Last month we lost Robert Venturi: avuncular, kind, and the most consequential American architect since Frank Lloyd Wright. His writings, first alone and then co-authored with his partner Denise Scott Brown and their collaborator Steven Izenour, changed the language architects use to describe the built world, and in doing so swapped out our eyes. That surgery was intensely painful for many at the time. The major writings, challenging as they were in 1966 and 1972, are ingrained in our professional discourse. Read the books if you haven’t—I’ll not recite their catchphrases here. What really rankles, now as then, what got folk lathered up against Venturi and Scott Brown, is not their beautiful fighting-words—it’s their difficult buildings. They tend to be, on the one hand, ruthlessly practical and direct. On the other they are characterized by compaction, displacement, and metamorphosis—by dreamwork. The best of them are as layered as a novel by James Joyce, the 20th century artist whom Venturi would most closely resemble, had Joyce also written Das Kapital.
Though Venturi referred to his writings as apologias for his buildings, he never used his writing to fully unpack their content. I think he wanted his tough butterflies alive in the garden of the real, and not pinned behind glass by his own hand. Like Joyce at his table, at the drawing board Venturi couldn’t help himself. Each building offers such a bouillabaisse of fragmentary and overlapping, repressed and expressed, referents; that no two observers, with their differing life experiences, could ever see quite the same before them. His buildings can sometimes seem light and insubstantial because they accept us as light and insubstantial. From time to time, they rub our noses in the human condition, but they do it with a smile. And though they can be derided as jokes in that they are designed to delight ‘children of all ages,’ they are best appreciated by grown-ups. It took me years in practice to outgrow my Caulfieldian concern for ‘authenticity’ and learn to enjoy the work. It took a few years more to see Venturi and Scott Brown’s buildings had been the most ‘authentic’ on offer for decades.
‘Authenticity’ was a bug-bear for me and I expect it is for most young designers. I was educated in the late ‘70s at Rice University, led then by Dean David Crane (who, not incidentally, had taught with Venturi and Scott Brown at Penn in the early ‘60s, before they had emerged as writers.) Architectural history was taught, and valued, and its examples much discussed in studio, and this in itself shows that Venturi’s perspective had shaped the curriculum in crucial ways. He had made architectural history usable again, not merely a dead foil for smug and self-satisfied Modernism. We could be enthralled by reconstructions of Cluny III and the plan of St. Gall one day, Schinkel and the shingled houses of McKim, Mead and White the next, and the temples of Queen Hatshepsut or Apollo Epicurius at Bassae a week later. The contemporary work that excited my cohort was of course that which the professional journals were publishing (faster than consistently outstanding instances of it could be produced): that of Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Aldo Rossi, Arata Isozaki, and then-recently deceased Louis Kahn, if one had a taste for real concrete and bearing brick, big circles and blonde wood, rather than vertical cedar boards, aluminium panels, wedge shapes, or decorative square-grids-all-over.
In retrospect, our collective enthusiasms—mine, at any rate—were woefully unsophisticated. James Stirling’s partner Michael Wilford taught every spring at Rice, which amped up our awareness of their work. The Stirling of the German museums, the fashionable Michael Graves of the Sunar period, and the theorist Colin Rowe, were each in their own way Surrealists and therefore unsound models of right behavior for the novice. Their strategies of arbitrary and unfalsifiable ur-realist and surrealist collage were devilish snares, and we were discouraged from aping their example. Pressing upon our attention instead were the neo-Rationalists, whose clean, imitable graphics recalled the work of painters like De Chirico and Morandi. They stuck fast to their simplified diagrams of building types, appearing to measure their success as architects by how closely their plans could hew to them. This harmonized nicely with the pedagogical posture at Rice (dominated then by professors John Casbarian, William Cannady, and Adele Santos) where parti was conceived of as diagram and the quality of a student project was judged by the extent to which each design element served its legibility and consistency. We were to understand that the good architect was one who could dependably propose fortuitous diagrams when faced with the programmatic and budgetary demands of individual commissions in actual places. Like the craft-based, detail-oriented strain of Miesian modernism being espoused by the elder professor Anderson Todd, it was not easy—exactly—to teach, but it was a good way to start with beginners.
