The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized
Robert Venturi

Zodiac 17   September 1967
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

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Preface by Vincent Scully

This is not an easy book. It requires professional commitment and dose visual attention, and is not for those architects who, lest they offend them, pluck out their eyes. Indeed, its argument unfolds iike a curtain siowly lifting from the eyes. Piece by piece, in dose focus after focus, the whole emerges. And that whole is new--hard to see, hard to write about, graceless and inarticulate as only the new can be.

It is a very American book, rigorously pluralistic and phenomenological in its method; one is reminded of Dreiser, laboriously trodding out the way. Yet it is probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, of 1923. Indeed, at first sight, Venturi’s position seems exactly the opposite of Le Corbusier’s, its first and naturai complement across time. This is not to say that Venturi is Le Corbusier’s equal in persuasiveness or achievement--or will necessarily ever be. Few will attain to that level again. The experience of Le Corbusier’s buildings themselves has surely had not a little to do with forming Venturi’s ideas. Yet his views do in fact balance those of Le Corbusier as they were expressed in his early writings and as they have generally affected two architectural generations since that time. The older book demanded a noble purism in architecture, in single buildings in the city as a whole; the new book welcomes the contradictions and complexities of urban experience at all scales. It marks, in this way, a complete shift of emphasis and will annoy some of those who profess to follow Le Corbusier now, exactly as Le Corbusier infuriated many who belonged to the Beaux-Arts then. Hence the books do in fact complement each other; and in one fundamental way they are much the same. Both are by architects who have really learned something from the architecture of the past. Few contemporary architects have been able to do this and have instead tended to take refuge in various systems of what can only be called historical propaganda. For Le Corbusier and Venturi, the experience was personal and direct. Each was thus able to free himself from the fixed patterns of thought and the fashions of his contemporaries, so carrying out Camus’ injunction to leave behind for a while "our age and its adolescent furies." Each learned most from very different things. Le Cobusier’s great teacher was the Greek tempie, with its isolated body white and free in the landscape, its luminous austerities clear in the sun. In his early polemics he would have his buildings and his cities just that way, and his mature architecture itself came more and more to embody the Greek temple’s sculptural, actively heroic character. Venturi’s primary inspiration would seem to have come from the Greek temple’s historical and archetypal opposite, the urban façades of Italy, with their endless adjustments to the counter-requirements of inside and outside and their inflection with all the business of everyday life: not primarily sculptural actors in vast landscapes but complex spatial containers and definers of streets and squares. Such "accommodation" also becomes a general urban principle for Venturi. In this he again resembles Le Corbusier, in so far as they are both profoundly visual, plastic artists whose dose focus upon individuai buildings brings with it a new visual and symbolic attitude toward urbanism in general--not the schematic or two-dimensionally diagrammatic view toward which many planners tend, but a set of solid images, architecture itself at its full scale.

Yet again, the images of Le Corbusier and Venturi are diametrically opposed in this regard. Le Corbusier, exercising that side of his many-sided nature which professed Cartesian rigor, generalized in Vers une Architecture much more easily than Venturi does here, and presented a clear, general scheme for the whole. Venturi is more fragmentary, moving step by step through more compromised relationship. His conclusions are general only by implication. Yet it seems to me that his proposals, in their recognition of complexity and their respect for what exists, create the most necessary antidote to that cataclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal which has presently brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe, and in which Le Corbusier’s ideas have now found terrifying vulgarization. They are a hero’s dreams applied en masse--as if an Achilles were to become the king. That is why, one supposes, Venturi is so consistently anti-heroic, compulsively qualifying his recommendations with an implied irony at every turn. Le Corbusier used irony too, but his was as sharp as a steel-toothed smile. Venturi shrugs his shoulders ruefully and moves on. It is this generation’s answer to grandiose pretensions which have shown themselves in practice to be destructive or overblown.

Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew. He has made me, for example, who once focused upon the proto-Wrightian continuities of the Shingle Style, revalue their equally obvious opposite: the complicated accommodations of inside and outside with which those architects themselves were surely entranced. And he has even called attention once more to the principle of accommodation in Le Corbusier’s early plans. So all inventive architects bring their dead to life again as a matter of course. It is appropriate that Le Corbusier and Venturi should come together on the question of Michelangelo, in whose work heroic action and complex qualification found special union. Venturi fixes less than Le Corbusier upon the unified assertion of Michelangelo’s conception in St. Peter’s but, like Le Corbusier, he sees and, as the fenestration of his Friends’ Housing for the Aged shows, can build in accordance with the other: the sad and mighty discordances of the apses, that music drear and grand of dying civilizations and the fate of mankind on a cooling star.

