1925–2018

Jencks, Eisenman, FAT, and more remember Robert Venturi

Architecture International Obituary Professional Practice
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (Matt Wargo/VSBA)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (Matt Wargo/VSBA)

Robert Venturi passed away at age 93 on Wednesday, and there has been an overwhelming response from the architecture community. From dedicated disciples to former intellectual foes, many architects and critics have taken a moment to recognize how deep and impactful Venturi’s legacy really is. We collected some of those tributes here.

Deborah Berke:

With the passing of Robert Venturi, Architecture has lost one of its greats. But to say Bob belonged to Architecture with a capital “A” is to limit the scope of his contribution. Bob was an artist, an adventurer, an agitator. Architecture, design, planning, and writing were his media, but his goal—brilliantly achieved—was to change culture. Alongside his equally gifted collaborator, Denise Scott Brown, he opened the profession to new possibilities and rewrote the canon of architectural history. He also developed a visual language—infused with wit, color, pattern, and erudition—that reverberates far beyond his buildings.

Barbara Bestor:

Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction (written in 1966 the year I was born!) was a revelation for me as a youngster. Though I was immersed in neo-modernist design school, I was drawn to the crazy formal and informal conversations he described between architects from ancient Rome to Victorian England… It taught me that architectural discourse is in fact buildings IN DISCOURSE with other buildings! Also with cities and with people and with art! This is still big news in our current “post-human” design moment!

Plus who doesn’t love seeing the decorated sheds of Las Vegas as lovingly explicated by Venturi and his partner Denise Scott-Brown? Personally I relish checking out the lovely little “bird houses” of Block Island (1979 Coxe-Hayden) every summer, and they have had a direct impact in freeing me to reinterpret vernacular forms in my own work.

Jean-Louis Cohen:

In an age of despair in respect to the practice of architecture, as vulgarized modernization had upstaged poetic modernism, Robert Venturi’s 1966 book came as a revelation. It allowed for a reconciliation between Le Corbusier, Aalto, Bernini and Balthazar Neumann, recruiting apparently incompatible buildings to cast a fascinating menagerie of shapes and patterns. If anything, his writings and his early projects stimulated for my generation the appetite for culture and the ability to play with single objects and the city at large. Bob reminded us that, before generating form, architecture is a discipline of observation, alert to the everyday landscape, as well as towards its own linguistic fetishisms and obsessions.

Neil M. Denari:

The sphere of influence that Robert Venturi constructed over the course of his estimable career is much larger than we think, because the Postmodern label did not, in the end, constrain the ways in which architects with many ideologies have approached and utilized his theories. I feel like Complexity and Contradiction is the architectural equivalent of Gödel’s Theory of Incompleteness- a set of ideas (maybe even laws) that outlines how complexity is not simply the antidote to boredom, but more importantly, that it is a persistent contemporary condition. His shadow is long, his ideas are transcendent, and I, for one, will always owe a debt to his immense contributions to the field.

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High five from RV.

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Peter Eisenman:

Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, the first book of architectural theory by an American architect, opened the way for a generation of young architects – Charles Moore, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, and more – to challenge the platitudes of corporate practice in the 1960s and ’70s. In combining the best of European architectural history—Vignola, Soane, Moretti, etc.—with contemporary iconography, Venturi developed an idea of complexity that became the critical tool for stanching the tide of laissez-faire modernism and changing the face of American architecture. I for one will miss him and his dry sense of humor.

Mark Foster Gage:

I remember about 20 years ago when I was considering going to graduate school for architecture I met, of all people, Robert Venturi. We ended up having drinks and both got not-quite-but-close drunk. He said, “Don’t ever become an architect… unless there’s absolutely nothing else you can possibly do…” I was mortified! I thought oh my god, what am I doing if THIS guy who’s at the top of the pile is telling me it’s hard (I also remember thinking that is really was all I could possibly do—the alternative being falling back on my mostly medieval art history degree…). Only in retrospect did I realize that what he was conveying was truly sage advice. Architecture is neither an easy path nor a mere job–but more of an infatuation that involves a significant amount of struggle. He knew this, and it was evidenced in his own work, for instance when he, the ur-figure of postmodernism, was on the cover of Architect Magazine quoted as saying “I am not nor have ever been a postmodernist.” You can see the struggle in his work between high modernist training and the whimsy of pop culture. To this day I think the strength of his work is the struggle to reconcile these two directions—rather than merely opening the floodgates of postmodernism through his writing and early work. There was discomfort in his work—hard effort. I don’t think the postmodernism of Venturi was easy and frivolous, I think it was complicated, rich, detailed and intelligent—qualities we should all be so lucky to imbue in our work as we struggle through our own careers for this difficult but beautiful infatuation of ours.