This valorization of the diagram came at a cost, however, in that the results were both rigid and dry. Leavening and spice came from sprinklings of Funfetti gleaned from the colorful, cardboardlike stage settings of Charles Moore and his collaborators, who’d been given permission to party by Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). As a bonus, Moore’s books were easy reads—just like his buildings— which made him accessible to undergrads such as myself. Serendipitous exposure to R.M. Kliment and Frances Halsband’s Aalto-inflected work showed me a haptic-centered alternative that engaged some of Moore’s ideas about how movement could inform the appreciation and design of buildings and response to context, and a focus on making that I instinctively respected. Above and behind them all stood Venturi and Scott Brown, whose books were required reading, but whose actual built work was harder to look at, harder to like, and came to us stained with the greases and filth of a seemingly-libertarian, seemingly down-market, casino-capitalist, sign-happy road culture from which we—middle class kids who’d missed the ‘60s, for the most part—were desperate to distance ourselves. We didn’t understand. Venturi took real work. Venturi and his collaborators did real work.
Venturi sought to achieve with his buildings a “difficult whole” that would accommodate, mediate, and even celebrate the conflicting agendas and varied taste cultures of a diverse society. Situational tension could and should foster an enriching artistic tension. This clash of contending internal idiosyncrasies with external contextual forces was to be welcomed, occasionally even engineered, as an expression of sound human character in a democratic culture of cooperation and mutual accommodation. Venturi’s buildings are models of mercy, amity, and trust. Why weren’t they received that way? Why aren’t they taught that way? It is because they were in this so deeply out of step with their times and our own. These aspirational values are in short supply, and always have been. It is no accident that some of Venturi and Scott Brown’s most disappointing professional setbacks came at the hands of bare-knuckle politicians such as Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, who drove them from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal project that would have served his constituents with such respect and flair. [Figure 1] It is no accident either that their best clients were often universities, where the values of collegiality and a concern for the durable built legacy of an institution could dominate.
From the first, Venturi positioned himself as a “gentle” polemicist. One supposes he must have been thought of as the sort to find fault by those with whose work he contrasted his own, but he was actually the most open-minded of artists. Strong sensations of personal distaste for something could prompt him to investigation, and through inquiry and experimentation he could often learn to love the things he had come to understand. This tendency put him at odds with many of his coevals in the 60s. What’s the old saying: “to understand is to forgive?” He forgave much, but some things he understood too well and thought we shouldn’t settle for—postwar corporate Modernism, for example. He knew that Modernism’s successes had often depended on a reductive strategy of restricting the questions it asked of the world, in order that its answers might always be ‘simple’ and ‘authentic.’ He believed that although the founding Modernists had “proclaimed the right revolution” for their time, Modernism had become moribund in the post-war world because the questions it could permit itself to ask and answer had become—through repression or by design—ever more evasive and boring. He wanted an architecture that could offer richer, more relevant answers by asking better questions and by seeking helpful data in the study of history. In Scott Brown, Venturi found a creative partner whose questions were even more irritating than those he was framing himself, and who insisted on drawing on the methods of sociology.
An African immigrant by way of the Architectural Association in London, she brought him out to see America from the perspective of an outsider. They took fresh lessons from road culture’s most extreme manifestation on the Las Vegas strip, returned with Yale students to quantify and document what they had found, and published this research in Learning From Las Vegas (1972). In 1976, Venturi and Scott Brown mounted the “Signs of Life” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, examining signs and symbols in the American built environment more broadly. Venturi’s most notorious theoretical project, Eclectic House, followed shortly after. Eclectic House was a matrix of façade designs for a plain box building of indeterminate plan that would be fitted with any of several flat, billboard-like fronts. One of these—the famous three-columned Greek temple iteration—was built thirty years later by their patron Marion Boulton Stroud at Kamp Kippy on Mt. Desert Island. It is sited as a lonely folly seen in isolation against trees, like something by Flitcroft at Stourhead but only 3/8” thick. [Figure 2] This extreme reduction of architectural symbolism to the status of a sign (not the philosophical “sign,” but a sign sign) was a response to conditions of movement, consumption, and production then prevailing in the United States as nowhere else. Venturi and Scott Brown learned as much from developer William Levitt’s Levittowns and Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas as they did from Le Corbusier, Aalto, Rome and the Veneto in their joint effort to make architecture better serve a complex society living out its contradictions under the existential threat of the Cold War.
