Analysis of the Post-modern Features Robert Venturi Used on the Design of ‘vanna Venturi House’

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Analysis of the post-modern features Robert Venturi used on the design of ‘Vanna Venturi house’

Analyse a key post-modern building such as James Stuttgart museum and place it within its historical, architectural and cultural contexts

Figure 1. Historic front facade view of Vanna Venturi House with the architects mother, Vanna Venturi sat in front.[1]

Introduction

Throughout this essay the focus will be to analyse Robert Venturi’s  1962 ‘Vanna Venturi house’ whilst placing it within its cultural, historical and architectural contexts. Exploring ‘Vanna Venturi House’, also known as ‘Mothers house’,  due to it prominently being known as “the first example of Postmodern architecture.”[2]and “The most significant house of the second half of the twentieth century”.[3] Also chosen, due to its instrumental play in allowing Venturi to write one of the most prominent books in post-modern architecture ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’. It allowed him to explore and test his ideals setting out a new movement that would change the course of architecture after the mid-20th century. This essay further examines why the perception of modernism was it had ‘failed’ and how this caused a reaction of post-modernism. After defining post-modernism an analysis of the post-modernistic principles Venturi applied to the design of ‘Vanna Venturi House’ will be explored.

Historical/ Cultural and Architectural Context

After the turn of the 20th century, there was mass urbanisation across the western world; Cities were growing dramatically fast due to an increase of industrial action, a new social status the ‘working class’ emerged (Before 1800 there was no working class) which needed  housing, emergence of a middle class caring for the poor (e.g. the poor having inadequate sanitary conditions, limited electricity and living in slum conditions etc), emergence of new technologies including mass production and access to new materials. Modernist architecture responded to these issues and internalised fordist ideas of standardisation and efficiency. Society transformed and the demands it pushed caused architecture to change. People needed to be housed quickly, cities needed to expand and a utopian solution was to start again. Architecture must change to fit society. Modernism emerged. Modernism embraced;

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 “ Rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism (…) It was associated with an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, structural innovation and the elimination of ornament. (…) The style became characterised by an emphasis on volume, asymmetrical compositions, and minimal ornamentation (…) Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier were the pioneers of the movement”[4]

Modernism rejected to follow precedent from history, ignoring centuries of architectural development through trial and error, wanting to break free from previous architectural styles.

“The international style was a reaction against the Beux-arts, totally against the old history of architecture. It was all about a wave of change, a wave of the future”[5]

 Famously known for its founding principle ‘form before function’ stated by Louis Sullivan, modernism followed the idea the exterior should reflect the function of the interior, whereas before buildings exteriors were styled in the expression of past styled traditions. It embarked on an ideal of an ‘International style’ that would for example;

“look the same in Switzerland as it would in Mexico. The movement saw it standard in architecture based on utopian aspirations of an equal society in which class distinctions within a built environment were minimised”[6]


Figure 2. Le Corbusiers Villa Savoye is a prime example of modernist architecture. It took context and history into no  consideration, looking as though it could be placed anywhere within the world, not from the outskirts of Paris.[7]


One modernist attribute was to be “honest to materials”[8]. It allowed materials to be expressed fully with its structure and not hiding the identity of the structure behind a façade of cladding.

Figure 2. Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University by Gordon Bunshaft, 1963 . A modernist building expressing it’s structural materiality rather than hiding it behind a façade of cladding. [9]

However, by the mid-20th century society had again transformed. There was a perception that modernism had ‘failed’. The discipline of architecture began to get a bad name so it was convenient for the discipline to identify the ‘fault’ of architecture not in societal structures over which architects have no say, but in a form of architecture which architects can correct. Modernism became an enemy and adversary. Partly due to “the law of uneven developments: Society doesn’t move all in one go altogether from one thing to another. It’s a piecly process by which one sector or segment may move forward and others don’t move as fast”[10]. Modernism was too radical for society to keep up with. Society had changed. It became post-industrial rather than industrial, partly due to a rise in finance capital. Society moved to a post-fordist ideology rather than fordist. No longer was society focused on efficiency and standardisation of systems. They wished for bespoke, individuality, contextual design. Society was now neoliberal rather than Keynesian, now a free market economy instead of a planned economy. Most importantly society had shifted towards postmodernity rather than modernity. There was now more emphasis on pluralism and diversity, a mix of high and low culture, there was multiple voices speaking out not just one, it was now more pragmatic however lacking a horizon of emancipation. It was about the utopia of the now, not the utopia of the future.

