Members of the Design Review Committee have said they “hate” and “deplore” architect Robert Venturi’s plans for the proposed Berry Library. But few people doubt that Venturi is one of the world’s greatest and most influential living architects.
Venturi’s theories and style are widely mimicked, and he was the key figure in initiating the Postmodernist movement in the 1960s.
In 1966, Venturi published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” which turned modernist architecture on its head and, in effect, put in motion postmodernist architecture. Venturi said that he wanted ‘complexity and contradiction’ in architecture; he liked the ‘messiness’ of architecture.
Modernism had failed us; failed to deliver on its promises and failed to improve our lives, he said. It needed to be replaced with an architecture that acknowledged the needs and desires of those who inhabited the buildings. He countered the modernist cry of ‘less is more’ with ‘less is a bore.’
In the 1960s, young architects and critics were taken with Venturi’s “new mix, a cocktail of high and low culture,” according to The New York Review of Books.
He established that the symbols of architecture are as important as the things the viewer actually sees. For instance, the symbolism of the Berry Library is based on the mill buildings of New England, according to campus planner Lo-Yi Chan ’54. Venturi sought to capture the architectural essence of Dartmouth Row: brick, plain and simple windows, and thin, straight lines.
Venturi’s iconoclastic style is described in detail in his second book, “Learning from Las Vegas,” which caused more of an uproar in the architectural community than the first. Venturi’s buildings, as delineated in the book, can be divided into two categories: “ducks” and “decorated sheds.”
What are “ducks?” This specification derives its name from the Big Duck in Flanders, Long Island, the 1930s roadside stand in the shape of a duck which sold, among other things, ducks. This building gave Venturi the idea to build buildings that actually speak of their function. Imagine a dairy in the shape of a milk bottle. In this vein, Venturi created the Trans World Airlines Terminal at New York’s Kennedy airport which resembles a bird in flight.
In contrast, Venturi also designs “decorated sheds” which he describes as “the building as generic shelter whose planar surfaces are decorated.” His point was that people are drawn to places like Las Vegas. They like the color, the neon, the decoration, the fountains — all the things disdained by modernists. Venturi said we have to “learn” about the kinds of architecture that people like and apply those lessons to all architects design.
Venturi’s firm, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, which he heads with his wife Denise Scott Brown, now makes sheds. These buildings, although easily understood at first glance, demand greater scrutiny from a viewer to comprehend the grander intentions of the architect.
Since the 1960s he has designed an impressive body of work around the world. He has been honored with dozens of major architectural prizes, including being named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, the Thomas Jefferson Medal, and the ‘Nobel’ of architecture, the Pritzger Prize.
Venturi’s firm has established an esteemed practice based largely on university buildings — he has designed for Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Most recently, he has been praised for the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London. He also designed the Cummings wing to the Thayer Engineering School at Dartmouth.
Some have touted Venturi as the greatest living American architect. But, according to History Professor Marlene Heck, “Architecture isn’t like basketball, where one can say Michael Jordan is the greatest living player of the game. There are many ways of designing, many great architects.”
Venturi’s designs have often been called controversial, but the man himself is softspoken, Heck said.
“Having heard him speak many times and knowing of him and his work for the last 25 years, I can say he comes across as a tremendously thoughtful man; quiet and measured in his manner,” Heck said. “In his work, he has taken chances, done things differently, and as always happens when one does so, he has been criticized.”
But he is in fine company, for all throughout the history of architecture, designers who changed the course of the profession, who had a different vision, have been criticized. Students now are taught about their work and they are held up as great thinkers and practitioners — for example, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Chan, the campus planner, says this is why the College chose Venturi to design the Berry Library.
“When you pick someone of that caliber, you take some risks — and some pay off handsomely. We could have chosen a safe architect, but the College has integrity, as does Venturi.”