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September 24, 2018

Robert Venturi (1925–2018)

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIARobert Venturi, the influential American architect and author of landmark texts including Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), died on Tuesday from Alzheimer’s-related complications at his home in Philadelphia. He was ninety-three. In contrast to the austere, unadorned designs of some twentieth century Modernists and Minimalists such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Venturi’s designs incorporated and alluded to late-Renaissance decorative elements, and what some called “a perverse assortment of details that set other architects’ teeth on edge,” in the words of New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. He earned significant commissions for buildings such as the Seattle Art Museum, the National Gallery in London, and various Ivy League campuses. He wished to free architects “from prim dreams of pure order," and in response to van der Rohe’s assertion that “less is more,” he retorted: “Less is a bore.”

According to Vincent Scully, one of the country’s most significant architecture scholars, Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction was “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture” since Le Corbusier’s 1923 book Towards a New Architecture, and though he vigorously refused the label, the book is now considered a foundational text of postmodernism. In the book’s second edition, published eleven years after the original, he wrote, “I have sometimes felt more comfortable with my critics than with those who have agreed with me.”

Born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1925, Venturi completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Princeton before earning a fellowship to study at the Americn Academy in Rome. He joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty upon his return to the US, where he met his partner and professional collaborator of over fify years Denise Scott Brown. They would go on to found and run the international architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown, and co-author Learning from Las Vegas, which rivaled Complexity and Contradiction in influence.

In 1991, Venturi won the Pritzker Prize, considered the highest honor in architecture. He acknowledged Scott Brown's input by using “we” instead of “I” in the acceptance speech, though a 2013 petition to retroactively add her name to the award was unsuccessful. Venturi is survived by Scott Brown and their son, urban planner James Venturi.

“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,” Venturi wrote in his 1966 book. “I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties . . . I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ . . . accommodating rather than excluding . . . I am for messy vitality over obvious unity . . . An architecture of complexity and contradiction must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”

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