Society’s perception that modernism had failed put blame on the discipline of architects. Therefore, the discipline needed to regain legitimacy and respectability, it had to up its standings in society and identify adequate responses to the demands of this new changing society .

Figure 2. Above is the ‘Pruitt Igoe’ development St. Louis, Missouri which was a prime example of failed modern architecture. In 1972 it became a crime haven and was in a worst state than the slums it swore to replace. Charles Jenks regarded the demolition of Pruitt Igoe as the ‘death of Modern Architecture’. [11]

The problem with the modernist style was it mainly focused on functionalism (not meaning free). All architecture has meaning and modernists architectures shunning of meaning meant it was not communicative enough. Caused by its radical break with the previous languages people were familiar with destroying all its communicative capacities.

“Modern architecture came along as a revoke, you have to see it as a revoke not an evolution of architectural thinking”[12]

An example, Charles Jenks, mocked Mies van der Rohe’s ( Key modernist influencer) Illinois campus chapel saying it didn’t represent a chapel, in fact from the exterior it could have been a boiler room or anything imaginable supporting the idea of wrong communication through modernist architecture. People didn’t understand the programme of buildings because the signs of what they represented were wrong.

Figure 2. Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior – IIT known as ‘the god box’, designed by Mies.[13] Maybe compare with a post- modern chapel

The discipline needed to restore communication, through symbolism, back into architecture. Change had to be gradual, not radical. The buildings being designed looked alien, no one understood the dialect the buildings were trying to speak. Leading to no longer repress meaning and symbolism but to actually engage with it. Architecture can’t be internationally uniform. The ‘international style’ failed to recognise individuality, culture and context. A building of today would not be built without factoring the sites history, surrounding buildings or local materials. During the early 1960’s society became emerged in popular culture. There is no escape from popular culture. From this you get the ideology of ‘High’ culture and ‘Low’ culture. This translates to architecture with ‘High’ architecture and ‘Low’ architecture.

Rise of Post-Modernism

As reaction to the failure of modernism emerged post-modernism. Post-modernism went about correcting and diminishing the idea of an ‘international style’ and instead reviving the historical languages of architecture.

“Post-modernism recognises that buildings are designed to mean something, they are not hermetically sealed objects. Post-modernism accepts diversity; prefers hybrids to pure forms; encourages multiple and simultaneous readings in its effort to heighten expressive content. Borrowing from form and strategies of both modernism and the architecture that preceded, post-modernism declares the pastness of both. The layering of space characteristic of much post-modernist architecture finds its complement in the overlay of cultural and art-historical references in the elevations. For the post-modernist, ‘more is more’.” [14]

Post-modernist architects can be referred to as mannerists “The term given to a style of Renaissance art and architecture (…) the style is characterized by surprising effects and visual trickery”[15].

Mannerists, such as Venturi, mimicked and reinvented classical principals by using historical symbolism within there buildings. As post-modernism is seen as a reaction towards modernism, its almost a sarcastic gesture, that the architect takes a style and then adds ornament to a building, altering its formal conventions so they no longer make complete perfect sense. Unoriginal unlike modernism, to Venturi and other post-modernists, originality was of less a concern. The main concern was “an architecture of complexity and contradiction that has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”[16]

As an influencer of the post-modernist reaction, Venturi is famous for rejecting Mies van der Rohe’s modernist approach ‘Less is more’ and spinning it with his own approach “Less is a bore”[17]. Post-modernists believed it was boring to reduce everything and be a minimalist. They believed it took the richness out of architecture with the idea the more rich something was, the more fun it was. This showed they wanted hybridity instead of purity. In Venturi’s ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’, he contradicts Charles Jenks statement ‘modernism was not clear in its communication’. Venturi’s perspective was modern architecture was too clear in saying one thing.

A key vehicle of the post-modernist movement was its take on semiotics in association with architectural form. Symbols and signifiers have always existed in the architectural discipline however the signified can be the same, but the signifier can mean many different things. In architectural form the signifier usually represents classical architecture in a form of symbolism. An example is the modern use of columns. In ancient times columns were seen as symbolic due to the extortionate amount of man hours they required to construct and the materials and resources required also. Columns were very expensive, only wealthy and powerful people could afford to commission them. Also they were large and of massive importance to the structural integrity of a building, usually supporting a pediment and roof structure. The symbolic value they represented included wealth, structural integrity and power. Post-modernistic ideology borrows this symbolism and places it within a modern context using it as ornament. Modern columns may not even act in a structural way or built of high quality materials. As shown below, the example acts in a non-structural capacity. It has clearly been placed as ornament to represent the columns
symbolic values and mimic a historical language.

