essentials: turning the Modernist’s rallying cry “Less is more” against itself, Venturi declared “Less is a bore.”  The firm has become known for an eclecticism that draws freely from varied sources, such as historic design styles and popular culture, including contemporary commercial architecture and advertising.

Photo: Will Brown.Collection of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.Frank G. Wells Building, Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, California, 1994-98Drawing made by Amy Noble and R. Michael Wommackairbrush and cut paper mounted on foam core

In 1950, Robert Venturi completed his master’s thesis at Princeton, which sent out the first shoots of what would flower into an enduring architectural philosophy.  Against the Modernist tendency to treat buildings as solitary objects without regard for their settings, Venturi argued that a building derives meaning from its context, and different contexts require different forms of architectural expression.

Photo:   Rollin La France. Courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown and AssociatesVanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, 1959-64

Venturi revealed his synthetic attitude and intelligence as early as his second completed building, the house in Philadelphia that he designed for his mother.  For the faade of the Vanna Venturi House (1959­65), he combined a handful of basic architectural elements, in this case a gable, door, windows, and chimney, arranging the forms into a simple, inviting design that is plainly modern, yet also a strong expression of traditional ideas of home.

Photo: Graydon WoodGothic Revival Chair for Knoll, 1978-84Bent laminated wood and painted plastic laminatePhiladelphia Museum of Art.  Gift of Marion Boulton Stroud

Like the firm’s architecture, VSBA’s decorative arts projects are marked by practicality enlivened with bold eclecticism.  The Campidoglio Tray (1980-83), created for Italian housewares retailer Alessi, has a radiating star pattern that mirrors Michelangelo’s design for the pavement in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio.  A Cuckoo Clock (1986-88), also designed for Alessi, has bright colors and unexpected proportions, adding contemporary features to a timepiece with a decidedly traditional form.

Photo: Graydon WoodTea and Coffee Service for Alessi, 1980-83Silver with gilt decoration; coffee pot, teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, Campidoglio tray.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Purchased with the Richardson Fund  

The exhibition includes a multimedia installation, The Architect’s Dream (2001), inspired by an 1840 painting by the same name.  The original work, created by the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, synthesizes an astonishing variety of historical architectural styles into a utopian scene.  In their version of The Architect’s Dream, VSBA used digital technology to blend contemporary and historical images, creating a work that not only dramatizes the firm’s liberal embrace of historical influences, but also serves to illustrate their philosophy of unifying our architectural past with the practical demands of the present day.  

The scope of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates ouevre – geographically, typologically, and in terms of scale – is really quite remarkable.  Even more remarkable is the fact that they have hewn to their design philosophy with such constancy, and this exhibition dramatizes their fidelity to their principles as well as their creativity.
/Tracy Myers, Associate Curator of architecture

Recent high-profile international projects reveal the consistency with which VSBA has applied and interpreted that architectural philosophy.  For the critically acclaimed Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery (1985-91), VSBA sensitively related the building’s faade to its 19th-century neighbors on Trafalgar Square, creating an historically inflected yet distinctly contemporary complement to the original building.  The firm’s design for its largest commercial commission to date, the Hotel Mielmonte Nikko Kirifuri in Nikko, Japan (1992-97), brings together a variety of traditional architectural features and elements of Japan’s lively contemporary commercial streetscape.  Set in a national forest, the spa and hotel manage to harmonize the diverse aspects of Japanese culture. 

Photo: Matt WargoProvincial, Capitol BuildingToulouse, France


CITYPittsburgh, Pennsylvania