Venturi’s Trubek and Wislocki houses (1970-72) in Nantucket are tragic and brave. The eloquent architectural historian Vincent Scully, who with his words could make us see the Greek gods physically embodied in landscapes and temples, couldn’t do Trubek and Wislocki justice without recourse to Wallace Stevens’s mighty poem “The Auroras of Autumn”.  Trubek and Wislocki are plain, wood-shingled houses weathering like driftwood in the salt, rain, and sun. They sit side by side like old friends in the companionable silence of a life-long conversation, inflected toward one another but not making eye contact, in anticipatory witness to thermonuclear airbursts over Boston and Cape Cod. This note of tragedy perfumes most of Venturi and Scott Brown’s work like ambergris, even when it is at its most vivid and engaging. Architecture, they seem to say, is a special case of ephemera: we decorate now the bleached ruins of another people’s future, as did Phidias, Iktinos, and Kallicrates.
These tragic tones are nowhere to be found in Venturi’s first great building: that iconic monument my classmate Rutger Heymann once called “la Maison Mom.” [Figure 3] There is, in the house Vanna Venturi’s devoted son made for her, a place one can stand with one’s back against the window—right at the edge of the stone floor, looking in toward the side-slung hearth and the lofty clerestory behind it, above the stair—a place where one bursts into tears at the thought of Mrs. Venturi’s pride in her boy. At least, I did. But I’m a maudlin old man, and Lord-love-a-duck, no more needs to be said about this house. Like Jefferson’s Monticello, it’s been on a postage stamp. Peter Eisenman has elaborately misunderstood it for us, and Fred Schwartz’s wonderful book Mother’s House (1992) covers every conceivable angle.
No more needs to be said. But! A stray note, a new note, before I move on. Schwartz published the working drawings and Venturi’s surviving holograph construction sketches. The most fascinating is SK31, titled “Showing (1) Revised pitch of upper shed roof (2) Reduced chimney height and detail of chimney flashing”, and dated ambiguously either “Nov 1563” or Nov 15[, ‘]63. It shows the height of the upper roof slope having been brought lower by 13”, and the chimney reduced in height quite substantially above the newly lowered ridge. The drawing includes this language: “Difference between former ridge height as built and new ridge as rebuilt.” What is lovely about this sketch, aside from its record of his playful hand as a draftsman, is that it shows us a snapshot of Venturi as an artist making a significant design change during construction, presumably for purely visual reasons and surely not at the contractor’s expense. He left the original configuration in the ink presentation drawings that would be published ad infinitum over the years. It is this suite of drawings, not the achieved building, that Eisenman analyzes in his Ten Canonical Buildings 1950-2000 (2008), where he makes no mention of this reconsideration by Venturi—assuming he ever took notice of it. I spotted the variance in 1978 and have puzzled over its implications with something like awe ever since. SK31 cheers me immensely. Not only does a master have second thoughts: a master acts on them.
Too often critics and students focus on the houses, as I have done above, since they tend to be accessible distillations of Venturi’s ideas. They are his most personal work. Mother’s House itself was designed before Denise had fully confronted Bob with her America. It is the mature work produced under her influence that most fascinates me. Although the firm built or proposed unbuilt designs for almost every conceivable building type—houses large and small and cheap and costly; firehouses; libraries; a gas station; a coffee shop and a fast food restaurant with drive-through service; private clubs; commemorative monuments public and private; a winery; bridges; ferry terminals; branch banks; government complexes in Ohio and France; apartment buildings; office buildings; a casino hotel in Atlantic City and a spa hotel in Japan; urban and campus master plans; museums great and small, including the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London (a Grade I listed building that will be protected) and the lovely little Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California (which is being destroyed); churches and a synagogue; a national mosque for Saddam Hussein and a World’s Fair pavilion in Seville for Ronald Reagan; furniture, teapots, fabrics, flatware, an orchestra hall and a cuckoo clock—the strategies and design tools Venturi and Scott Brown developed are seen to best advantage in their work for universities. Venturi’s alma mater Princeton University is a bestiary of splendid examples: Wu Hall (1980-83), Lewis Thomas Laboratories (1983-86), Fisher/Bendheim Halls (1986-91), George LaVie Shultz Laboratories (1988-93), Frist Campus Center (1996-2000), to list only the most outstanding chronologically. Likewise, the University of Pennsylvania—where they got their start teaching— Harvard, Oberlin, UCLA, Dartmouth, and so on. The examples are too numerous to list. Each building is worthy of, and amply rewards, close study by architects who build.