Figure 1. Comparison between ancient historic use of columns on a Doric temple (left) compared to Charles Moore’s use of columns on Williams College (right). Moore’s use of columns is purely symbolic as not being used for structural integrity but for ornamentation. Moore is also trying to portray ‘wit’ and ‘humour’ by mimicking a ionic column.[18]

Venturi duck example

Another important factor for post-modernism was the idea of ‘collage’. Borrowing parts from different era’s and styles, putting them together to create something new. Vanna Venturi house is a prime example. Collage is a way of creating a pluralist, democratic discipline for society. It resolved issues of difference between tradition and utopia. An act that held together these differences not requiring elements to be radically modified. Radical design is why modernism failed. Post-modernism was taking a step back, looking at the lessons of history, whilst simultaneously glancing at the prospects of the future. Collage was a solution to the disciplines and society’s needs.

Photoshop overlay showing different historical elements

Analysis of ‘Vanna Venturi house’

Venturi started designing Vanna Venturi house in 1959 along with architectural partner John Rauch. Construction began in 1962 and completed in 1964. Before construction, Venturi had completed six fully worked out versions of the house. The house is located on Chesnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A,  and was designed for the architects mother Vanna to move into after the death of Robert Venturi Sr (the architects father). Located on the same street was Louis Kahn’s Esherick House of 1961, it was said that much of Roberts earlier designs were influenced by that of Kahn’s, who Robert had previously learned from and worked with. Vanna commissioned the house to help her son develop as an architect.  Vanna Venturi house was Roberts first project as an independent architect, now prominently his most famous.  It famously explores the ideology of ‘Complexity and Contradiction in architecture’ which Venturi famously wrote a book with the same name.

Venturi started writing the book whilst designing Vanna Venturi house, however the book was not published until 1966. The book is a direct reaction to the modern orthodox. Venturi’s argument, which he portrays through ‘complexity and contradiction’, is very disciplinary written for architects. Within the book, Venturi portrays his idea of;

“a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience which is inherent in art (…) I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity (…)  I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit  function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or”, black and white, sometimes grey, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once. But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or it implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”[19]

Figure 2. One of the most prominent books written defining the principles of post-modernsit architecture setting out the ideals of a ‘Complexity and Contradiction’ conflicting the ideals of modernsim.[20]

.Expand In that book, Robert depicts the house as being:

“both complex and simple, open and closed, big and little; some of its elements are good on one level and bad on another; its order accommodates the generic elements of the house in general , and the circumstantial elements of a house in particular. It achieves the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts rather than the easy unity of few or many motival parts.”[21]

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Vanna Venturi house was a direct response to the modernist architecture that preceded it. It has many features including; A pitched roof rather than the modernist flat roof, there was emphasis on the central hearth and chimney, it had a closed ground floor, the front elevation had a broken gable and the application of ornamental features which reflected the idea of mannerism in architecture showing it was a complete rejection of the modernsit movement by contradicting its formal aesthetics and values.

Within Vanna Venturi house, Venturi makes reference to historic architectural details. Venturi changed the form of these details and used them for there symbolic ideals by changing their implicit meanings.

By doing this he creates bewilderment and humility. To add more bewilderment, Venturi created a ‘Nowhere stair case’ and placed it on the first floor. “The little “nowhere stair” from the second floor (…) accommodates awkwardly to its residual core space: on one level, it goes nowhere and is whimsical; at another level it is like a ladder against a wall from which to wash the high window and paint the clerestory.”[22]

Venturi’s rejection of Modernist architecture is further portrayed in the exterior of the property. Modern orthodox used flat roofs and glass walls. They also placed emphasis of the horizontal floor plane on the exterior. As a reaction to this, Venturi implemented a pitched roof, windows instead of a glass wall and showed no expression of the horizontality of floors on the exterior within his design.

“The front in its conventional combinations of door, windows, chimney and gable creates an almost symbolic image of a house”[23]

Venturi wished to express these fundamental elements of a house as he says “Windows that were not disguised as absence of wall, strip in wall, or empty hole in wall: windows with multiple panes defined by mullions and muntins that remind you of windows”[24] Venturi wanted to bring back a familiarity image of a house, which was lost in the modern movement. He wished for the house to communicate its programme, showing people its correct signs. Venturi wanted people to understand the dialect the house spoke, the house for the American family. He was much concerned with how the house performed too. “The function of the house is to protect and provide privacy, physiological as well as physical, is an ancient one”.[25]It was said that his house signified a child’s drawing if asked to draw a house. This is used as a ‘sign’ to represent the relationship between mother and son, due to venturi designing the house for his mother.

