The first edition of Venturi's explosive little book, written in the period 1962–64, appeared in a new series called Papers on Modern Architecture published under the imprimatur of the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. It was preceded by a lengthy excerpt in Yale's journal of architecture, Perspecta, the year before.1 In an introduction written for the MoMA book, Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully hailed it as the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture, “one of the few basic texts of our time—one which, despite its antiheroic lack of pretension and its shift of perspective from the Champs-Élysées 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” (16).2
Most of the initial reviewers confirmed Scully's opinion of the book's import, although they voiced reservations about Venturi's methodology, above all his neglect of questions of function and technology and his skirting of social issues. For some, precisely these omissions, along with the author's explicitly subjective point of view (“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture”), were what made his “gentle manifesto” so radical.
Peter Blake, whose image of Main Street Venturi had appropriated from his own book God's Own Junkyard of two years earlier to make the opposite point, deemed Complexity and Contradiction less original. Writing in Architectural Forum, he allowed that “The history of art is bound to be retold in every generation,” but he found Venturi's notion of complexity superficial and his formal contradictions to be contrived: “‘accidentalism’ has been raised to a discipline.’”3
Among other early responses, Colin Rowe, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review together with Reyner Banham's The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, which appeared the same year, applauded the Philadelphia architect for taking on “the orthodox credo.” He appreciated Venturi's forthright challenge to modern architecture's functionalist and reformist pieties and to its pretense of scientific objectivity. While admiring both books under review, Rowe noted that they represented “the polar extremes between which architecture now oscillates.”4 Peter Collins likewise was pleased to see modernism's puritanical value system dispatched, although he felt that Venturi's discussion of the historical evidence for the alternative was superficial.5 In a symposium titled “Architectural History and the Student Architect” that he edited for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, he reiterated his criticism that Venturi's historical erudition was based almost exclusively on formal considerations. Yet he praised Complexity and Contradiction's value for educating future practitioners, commenting that it “raises the issue of the extent to which creative artists really do need historical support for their ideas.”6 Alan Colquhoun ventured that it was possible to accept Venturi's general thesis, yet he deemed the book “highly idiosyncratic” and principally “an apologia for [Venturi's] own work.”7 For Naomi Miller, writing in JSAH, it was precisely as an argument for Venturi's own architecture that the book was least successful; what she appreciated was the author's “perceptive eye and mind.” She forecast that “for a whole school of young architects and students this book may be adopted as a battle-cry of a new movement.”8
Almost all the reviewers of the first edition complained about the book's diminutive size; the uncaptioned, postage stamp–sized illustrations made it more like a barrage of 35 mm slides (as Collins put it) than an argument inviting careful visual study. This criticism was taken to heart a decade later in a redesigned edition. Although less elegant in its horizontal layout, it featured a larger format and clearly labeled images. In his “Note to the Second Edition,” Venturi acknowledged that Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form might have been a preferable title, more accurately describing the book's content—as his mentor Donald Drew Egbert had suggested at the time—but when writing it he had seen little reason for such a predicate, since “form was king in architectural thought” in the early 1960s (14).9 Moreover, neither the political urgencies of the second half of the decade nor the problems of symbolism that would become central to his second book, Learning from Las Vegas, written in collaboration with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour and published in 1972, had yet come into focus.10 Instead, Complexity and Contradiction drew its principal inspiration from the aesthetic formalism that was dominant in postwar culture in the United States, above all from the literary theory of the New Critics, whose writings Venturi repeatedly invokes in his book and by whom he had been much influenced as a student at Princeton in the late 1940s.
By 1977, however, when the second edition of Complexity and Contradiction appeared, the late modernist cultural landscape had changed considerably. The concept of postmodernism was now fully coined in architecture and other fields, and Venturi's book was hailed as one of its founding documents. In The Language of Post-modern Architecture, also of 1977, Charles Jencks assimilated many of Venturi's arguments, including the one for an aesthetic of “both–and,” a defining feature of the new architecture that Jencks redescribed in semiotic terms as “double coding.”11 The seminal validation of pop culture, more associated with Learning from Las Vegas—which also appeared in a new edition in 197712—was recognized in hindsight as having been anticipated in Complexity and Contradiction's dénouement: “Is not Main Street almost all right?” Another review in JSAH, by the literary scholar Philip Finkelpearl, welcomed the second editions of both books as further evidence (if any were needed) of Venturi's key contributions as a polemicist and critical thinker.13
In the 1980s Complexity and Contradiction continued to enjoy widespread currency, becoming required reading for every student of architecture and every theorist of postmodernism. Yet in an interview with Stuart Wrede of the Museum of Modern Art in 1991, Venturi distanced himself from the historicist aesthetic with which his argument had become associated. At this date, the New Urbanism was in its heyday, with Seaside, Florida, its poster project. In Venturi's view, Seaside was in many ways a realization of the Main Street vernacular he had first upheld a quarter century earlier, yet he distrusted the town's cloying prettiness, insisting that his own view of architectural history had always been not only “anti-utopian” but also “anti-nostalgic.”14
In the 1990s and early 2000s, architecture's newfound preoccupations with digital and global culture largely eclipsed Complexity and Contradiction, challenging its canonical status. Venturi's connoisseurial predilection for elite and effete taste-cultures—mannerism, the baroque, rococo, Lutyens—could only appear dated to many, and, in a return of the repressed, Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture spoke compellingly once again to architecture's desired affiliation with technological innovation. Even the revindicated commercial strip exuded a certain quaintness at this point. Rem Koolhaas drove the point home in an interview with Venturi and Scott Brown titled “Relearning from Las Vegas,” published in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2000), where he paid tribute to the authors of Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas, somewhat left-handedly, as heralds of the architectural shift from substance to sign while illustrating how much had changed in the interim since their books first appeared.15 By this point, postmodernism was also the victim of its own success. Ever the contrarian, Venturi struggled to dissociate himself from the label, stubbornly protesting his untimeliness. In May 2001 his portrait appeared on the cover of Architecture magazine with the declaration “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist.”
In the past fifteen years or so, new thematics have come to the fore, instigating still other readings of Complexity and Contradiction. For a new generation of pragmatic—or self-described “postcritical”—practitioners, Venturi and Scott Brown's “judgment-deferred” approach to the status quo has resonated. Meanwhile, even if Venturi's book represents only a superficial or metaphorical instance of the complexity theories that prevail today in sciences such as computation, economics, and biology, it nonetheless appears to belong genealogically to the general intellectual shift from simplicity to complexity that crystallized in the early 1960s. In retrospect, it is possible to discover more similarity than difference between his book and other influential architectural writings of the period, among them Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964).16 The fact that Venturi took his definition of complex systems from Herbert Simon, a pioneering figure in the fields of general systems theory and information science, appears almost as noteworthy now as the literary references on which earlier commentators have harped.17
Finally, as postmodernism itself has begun to be historicized by the current generation of scholars, Complexity and Contradiction looms into view again in relation to newer questions about disciplinary autonomy and the meaning of architectural form.18 To date the book has gone through more than a dozen reprintings in English.19 It is likely to remain a barometer of changes in architecture culture for some time to come.