In that sense Venturi is, for all his own ironic disclaimers, one of the few American architects whose work seems to approach tragic stature in the tradition of Furness, Louis Sullivan.Wright, and Kahn. His being so suggests the power of successive generations, living in one place, to develop an intensity of meaning; so much of it is carried in Philadelphia: from Frank Furness to the young Sullivan, and on through Wilson Eyre and George Howe to Louis Kahn. Kahn is Venturi’s closest mentor, as he has been for almost all the best young American architects and educators of the past decade, such as Giurgola, Moore, Vreeland, and Millard. The dialogue so developed, in which Aldo Van Eych of Holland has also played an outstanding role, has surely contributed much to Venturi’s development. Kahn’s theory of "institutions" has been fundamental to all these architects, but Venturi himself avoids Kahn’s structural preoccupations in favor of a more flexibly function-directed method which is closer to that of Alvar Aalto. Unlike his writing, Venturi’s design unfolds without strain. In it he is as facile as an architect of the Baroque and, in the same sense, as scenographic. (His project for the Roosvelt Memorial, probably the best, surely the most original of the entries, shows how serene and grand that scenographic talent can be). There is none of Kahn’s grim struggle in him, no profound agony of structural and functional opposites seeking expression. He is entirely at home with the particular and so offers the necessary opposition to the technological homogenizers who crowd our future. There is surely no quarrel here with Le Corbusier, or even with Mies, despite the universal regularity of the latter’s forms. Many species of high quality can inhabit the same world. Such multiplicity is indeed the highest promise of the modern age to mankind, far more intrinsic to its nature than the superficial conformity or equaliy arbitrary packaging which its first stages suggest and which are so eagerly embraced by superficial designer.

The essential point is that Venturi’s philosophy and design are humanistic, in which character his book resembles Geoffrey Scott’s basic work, The Architecture of Humanism, of 1914. Therefore, it values before all else the actions of human beings and the effect of psysical forms upon their spirit, Venturi is an Italian architect of the great tradition—whose contact with that tradition came from art history at Princeton and a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. But, as his Friends’ Housing shows equally well, he is one of the very few architects whose thought parallels that of the Pop painters--and probably the first architect to perceive the usefulness and meaning of their forms. He has clearly learned a good deal from them during the past few years, though the major argument of this book was laid out in the late fifties and predates his knowledge of their work. Yet his "Main Street is almost all right," is just like their viewpoint, as is his instinct for changes of scale in smail buildings and for the unsuspected life to be found in the common artifacts of mass culture when they are focused upon individuaily. The "Pop" in Le Corbusier’s "Purism", as in that of the young Léger, should not be forgotten here, and it takes on renewed historical significance as its lesson of exploded scale and sharpened focus is learned once more. Again one has the feeling that Le Corbusier, painter and theorist that he was, would have best understood Venturi’s alliance of visual with intellectual intention.

It is significant in this regard that Venturi’s ideas have so far stirred bitterest resentment among the more academic-minded of the Bauhaus generation--with its utter lack of irony, its spinsterish disdain for the popular culture but shaky grasp on any other, its incapacity to deal with monumental scale, its lip-service to technology, and its preoccupation with a rather prissily puristic aesthetic. Most of the Bauhaus design of the twenties, in buildings and furniture alike, can be distinguished by exactly those characteristics from Le Corbusier’s more generous and varied forms of the period. Two strains in modern architecture seem to separate here, with Le Corbusier and Venturi now seen as working the same larger, more humane, architects’ rather than "designers" vein.

Venturi’s projected City Hall for North Canton, Ohio, shows how his architecture also has a connection with the late work of Sullivan and so with the deepest untapped force of American vernacular experience as a whole. This is surely Venturi’s largest achievement in American terms, that he opens our eyes again to the nature of things as they are in the United States--in the small town no less than in New York--and that out of our common, confused, mass-produced fabric he makes a solid architecture; he makes an art. In so doing he revives the popular traditions, and the particularized methodology, of the pre-Beaux Arts, preInternational Style, period. He thus completes that renewed connection with the whole of our past which Kahn’s mature work had begun.