Figure 2. Robert Venturi’s sketch of Vanna Venturi house. It highlights the fundamentals of what we associate

with the symbolism of a house and portrays the house in a childlike manner.[26]

 Venturi’s use of an arch over the front doorway is both an example of historical symbolism as well as contradiction. Historically the arch signifies ‘entry’ and ‘structural integrity’. Venturi has placed the arch over the door way due to its symbolic values. He wished to express the doorway as an open entry point, inviting users through the door, and “Admit and celebrate entrance intrusion in façade: entrance is not just a shadow as absence of wall”[27] therefore is signifying/ celebrating the entrance to the house. However this has purely been done on symbolic grounds due to the arch not being part of the structure or having no structural integrity in relation to the building. This is shown through Venturi’s removal of where traditionally a keystone would be located. This is due to the gable being split at its apex and Venturi’s intention to use it as ornamentation.  The contradiction that is played through using the arch as ornamentation is the structural lintel that sits below. “Redundancy- as in decorative arch juxtaposed on functional lintel in mother’s house entrance”[28]. Its contradictory in the sense that the arch is just ornamentation where it formally would have been used as a structural element not as decoration.


[1] Amy Frearson, 1 of 12 Postmodern architecture: Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia by Robert Venturi (2015) <https://www.dezeen.com/2015/08/12/postmodernism-architecture-vanna-venturi-house-philadelphia-robert-venturi-denise-scott-brown/#disqus_thread> [accessed 14 July 2019].

[2] Adelyn Perez , AD Classics: Vanna Venturi House / Robert Venturi (2010) <https://www.archdaily.com/62743/ad-classics-vanna-venturi-house-robert-venturi> [accessed 30 July 2019].

[3] David B. Brownlee, David G, De Long, and Kathryn B. Hiesinger, Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2003), p. 24.

[4] RIBA, Modernism (2019) <https://www.architecture.com/explore-architecture/modernism> [accessed 5 August 2019].

[5] ‘CLEAN LINES, OPEN SPACES A VIEW OF MID CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE, dir. by Carole Adornetto (Youtube, 2015).

[6] ‘CLEAN LINES, OPEN SPACES A VIEW OF MID CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE, dir. by Carole Adornetto (Youtube, 2015).

[7] PHAIDON, Le Corbusier’s Grand Designs: Villa Savoye (2015) <https://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2019/february/04/le-corbusiers-grand-designs-villa-savoye/> [accessed 7 August 2019].

[8] ‘CLEAN LINES, OPEN SPACES A VIEW OF MID CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE, dir. by Carole Adornetto (Youtube, 2015).

[9] PHAIDON, Le Corbusier’s Grand Designs: Villa Savoye (2015) <https://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2019/february/04/le-corbusiers-grand-designs-villa-savoye/> [accessed 7 August 2019].

[10] ‘Post-modernism, dir. by Tahl Kaminer (Cardiff University, 2018).

[11]

[12] ‘CLEAN LINES, OPEN SPACES A VIEW OF MID CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE, dir. by Carole Adornetto (Youtube, 2015).

[13] PHAIDON, Le Corbusier’s Grand Designs: Villa Savoye (2015) <https://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2019/february/04/le-corbusiers-grand-designs-villa-savoye/> [accessed 7 August 2019].

[14] Robert Stern, New Directions in Americian Architecture (New York: George Braziller, 1977), p. 134-135.

[15] Victoria and Albert Museum , Style Guide: Mannerism (2016) <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/style-guide-mannerism/> [accessed 7 August 2019].

[16] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 16

[17] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 17

[18] Jamie Masters

[19] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 16.

[20] Word Press, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (2017) <https://maitookamoto.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/complexity-and-contradiction-in-architecture.png> [accessed 9 August 2019].

[21] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 118.

[22] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 118.

[23] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 118.

[24] Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture (USA: Library of Congress, 1996), p. 251.

[25] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London: The Architectural Press LTD: London, 1977), p. 70

[26]

[27] Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture (USA: Library of Congress, 1996), p. 251.

[28] Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture (USA: Library of Congress, 1996), p. 251.

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