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Divine right of kings #RobertVenturi

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Dan Graham:

Bob Venturi was one of the one or two best American architects and was a great writer on architecture, architectural history, and theory. His love of pop art infuriated my friend Richard Serra and that is why I wrote a defense of him in Artforum. He criticized Mies, but in the end, came to appreciate him and understand his importance. His background was as an Italian-American and Quaker, and he loved American and English vernacular architecture, billboards and shopping malls. Denise Scott Brown said he loved to watch English soap operas on PBS and he had a great sense of humor. I was lucky to meet him.

Paul Goldberger:

I am accustomed to thinking of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas as books from a long time ago, and indeed they are. But I don’t know if there could be any better way than to honor Robert Venturi than to open both of them again, and to be reminded that these are, in fact, timeless books: anchored in the 1960s and 1970s, yes, but transcending those years to speak to us now and for a long time to come. Complexity teaches you how to see architecture, and to understand how it is always about both/and, not either/or. Las Vegas, which he wrote with his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown as well as Steven Izenour, shows us how architecture is the making of sign and symbol as much as the making of space, and points the way toward the conflation of electronic media and architecture. Both books were prescient, and far more important than the air of nostalgia that surrounds them is the pleasant reminder of their continued meaning.

Bob Venturi, writer of the “gentle manifesto,” was himself gentle, kind, soft-spoken, and absolutely driven. He was as ambitious as anyone in the architecture business, but his ambition was softened by a connoisseur’s love of form, a critic’s incisive perception, and a tourist’s enthusiasms about the world. His architecture was a series of exuberant, inventive, and incisive mannerist explorations, modern even as it appeared to turn modernism on its head.

We first met when I was still an undergraduate, and thanks to an introduction from Vincent Scully, I had the chance to talk with him and Denise about their work, a conversation that led to a piece about them in The New York Times Magazine that marked the beginning of my life as an architecture critic, or at least a paid one. What I remember best about that interview, beyond how gracious both Bob and Denise were to a young writer with almost no credentials, was the fact that it took place in a sprawling mansion outside of Philadelphia that was owned by an old friend of theirs for whom Bob had designed a house that was never built. The reason the house, which would have been the most important of Bob’s career up to that point—this was 1971—never went ahead was telling: before construction started, the old house came up for sale, and Bob told his friend he didn’t see how any new house could be as appealing as that old one, and recommended he buy it instead of building the Venturi house. What other architect would willingly say such a thing to a client?

Bob was incapable of dissembling. Most people who are as congenitally honest as he was see the world in simplistic, black-and-white terms; Bob always saw it as nuanced, richly complex, ironic, defined by “richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.” It is that combination—utter directness tempered by an absence of dogma and ideology, a penchant for truthfulness together with a mind for nuance and subtlety—that marked Bob, and shaped both the extraordinary words and the great architecture that are his legacy.  

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💙Another pic from our visit to Vanna Venturi’s house 💙 . . . #architecture #robertventuri

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Sean Griffiths:

It goes without saying that he and Denise were huge influences on me personally and on FAT in general. They have also been incredibly supportive over the years. For us, they were simply the most important architects of the second half of the 20th century. They managed the incredible feats of producing highly influential buildings, creating a new architectural movement, and my god—those books—they changed everything,all the while remaining outsiders, never fully accepted by the establishment. For me Learning from Las Vegas is the most important book written on architecture and urbanism in the last 50 years. It completely changed the way we judge architecture, think about places and their meanings, represent space and analyze the relationship between people and environments. It was so much more than a book “about” Las Vegas. It was a totally new way to look at the built environment.