It is no wonder that few of the present crop of redevelopers can yet endure him. They, too, are much in the American grain, village boys with their noses pressed against the window of the candy store and with money to burn for the first time. So they are generally buying junk, fancy trash readymade by an army of architectural entrepreneurs, who portentously supply a spurious simplicity and the order of the tomb: the contemporary package, par excellence. Venturi looks both too complicated and too much like everyday for such people, who, in their architectural forms as in their social programs, would much prefer to gloss over a few of reality’s more demanding faces. Hence, precisely because he recognizes and uses social phenomena as they exist, Venturi is the least "stylish" of architects, going always straight to the heart of the matter, working quickly without either fancy pretenses or vaporish asides. Although he has learned from Mannerist architecture, his own buildings are in no sense "mannered", but surprisingly direct. After all, a television aerial at appropriate scale crowns his Friends’ Housing, exactly as it fills--here neither good nor bad but a fact--our old people’s lives. Whatever dignity may be in that, Venturi embodies, but he does not lie to us once concerning what the facts are. In the straightest sense, it is function that interests him, and the strong forms deriving from functionai expression. Unlike too many architects of this generation, he is never genteel.

It is no wonder that Venturi’s buildings have not found ready acceptance; they have been both too new and, for all their "accommodation" of complexity, too truly simple and unassuming for this affluent decade. They have refused to make much out of nothing, to indulge in flasby gestures, or to pander to fashion. They have been the product of a deeply systematic analysis in programmatic and visual terms and have therefore required a serious reorientation in all our thinking. Hence the symbolic image which prepares our eyes to see them has not yet been formed. This book may help in that regard. I believe that the future will value it among the few basic texts of our time--one which, despite its anti-heroic lack of pretension and its shift of perspective from the Champs-Elysées to Main Street, still picks up a fundamental dialogue begun in the twenties, and so connects us with the heroic generation of modern architecture once more.

Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto

I like complexity and contradiction in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art. Everywhere, except in architecture, complexity and contradiction have been acknowledged, from Godel’s proof of ultimate inconsistency in mathematics to T. S. Eliot’s analysis of “difficult” poetry and Joseph Albers’ definition of the paradoxical quality of painting.

But architecture is necessarily complex and contradictory in its very inclusion of the traditional Vitruvian elementsof commodity, firmness, and delight. And today the wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment, and expression, even in single buildings in simple contexts, are diverse and conflicting in ways previously unimaginable. The increasing dimension and scale of architecture in urban and regional planning add to the difficulties. I welcome the problems ani exploit the uncertainties. By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I am for vitality as well as validity. Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 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 impersonai, boring as well as “interesting”, conventional rather than “designed”, accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocai rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitall ty over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality.

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, and sometimes gray, 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 its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.

Complexity and Contradiction vs.
Simplification or Picturesqueness

Orthodox Modem architects have tended to recognize complexity insufficiently or inconsistently. In their attempt to break with tradition and start all over again, they idealized the primitive and elementary at the expense of the diverse and the sophisticated. As participants in a revolutionary movement, they acclaimed the newness of modern functions, ignoring their complications. In their role as reformers, they puritanically advocated the separation and exclusion of elements, rather than the inclusion of various requirements and their juxtapositions. As a forerunner of the Modem movement, Frank Lloyd Wright, who grew up with the motto “Truth against the World”, wrote: “Visions of simplicity so broad and far-reaching would open to me and such building harmonies appear that. . .would change and deepen the thinking and culture of the modem world. So I believed”. And Le Corbusier, cofounder of Purism, spoke of the “great primary forms” which, he proclaimed, were “distinct. . .and without ambiguity”. Modem architects with few exceptions eschewed ambiguity. But now our position is different: “At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity, and difficulty they also change faster than before”, and require an attitude more like that described by August Heckscher: “The movement from a vìew of life as essentially simple and orderly to a view of life as complex and ironic is what every individual passes through in becoming mature. But certain epochs encourage this development; in them the paradoxical or dramatic outlook colors the whole intellectual scene. . . Amid simplicity and order rationalism is born, but rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval. Then equilibrium must be created out of opposites. Such inner peace as men gain must represent a tension among contradictions and uncertainties. . . A feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth”.

Rationalizations for simplification are still current, however, though subtler than the early arguments. They areexpansions of Mies van der Rohe’s magnificent paradox, “less is more”. Paul Rudolph has clearly stated the implications of Mies’ point of view: “All problems can never be solved. . . Indeed it is a characteristic of the twentieth century that architects are highly selective in determining which problems they want to solve. Mies, for instance, makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspeets of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent”.

The doctrine “less is more” bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive purposes. It does, indeed, permit the architect to be “highly selective in determining which problems [he wants ] to solve”. But if the architect must be “committed to his particular way of seeing the universe”, such a commitment surely means that the architect determines how problems should be solved, not that he can determine which of the problems he will solve. He can exclude important considerations only at the risk of separating architecture from the experience of life and the needs of society. If some problems prove insoluble, he can express this: in an inclusive rather than an exclusive kind of architecture there is room for the fragment, for contradiction, for improvisation, and for the tensions these produce. Mies’ exquisite pavilions have had valuable implications for architecture, but their selectiveness of content and language is their limitation as well as their strength.

