Skip to content
Inga Saffron
Link copied to clipboard

When Robert Venturi and Jane Jacobs upset the modernist apple cart

You have no doubt been hearing a lot lately about Jane Jacobs. The godmother of urbanism was born 100  years ago in Scranton, and celebrating her legacy has become a cottage industry. Hardly a day passes without word of a new biography, a collection of essays, tributes to her influence, special "Jane's Walks," or a fresh analysis of her blind spots.

Jacobs deserves every bit of attention she gets. When her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, came out in 1961, it set off an explosion that is still rippling through the culture today. But many forget that Death and Life wasn't the only groundbreaking book from that period to upset the modernist apple cart and profoundly change how we build cities. Fifty years ago, Robert Venturi, then a 41-year-old Philadelphia architect, shook up the establishment almost as thoroughly with the publication of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which is to architecture what Jacobs' book is to urban planning.

Though  Complexity's anniversary isn't receiving anything like the hype that Jacobs' book is, it won't go ignored, thanks to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the University of Pennsylvania. To celebrate the publication of Venturi's "gentle manifesto," MoMA's Martino Stierli and Penn's David Brownlee have organized a three-day symposium that will kick off in New York on Thursday, then move to Philadelphia on Saturday. The event, which is free and open to the public, should generate  renewed interest in Venturi's ideas, which delivered the knockout punch to chilly, stand-alone modernist architecture and encouraged the appreciation of  buildings tightly inserted into the urban streetscape.

Like Jacobs' assault on city-destroying highways and Corbusian-style public housing towers, Venturi's 1966 critique crystallized a latent public dissatisfaction with the status quo. Architects who were students when Venturi's book appeared recall it as a "great permission-giver" that liberated them from having to design endless variations of slab towers with flat roofs and ribbon windows.

"It was a revelation," explains Stierli, MoMA's architecture curator and a Venturi specialist. "Suddenly, you have this young, unknown architect who says you can do things differently." Brownlee, who wrote Out of the Ordinary, a monograph on Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, considers Complexity the most important book about architecture of the last 50 years.

Having come to Complexity long after modernism had ceased to be the official ideology, I've always enjoyed the book for Venturi's close readings of buildings, and his pure joy in the baroque, one of the great periods of city-building. Venturi leaps through time periods, making astonishing connections, like his famous comparison of the Doge's Palace in Venice and the electronic NASDAQ sign in New York. It was a jokey, rebellious pop sensibility that was perfectly in tune with the moment.

The philosophical congruences between Venturi and Jacobs are fascinating. In his manifesto, Venturi, who is now 91, challenged orthodox modernism for its focus on placeless, unadorned, freestanding buildings - those Corbusian towers-in-a-park. At a time when urban renewal was mowing down vast swaths of American cities, Venturi and Jacobs championed the importance of maintaining older buildings.

He spoke about the "messy vitality," or complexity, that comes from a jumble of styles and urban facades. The phrase echoes Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet" performed by strangers who interacted as they went about their daily business on city streets.

Venturi's ideas were formed in the mid-'50s during a two-year residency at the American Academy in Rome. He fell in love with that city's street life, much as Jacobs did after she moved to Greenwich Village. He was especially taken with baroque buildings, and saw their undulating, ornate facades as screens that communicated meaning as effectively as a modern billboard. In Complexity, he explains how Rome's facades form the edges that define urban spaces like plazas and bring people together. They break down the scale of buildings and hold our interest.

One downside of hitting his target (orthodox modernism, that is) so squarely is that, over the years, Complexity's themes have effectively become the official line. The same thing happened with Death and Life. As a result, it is easy to forget the two books were once radical. Complexity hasn't exactly been forgotten, but it is much less read than it should be, MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll believes.

The book is frequently blamed for unleashing the postmodernist style, which has spawned a lot of faux-historicist architecture, like the Museum of the American Revolution now going up in Philadelphia, as well as thousands of strip shopping centers with temple-like pediments pasted above their entrances. After Venturi's initial success with the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, many in the public grew tired of his use of vaguely classical elements. Venturi, however, has always insisted he was merely extending the modernist vocabulary and not a champion of postmodernism.

Another critique, voiced by Anthony Vidler, former architecture dean at Cooper Union, is that Complexity elevated visual form over social concerns, which had been strongly advocated by the modernists. Sadly, in today's finance-driven developer buildings, we're now seeing the worst of both: dull slabs that lack any redeeming public component.

Jacobs' book suffers from the same focus on form. Though  she advocates getting rid of the brutal public housing towers, she never confronts the issue of where the poor will live. Her quaint notion that neighborhoods will "unslum" overlooks the fact that the mechanism for such change is too often displacement and gentrification.

Complexity is a more difficult book than Death and Life. It combines literary and architectural theory, as well as Venturi's personal taste for eccentric, off-kilter buildings, which he sees as the antidote to the bland functionalism of modernist design. Playing off Mies van der Rohe's dictum, "Less is more," Venturi declared, "Less is a bore."

Most of today's architecture falls between those two poles, and we would be in a much worse place today without Complexity. Venturi will be 100 in 2025. Maybe by then his achievement will get the full tribute it deserves.