Sam, Charles, and I will never forget our first visit to Philadelphia when Bob and Denise welcomed us into their home and took us on a tour of the Mother’s house, the Louis Kahn house across the road (in which Bob delighted in pointing out which of the ideas in it were his—most of them according to him!), the Guild House, and their office. They then took us to dinner and we talked about our mutual love of the Sopranos opening titles and he and Denise professed a love for English sitcoms—“What’s the name of the one with the women priest?” he asked, referring to The Vicar of Dibley. We just thought it was hilarious that here we were with our architectural heroes and we were actually discussing The Vicar of Dibley of all things. Best of all, Bob and Denise attended the lecture we gave at UPenn and afterward saluted us with the immortal words, “Terrific…keep up the bad work!”

I feel deeply honored to have known them both.

Charles Holland:

Robert Venturi was without a doubt my favorite architect. His work has been a huge and constant source of inspiration to me. Not just the buildings but the way he combined the, with research, teaching and writing of the highest order. He wrote not one but two enormously influential and undeniably important books, the second with his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown. Together they opened up architecture to so many things; to an appreciation of the everyday and to a way of learning from the things around us. Of all the buildings, my favourite is the Trubek House, one of a pair shingle-clad cottages realised on Nantucket Island in 1970. It has it all this house: the plays of scale, the complex spatiality, the tension between architecture and ordinary life, the two never fully resolved. Robert Venturi’s importance cannot be overstated and he leaves the world of architecture a much poorer place. RIP Bob.

Sam Jacob:

I don’t think I could express how important Bob Venturi (and Denise) were to FAT, and to me personally. I really came across their work in the bargain bookshops of the mid 90’s, picking up that amazing book on the Mother House for nothing. Airbrushed out of the architectural history I’d been taught at school, their work seemed so amazingly fresh and relevant to an age of information and communication (remember the zeal and optimism of digital culture at that time!).

So free of all that stale reactionary nonsense that had surrounded them (especially in the UK at the time of Prince Charles’ National Gallery interventions) we could find our own resonances. Sampling, cutting and pasting, copying, distorting, playing with conventions, and understanding architecture as a form of information itself, I concocted a private dream that was part Venturi part Marshall McLuhan that helped forge a different path through millennial times and digital culture.

Meeting them both in Philly at a small show at Penn we had was incredible, with Bob dropping aphorisms left, right, and center that still stay with me as he toured the show: “Not boring but in a good way,” “keep up the bad work.” I still don’t know what he meant when he told me I wrote like Abraham Lincoln.

He made us feel like co-conspirators, and we in turn felt like we could learn (and steal) so much from him that could restart the engine of a certain strand of architectural attitudes towards culture and design that had stalled.

It’s not overhyped or sentimental to stress his absolute centrality to the very idea of architecture in the late 20th and early 21st century. It’s why after a long time ignored and shunned by the architectural mainstream, his and Denise’s work has become so important to a younger generation of architects. Ugly and ordinary forever!

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Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown — Wislocki House, Nantucket Island MA (1971). RIP.

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Charles Jencks:

Robert Venturi changed architecture (hard), for the better (even harder) but with some unfortunate consequences (the one-liner-anti-symbolism), and many of his small early buildings and a few of his large later works are epics. Their drawing and argument inspired two generations. His writing was most usually in the service of a polemic, and his version of complexity predictive of the way the sciences of the twenty-first century would turn out. I was saddened I couldn’t get Bob to write on the second stage of Postmodernism, but as a good leader of the movement he was gentle, ironic, generous to others, amusing to many, academic, and will always be remembered by me.

Micheal Meredith and Hilary Sample:

Robert Venturi transformed architecture (practice and teaching) for those of us after him (America and abroad). He made it better. Together with Denise Scott Brown, he pioneered design partnerships (now there are so many), engaged multiple scales and media (from books to furniture to buildings to urbanism), and brought architecture into dialog with its contemporary culture (both as an intellectual pursuit and a practical/technical one). He seemed to take equal pleasure in both history and the mundane, offering a witty counterpoint to the heroic artist-architect and to the essentialism of his time with an articulate ambiguity, complexity, and inclusivity (something that is more and more important nowadays).