I question the relevance of analogies between pavilions and houses, especially analogies between Japanese pavilions and recent domestic architecture. They ignore the real complexity and contradiction inherent in the domestic program--the spatial and technological possibilities as well as the need for variety in visual experience. Forced simplicity results in oversimplifìcation. In the Wiley House, for instance, in contrast to his glass house, Philip Johnson attempted to go beyond the simplicities of the elegant pavilion. He explicitly separated and articulated the enclosed “private functions” of living on a ground floor pedestal, thus separating them from the open social functions in the modular pavilion above. But even here the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplifìed program for living--an abstract theory of either-or. Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results. Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.

The recognition of complexity in architecture does not negate what Louis Kahn has called “the desire for simplicity”. But aesthetic simplicity which is a satisfaction to the mind derives, when valid and profound, from inner complexity. The Doric temple’s simplicity to the eye is achieved through the famous subtleties and precision of its distorted geometry and the contradictions and tensions inherent in its order. The Doric temple could achieve apparent simplicity through real complexity. When complexity disappeared, as in the late temples, blandness replaced simplicity.

Nor does complexity deny the valid simplification which is part of the process of analysis, and even a method of achieving complex architecture itself. “We oversimplify a given event when we characterize it from the standpoint of a given interest”. But this kind of simplification is a method in the analytical process of achieving a complex art. It should not be mistaken for a goal.

An architecture of complexity and contradiction, however, does not mean picturesqueness or subjective expressionism. A false complexity has recently countered the false simplicity of an earlier Modem architecture. It promotes an architecture of symmetrical picturesqueness--which Minoru Yamasaki calls “serene”--but it represents a new formalism as unconnected with experience as the former cult of simplicity. Its intricate forms do not reflect genuinely complex programs, and its intricate ornament, though dependent on industrial techniques for execution, is dryly reminiscent of forms originally created by handicraft techniques. Gothic tracery and Rococo rocaille were not only expressively valid in relation to the whole, but came from a valid showing-off of hand skills and expressed a vitality derived from the immediacy and individuality of the method. This kind of complexity through exuberance, perhaps impossible today, is the antithesis of “serene” architecture, despite the superficial resemblance between them. But if exuberance is not characteristic of our art, it is tension, rather than “serenity” that would appear to be so.

The best twentieth-century architects have usually rejected simplification--that is, simplicity through reduction--in order to promote complexity within the whole. The works of Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier (who often disregards his polemical writings) are examples. But the characteristics of work are often ignored or misunderstood. Critics of Aalto, for instance, have liked him mostly for his sensitivity to natural materials and his fine detailing, and have considered his whole composition willful picturesqueness. I do not consider Aalto’s Imatra church picturesque. By repeating in the massing the genuine complexity of the triple-divided plan and the acoustical ceiling pattern, this church represents a justifiable expressionism different from the willful picturesqueness of the haphazard structure and spaces of Giovanni Michelucci’s recent church for the Autostrada. Aalto’s complexity is part of the program and structure of the whole rather than a device justified only by the desire for expression. Though we no longer argue over the primacy of form or function (which follows which?), we cannot ignore their interdependence. The desire for complex architecture, with its attendant contradictions, is not only a reaction to the banality or prettiness of current architecture. It is an attitude common in the Mannerist periods: the sixteenth century in Italy or the Hellenistic period in Classical art, and is also a continuous strain seen in such diverse architects as Michelangelo, Palladio, Borromini, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Soane, Ledoux, Butterfield, some architects of the Shingle Style, Furness, Sullivan, Lutyens, and recently, Le Corbusier, Aalto, Kahn, and others. Today this attitude is again relevant to both the medium of architecture and the program in architecture.

First, the medium of architecture must be re-examined if the increased scope of our architecture as well as the complexity of its goals is to be expressed. Simplifìed or superficially complex forms will not work. Instead, the variety inherent in the ambiguity of visual perception must once more be acknowledged and exploited.

Second, the growing complexities of our functional problems must be acknowledged. I refer, of course, to those programs, unique in our time, which are complex because of their scope, such as research laboratories, hospitals, and particularly the enormous projects at the scale of city and regional planning. But even the house, simple in scope, is complex in purpose if the ambiguities of contemporary experience are expressed. This contrast between the means and the goals of a program is significant. Although the means involved in the program of a rocket to get to the moon, for instance, are almost infinitely complex, the goal is simple and contains few contradictions; although the means involved in the program and structure of buildings are far simpler and less sophisticated technologically than almost any engineering project, the purpose is more complex and often inherently ambiguous.