One of my favorites among their academic buildings sits a stone’s throw from Frank Gehry’s small concert hall at Bard College. The Gehry is an exceptionally fine, casually composed, superficially complex, sculptural, more-or-less monochrome building that is freakishly easy for most of us to like today. It stands unencumbered on a lawn. Venturi and Scott Brown’s Stephenson Library (1989-94) is an exceptionally fine, deeply studied, complex (but not especially complicated), gesturally inflected, intensely colorful and immensely puzzling building that most of us find all too easy to hate now—for the wheel of fashion is cruel, and we just don’t have the patience for Venturi these days. We either don’t have the data or won’t do the work.
Stephenson Library sits at the boundary between the central campus and a wooded area, on a lane running north from the central campus group along a low ridge overlooking an athletic field. Its oldest element is Hoffman Hall, an undistinguished building in the peripteral Greek temple format. Beyond and behind it along the lane is the mild, responsible, modernist Kellogg wing, which was recessive to a fault. One response to the problem of extending the complex would have been to add another pavilion farther along the lane, arranged perhaps to mask—dare one?—the bland face of Kellogg with a sheltering entrance porch in an updated style. Venturi and Scott Brown did something else entirely. Instead of addressing the library to the pre-existing lane, they related it to the playing field and engaged—or perhaps created—a more dynamic diagonal ‘desire line’ pathway that runs down along the slope and links the campus center to the dining commons and student housing. (It may be that we are seeing Scott Brown’s mind at work here, mapping the incipient patterns of a campus entire, and lacing new wefts of order through the weave).
This pathway is made to thread its way through an open pavilion composed of concrete column drums supporting a colorful gable roof of wood and metal. Its proportions might suggest a light modern roof thrown up over standing fragments of ruined columns that were once of vast size, though the forms are abstracted enough that they do not read as pseudospolia. This relatively small propylaea marks the threshold of a little entrance plaza carved out of the hillside under Hoffman. Together, the new elements help Hoffman read as a more dynamic, Romantic structure than it had seemed before. The entrance to the library proper is almost hidden in a low, shallow porch under a billboard-like fanfare element above it—a bit like Wu Hall. The scheme effects a dramatic transformation, but allows responsible Kellogg to remain responsible Kellogg, and enhances Hoffman’s stature as a classical set piece.
The body of the new building is a big brick ‘box of books’ set up as a direct extension of Kellogg’s utilitarian arrangement of shelving and aisles. Reading spaces, seminar rooms and workrooms are arranged along the perimeter with views out over the playing field and into the woods. The stacks overlook a tall lobby space on the sunny south side. The addition’s three distinct elevations elide with a consistent counter-clockwise twist one into the other at the corners. The masonry of the north face is undecorated, except for heavy cast-stone bands joining all of the windows at the sill. These bands resemble the expressed floor slabs of the big dumb brick buildings of the mid 20th century—striking a humble note with their insistent repetition—but they are displaced from their customary location so that they read as decoration rather than as crude structure. The throwaway character of this rear façade suggests that the library might one day be expanded to the north: the plain elevation is sacrificial. The west elevation overlooks the playing field below. It is more elaborately composed, with a decorative “all-over-pattern” in three colors of brick: a plain field unit; a fat, almost fuzzy-looking classic two-way ‘diaper’ pattern in lighter brick, and a contrasting pattern of dark gestural squiggles and splots crawling up on the diagonal in one direction rather than two. [Figure 4]
On the south is the assertive, enigmatic yellow façade. [Figure 5] Its glazed openings are varied in apparent defiance of reason. Closer analysis reveals that they respond to the spaces within in a manner a good modernist might grudgingly admire, were it not for their ragged net of chubby muntins. This set-piece fanfare elevation resembles the Trafalgar Square façade of the Sainsbury Wing in that it looks like a cinematic wipe of architectural elements across a big, rectangular surface that follows the broken, informal line of a pragmatic and sensible plan.
