Venturi also made some sprightly design jokes early in the permissive decade. For a house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, he winked at the ordinary Cape Cod cottage and twisted a simple peaked-roof scheme around so the front door is in the gable end; then he made the gable end into a broken pediment that, perhaps pretentiously, recalls the great English mannerist historical houses he is so fond of. Inside, the most celebrated of his design jokes is a stair that leads to nowhere; it can be used as a large whatnot and as a ladder to aid in washing a window, but otherwise there is no function. It is, nevertheless, a gantry to the sky, an infinity stair that is a clear symbol of our age.
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 73.
Robert Venturi's Chestnut Hill house (1962) had already used a diagonal entry plan "to relate to directional space."
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 102.
Robert Venturi's best-known permissively spontaneous work is the main stair of the Chestnut Hill house (1962). It runs between the fireplace and the front door and accommodates itself both to the fixed fireplace form on the one side and to the needs of the front door on the other side, for more generous width. Consequently, the stair ends up as a special "nonformalized" shape that was spontaneously induced by the conditions of its surroundings; its form is determined by the interstice between the two walls. In the same house, the rain leader that plunges haphazardly across the facade, does so, Venturi said, because "Life is like that," adding that there cannot be a single order to cover everything because there will always be something that won't fit.
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 118-20.
Robert Venturi, discussing his firm's Chestnut Hill residence in Complexity and Contradiction, explained, "The main reason for the large scale is to counterbalance the complexity. Complexity in combination with small scale in small buildings means busyness. Like other organized complexities here, the big scale in the small building achieves tension rather than nervousness--one appropriate to such architecture.
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 233.
Few houses support so much discussion and analysis in their first decade as Robert Venturi's house (1962) in Chestnut Hill, outside Philadelphia [sic]. The house is a simple-looking building on a suburban lot. Its overall form is that of a gabled and chimneyed cottage, but Venturi has twisted it around in plan as we have seen and put the entrance on the gable side. That north elevation is reminiscent of a detail of Blenheim Palace--the attic of the principal courtyard portico--one of the mannerist works of Sir John Vanbrugh that Venturi is so fond of. Like a new broken pediment, the two side pavilions are extended toward the center in plan, like a detail of historical architecture blown up to make an entire building for our domestic decade. The exterior is otherwise austerely sited, striped of podium and landscaping, like Palladian villas in Italy and England. Then, whimsically, the Palladian hallmark, the arched window, is alluded to by a tacked-on broken arch in wood trim, which presages the half-vault ceiling of the dining room. These means are used both to make historical allusions and also to use them perversely, campily, ironically, sardonically.
The front door, clearly situated at the center of the broken pediment, is nevertheless concealed, placed on the side with a diagonal "inflection" toward it, as Venturi says. Inside, the rectangular plan is spiked with diagonals, from the entry into other rooms and to the fireplace plan. Some of these angles are seemingly arbitrary, but lively and whimsical. The entry funnels one into the dining area, past the kitchen and past the adjacent stair to the second floor. The stair and kitchen walls are inflected like directional signals to lead occupants and to accommodate their movement. The house also rings variations on other supermannerist devises besides historical allusions and diagonals. The screen of walls, multilayered like three-dimensional facade architecture, can be seen in the front elevation, where they appear as superimposed on other screen that make up the elevations. And the painterly composition of the ordinary if irregular windows begin a direction that Venturi & Rauch developed more intricately in the Nantucket cottages fostered by the monumental explanations on historical analogy that the architect provided? Nevertheless, the historical analogy superimposes another scale of the mannerist age's ritualism into the personalized twentieth-century dollhouse. It is the superimposition of supermannerist superscale in one of its most intellectualized forms. Venturi as theorist traversed a complex argument of contradictory justification for the house that reflects more the wily inventiveness of his mind than the elaborateness of the house. And this can be said safely, since aestheticians recognize all design theory as ex post facto musing and rationalizing. Venturi explained the contradictions he expected everyone to find in the house. Its starkness elicited a cry that it was willful, ugly, and offensive. Its allusions and manipulations were greeted by others as cheerful, sprightly, fresh, and vital. Architecture critic Ellen Perry Berkeley said the house had "a serious whimsy, a rational ambiguity, a consistent distortion." We can add that it also has a studied chaos, a stark elaborateness, and a forced lightness.
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 264-66.
Cat's away, mice will play
Mom goes eclectic
Emlen Physick House 4016e