Robert Ivy:

Robert Venturi, appreciated for high intelligence, erudition, and a benevolent viewpoint, brought humanism to architecture. His work shone with wit and fit—creating a colorful dialogue between past and present, between high seriousness and contemporary irony. Signification, pattern, relationship, and memory. Together with his partners, this improbable radical tinted the world with joy.

Sylvia Lavin:

Although I have known Bob for what seems like forever, both at a distance as an august luminary in the field and a bit closer, as a person with whom to talk about Rome and main street, it is only in the past few years that I have gotten to see him work in intimate detail. Spending time in his archive, I have been systematically struck by the astonishing intelligence that permeates everything but that is often most intense when hidden in office memos, hand-drawn key codes to material specifications and sketches made on legal pads evidently drawn in a library. His sharp acumen and wit has always been abundantly clear to everyone through the discipline-changing work we all know, but the creative timbre of his intellection is different in these less mediated expressions. Kind acknowledgments of the contributions made by secretarial staff, surprisingly precocious interest in digital technologies, and outbursts of frustrations with the ordinary obstacles confronted by architects, are evidence that in his daily life, he operated in accordance with the principle—often publicly stated but also often misunderstood as mere professional rhetoric—that architects are not heroes but people with interesting jobs to do.

And in these documents, there is also evidence of perhaps the smartest thing he ever did – which was to marry Denise, to whom I offer my deepest condolences.

Elena Manferdini:

Very few texts captured a cultural paradigm shift as Robert Venturi and Scott Brown’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas. Their influence on generations of architects is as fresh as it was when those texts were first published. They destabilized the form-function determinism of modernist architects and opened our field to hybrid forms, super graphics, and pop-style culture. They liberated architecture from anachronistic dogmas with intellectual depth, innate sense of humor, unexpected juxtapositions and playful colors. They looked at architecture as a cultural inclusive expanded field.

Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample:

Robert Venturi transformed architecture (practice and teaching) for those of us after him (America and abroad). He made it better. Together with Denise Scott Brown, he pioneered design partnerships (now there are so many), engaged multiple scales and media (from books to furniture to buildings to urbanism), and brought architecture into dialog with its contemporary culture (both as an intellectual pursuit and a practical/technical one). He seemed to take equal pleasure in both history and the mundane, offering a witty counterpoint to the heroic artist-architect and to the essentialism of his time with an articulate ambiguity, complexity, and inclusivity (something that is more and more important nowadays).

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Found this dedication in a 1st edition of Complexity and Contradiction

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Ivan Saleff:

Ciao Bob,

Bob has left the building. His spirit will roam the universe for eternity always nigh his beloved Denise and Jim. The maestro’s boundless work remains behind with us. It will thankfully perplex pundits, colleagues and students for centuries to come. Bob and Denise’s work has always been inclusive speaking to all ages, cultures, endeavors, and genders. Bob chose to write in common language however his work also provides the challenge of peeling back its deeper layers.

Bob’s daily life and work formed one unified whole full of the complexities and contradictions of which he wrote. There was no other Venturi lurking. He was the real deal, authentic, loving and committed in everything he did. Bob was courageous in his efforts to combat pretentious trends which traded substance for drama and one-liner. His arsenal included wit, artistry, ambiguity, irony and academic prowess. He was well armed and ready to engage.

I remember him telling me of how he struggled at the time when placing the fractured horizontal white band at the fifth floor of Guild House. It took me a while to fully understand that. It made me think. That is what Bob does. He makes us think.

Ashley Schafer and Amanda Reeser:

Picking up copy edits on the day of Robert Venturi’s passing, we were struck by the pertinence of the image on the last page of our last issue. It is a photograph of Bob and Denise taken from the back seat, framed by a windshield, ahead of which are signs, strip malls, decorated sheds. It captures so perfectly how they asked us to look at the world differently. Their embrace of Americana, of the city, of what is worthy of our attention, opened the discipline to a more diverse set of interests and narratives long before it was politically correct to do so. The inclusivity Bob championed in Complexity and Contradiction expanded ways of operating in the field, which deeply influenced us at PRAXIS (not to mention generations of architects). His and Denise’s intellectual generosity is a reminder of how we should all strive to practice.