Yet the resulting composition is celebratory and surprising because its development was driven by the uncanny interplay of the strange with the strangely familiar that characterizes Venturi’s work. Its most striking element is the big yellow façade. This might as well be a matador’s red cape teasing Venturi‘s bully critics, masking his intentions and hiding his sword. Some observers fail to see the complex as a “difficult whole” of related elements that tell a story about the roots of Western civilization (a story Vincent Scully would recognize). They fall for the stylish misdirection, seeing that bravura façade instead as an isolated element: a scarcely explicable Mondrianesque, Broadway Boogie Woogie composition. It is that, but it is more.
The firm’s descriptions of the library (for example on their website, and in von Moos) are written as if to reassure the trustees of other institutions who have yet to shortlist them for new work. They point up the building’s donor-enticing brio, while using some deflecting language about the particulars. The propylaea, for example, is called a “tempietto,” distancing the complex from association with the Greeks and linking it instead to a more Roman heritage. (There are no sororities or frats at Bard, so perhaps this shift derives from early presentations to trustees and faculty.) The yellow elevation is discussed as if it were somehow composed out of “Miesian” pilasters taken as Modernist echoes of the adjacent Ionic order:
The harmony between the addition and Hoffman Hall derives both from analogous and contrasting elements within the design of the addition. Its main compositional element on the front is rhythm—but a contrapuntal rhythm created by a crescendo of modern pilasters that involve dissonant—maybe jazzy, perhaps mannerist—versions of the sedate rhythm of the (…) columns that distinguish the old building. (…) While the old building includes columns that are Ionic, the new building includes pilasters that are Miesian—or ironic. While the new façade starts as a skeletal frame, it ends as a wall punctured by windows as it evolves toward the corner.
I don’t buy it. Isn’t this wall anything but Miesian? The idea seems absurd. Does it not resemble a tattered textile? What, then, might it suggest instead, considered as one element of a composition that includes a normative ‘Greek’ temple?
My guess is that it can also be understood as a Greek-inspired element: the saffron-colored peplos the people of Athens presented to the archaic wooden cult statue of Athena Polias that was housed in the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, as the culmination of the quadrennial Great Panathenaia festival procession. A peplos was a rectangle of fabric that wound about the female body as a dress. The sacred peplos of Gray-Eyed Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, was the solemn offering of a powerful city-state, and took many months of ritualized group labor to weave. The statue of Athena Polias was life size, and her peplos was the same size as those of the honored women who wove it. A peplos to drape the sculptor Phidias’s stupendous chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos—which filled the Parthenon from floor to ridge beam—would have had to be larger than a galleon sail, with gold threads lacing through its saffron-dyed wool to shimmer with life in the torchlight of the windowless sanctuary.
The Stephenson Library complex has been re-created as a sacred precinct comprising: an old temple; a new propylaea; a processional space carved into a miniature mountainside; concrete retaining walls formed to resemble gargantuan ashlar; a shadowed, hidden entry into a cave of the mysteries; and an enormous tattered-looking, flag-like peplos billowing like a sail and displayed as if it were a trophy of the community’s victory following a desperate naval battle. The whole apparatus overlooks a field of athletic display, from which the library is, at last, revealed as one of VSBA’s sensible, flexible, bulky, patterned brick academic “loft” buildings. It is a strange and glorious place, the symbolism of which seems obvious once you grasp and follow the clew.
When eventually I tumbled to it—on waking from a dream—I wrote Venturi to ask if any of this might have been intentional. His terse response was one I’m certain Sigmund Freud heard at least once from every analysand: “I don’t think that way.”