While the second classifìcation of complexity and contradiction in architecture relates to form and content as manifestations of program and structure, the fìrst concerns the medium and refers to a paradox inherent in perception and the very process of meaning in art: the complexity and contradiction that results from the juxtaposition of what an image is and what it seems. Joseph Albers calls "the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect” a contradiction which is “the origin of art”. And, indeed, complexity of meaning, with its resultant ambiguity and tension, has been characteristic of painting and amply recognized in art criticism. Abstract Expressionism acknowledges perceptual ambiguity, and the basis of Optical Art is shifting juxtapositions and ambiguous dualities relating to form and expression. Pop painters, too, have employed ambiguity to create paradoxical content as well as to exploit perceptual possibilities.

In literature, too, critics have been willing to accept complexity and contradiction in their medium. As in architectural criticism, they refer to a Mannerist era, but unlike most architectural critics, they also acknowledge a “mannerist” strain continuing through particular poets, and some, indeed, for a long time have emphasized the qualities of contradiction, paradox, and ambiguity as basic to the medium of poetry, just as Albers does with painting.

Eliot called the art of the Elizabethans "an impure art”, in which complexity and ambiguity are exploited: "in a play of Shakespeare”, he said, “you get several levels of significance” where, quoting Ben Jonson, "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked together by violence”. And elsewhere he wrote: “ The case of John Webster. . .will provide an interesting example of a very great literary and dramatic genius directed towards chaos”. Other critics, for example, Kenneth Burke, who refers to “plural interpretation” and “planned incongruity”, have analyzed elements of paradox and ambiguity in the structure and meaning of other poetry besides that of the seventeenth century metaphysical poets and those modem poets who have been influenced by them.

Cleanth Brooks justifies the expression of complexity and contradiction by their necessity as the very essence of art: "Yet there are better reasons than that of rhetorical vainglory that have induced poet after poet to choose ambiguity and paradox rather than plain discursive simplicity. It is not enough for the poet to analyze his experience as the scientist does, breaking it up into parts, distinguishing part from part, classifying the various parts. His task is fìnally to unify experience. He must return to us the unity of the experience itself as man knows it in his own experience. . . .If the poet. . .must perforce dramatize the oneness of the experience, even though paying tribute to its diversity, then his use of paradox and ambiguity is seen as necessary. He is not simply trying to spice up, with a superficially exciting or mystifying rhetoric the old stale stockpot. . . He is rather giving us an insight which preserves the unity of experience and which, at its higher and more serious levels, triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern”. And in Seven Types of Ambiguity William Empson "dared to treat what [had]. . .been regarded as a defìciency in poetry, imprecision of meaning, as poetry’s chief virtue...” Empson documents his theory by readings from Shakespeare, "the supreme ambiguist, not so much from the confusion of his ideas and the muddle of his text, as some scholars believe, as simply from the power and complexity of his mind and art”. Ambiguity and tension are everywhere in an architecture of complexity and contradiction. Architecture is form and substance--abstract and concrete--and its meaning derives from its interior characteristics and its particular context. An architectural element is perceived as form and structure, texture and material. These oscillating relationships, complex and contradictory, are the source of the ambiguity and tension characteristic to the medium of architecture. The conjunction "or” with a question mark can usually describe ambiguous relationships. The Villa Savoye: is it a square plan or not? The size of Vanbrugh’s fore-pavilions at Grimsthorpe in relation to the back pavilions is ambiguous from a distance: are they near or far, big or small? Bernini’s pilasters on the Palazzo Propaganda Fide: are they positive pilasters or negative panel divisions? The ornamentai cove in the Casino Pio V in the Vatican is perverse: is it more wall or more vault? The central dip in Lutyens’ façade at Nashdom facilitates sky-lighting: is the resultant duality resolved or not? Luigi Moretti’s apartments on the Via Porioli in Rome: are they one building with a split or two buildings joined?

The calculated ambiguity of expression is based on the confusion of experience as reflected in the architectural program. This promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning. As Empson admits, there is good and bad ambiguity: ". . .[ambiguity] may be used to convict a poet of holding muddled opinions rather than to praise the complexity of the order of his mind”. Nevertheless, according to Stanley Edgar Hyman, Empson sees ambiguity as “collecting precisely at the points of greatest poetic effectiveness, and finds it breeding a quality he calls ‘tension’ which we might phrase as the poetic impact itself”. These ideas apply equally well to architecture.



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