Martino Stierli:

We have lost a giant, but also an incredibly warm, witty, and generous human being. I remember once cooking a simple pasta with tomato sauce for Bob and Denise in their beautiful Philadelphia home, when I had just started working on my PhD thesis on their Learning from Las Vegas. When Bob saw the sauce, he commented: “How exotic!” He really did see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Venturi, through his pointed observations, is rhetorical brilliance and his puns, forever changed how we think and talk about architecture. One of his most famous drawings illustrated his concept of the decorated shed with the words “I AM A MONUMENT.” That he is.

Michael Sorkin:

One of the first articles I published after finishing school was a screed attacking Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Not altogether originally, I charged Bob Venturi with promoting an escapist, purely visual, aesthetic at time of social crisis. How wrong I was! That book and his work were really all about the political and its imbrication not simply in artistic invention but in expansive choice and respect for the choices of others. Bob was eternally and ever gently subversive and changed – liberated – the way we think about architecture. He realized what we were so piously fighting for: the authenticity of difference and the freedom of the imagination.

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He even signed his name in a fun way 💔 RIP Bob Venturi

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Léa-Catherine Szacka:

“Main Street is Almost all Right”

Robert Venturi (1925-2018), probably the best representative of American Postmodernism, was one of the twenty participants of the spectacular Strada Novissima at the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale. In fact, together with Denise Scott Brown and John Rauch, he probably stayed at the most important address on that street, behind a façade that took the form of a colorful pop cartoonish temple with, in the back, and visible from the street, a large reproduction of the 1964 Vanna Venturi house painted by Cinecittà technicians.

Venturi’s presence in the exhibition was seen as not only desirable but as absolutely essential to the success of the show. So much so that chief curator Paolo Portoghesi made sure to include architectural historian Vincent Scully amongst the advisory board of the exhibition, as he knew, only Scully would be able to convince the father of postmodernism to come and play with the other kids on the block.

Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry:

Bob Venturi led the way backward to a “gentler, simpler time.” His was a postmodernists’ wail that in the late 1960’s spoke a more complex language than that enunciated by canonical modernism. Always the gentleman, he seemed uncomfortable with the mantel of notoriety which nonetheless he wore with great dignity. Never the “starchitect” Bob was too retiring to be bothered by the machinations of fame. He never aimed to be the leader of the “loyal opposition” party either and while his words spoke volumes about complex values, his architectural production sometimes fell a bit short of the mark but not by much.

Curiously, like Mies van der Rohe before him he lived to see the discipline of architecture diminished by the false gods of “Marketing and Branding,” but the ethos that has ennobled architecture throughout the ages has already touched the youngest generation who would aspire to that which has been missing in our epoch- “value.”

James Wines:

“Bob and Denise”

In my mind, Bob and Denise are a single entity… a consolidation of infinite intellect and creativity that changed the very foundations of how we think about the built environment. Their unified presence has been totally embedded in both my conscious and subconscious views of architecture since the 1970s; so, it is impossible to believe that one half of this divine team is missing. Denise will surely go on to ever more amazing triumphs of art and theory, but the unity and expansiveness of their ideas will always endure in the design world as a supreme example of love and vision in one package.

Mark Wigley:

Robert Venturi was hugely influential and hugely misunderstood. He most famously called for complexity and contradiction in architecture but he was actually a new kind of minimalist, always looking to maximize the effect of the least–as revealed by the very compactness of the self-undermining mantra “Less is a Bore.” He was a truly laconic architect, efficiently belittling what others celebrate and celebrating what others belittle. More than anything, he savored the uncontainable ripples produced by slow-motion collisions between seemingly incompatible little things. Together with Denise Scott-Brown, he kept asking architects to think again, and smile a bit, even if the offer was rarely taken up.

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