 Among the later writing, I recommend Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room; Venturi, Robert (MIT Press,1996). It is a collection of short articles, letters, and previously unpublished material, including “A Not So Gentle Manifesto” and “Letter Sent to Several Architect Selection Committees Concerning Competitions (…).” These distill Venturi’s thought at the height of his powers and in the context of a furiously productive mature practice.
 See Peter Papademetriou’s chapter in Stirling + Wilford American Buildings, ed. Berman, Alan (Artifice Books on Architecture, 2014) pp 14-39. In 1980-81, Stirling and Wilford enlarged and re-created the home of the Rice School of Architecture, Rice University, Houston TX (local executive architects were Ambrose & McEnany). Anderson Hall was Stirling’s first American building. As undergraduate representative on the building committee, I had a ringside seat through a design development process that involved a difficult institutional client. Leafing through Stirling’s bound folio of holograph sketches at age twenty-two was a master class in itself.
 The concept of a “difficult whole” of inclusion rather than exclusion opens and closes Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; Venturi, Robert (Museum of Modern Art, 1966, 2nd ed. 1977). The concept of “taste cultures,” derived by Scott Brown from the sociologist Herbert Gans, animates Learning from Las Vegas; Venturi, Robert; Scott Brown, Denise, joint author; Izenour, Steven, joint author (MIT Press; 1972, rev. ed. 1977)
 LFLV; Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour. Preface to the first edition, page xiii as reprinted in the revised edition. This preface is signed “Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.”
 See Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour at Acadia Summer Arts Program; Stroud, Marion Boulton (Acadia Summer Arts Program / Distributed Art Publishers; 2010) pp 31, 35, 108-13
 The Shingle Style Today or The Historian’s Revenge; Scully, Vincent (George Braziller, 1974) pp34-37, 41-42. See also the whole of The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture; Scully, Vincent (Yale University Press, 1962, rev. ed. 1979)
 Ten Canonical Buildings 1950-2000, Eisenman, Peter (Rizzoli, 2008) pp128-152; and the whole of Mothers House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, ed. Schwartz, Frederic (Rizzoli, 1992)
 In 1563, the elderly architect Michelangelo was having second thoughts about his Rondanini Pietà and breaking the sculpture to remake the relationship of mother and son. Venturi observed: “(…) today we appreciate Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietàs more than his early work, because their content is suggested, their expression more immediate, and their forms are completed beyond themselves.” (CACIA, Venturi, p102)
 Schwartz, p 201
 See http://venturiscottbrown.org/pdfs/BardCollegeLibrary01.pdf ; and Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates: Buildings and Projects, 1986-1998; Moos, Stanislaus von (Monacelli, 1999) pp224-229
 Moos, p 228
 Private correspondence: M. Wright to R. Venturi, R. Venturi to M. Wright. The two letters, stapled together, have been misfiled. One day they will surface and I’ll revise this note. The exchange took place, most probably, before 2006. He was uncharacteristically brusque.
Mark Wright, AIA, is partner in the firm Wright & Robinson Architects. He was educated at Rice University and teaches at the New York School of Interior Design. After ten formative years with Kliment & Halsband Architects and another ten designing houses and clubhouses at Hart/Howerton, he joined his partner Karin Robinson to establish their award-winning practice in 2002. Their ‘Gothic House’ is featured in The Vintage House by Hewitt and Bock.
Mr. Wright is the author of “H. H. Richardson’s House for Reverend Browne, Rediscovered” published in JSAH, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. His current writing project is “Robert Venturi’s House for David Hughes, Reconsidered.” He is a MacDowell Colony Fellow.
Mr. Wright has designed houses and clubhouses at all scales in rural, suburban, urban, and resort locations. He suggests that the next Great American House will be a Passivhaus that embodies deep American themes, honors its particular place, nurtures many forms of family, and helps us be better neighbors and stewards of the productive, working, weary earth. He hopes to build it.
His and Ms. Robinson’s work can be found at www.wright-robinson-architects.com, and one can follow him on Instagram @InkOnLinen