Robert Venturi's assertion in Complexity and Contradiction that “the examples chosen reflect my partiality for certain eras: Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo especially” (19) stakes a multifaceted claim for the importance of early modern architecture.1 Quoting Henry-Russell Hitchcock about how the changing interests of architects in certain periods of architectural history reflect their own preoccupations, Venturi proposes that mannerism, baroque, and rococo provide the most apposite historical references for contemporary architecture. But he also suggests that the “eras” of these three styles share principles that are not specific to a particular moment in history. In the chapter “Complexity and Contradiction vs. Simplification and Picturesqueness,” Venturi affirms that “the desire for a complex architecture, with its attendant contradictions,” is “an attitude common in the Mannerist periods,” which include the sixteenth century, but also Hellenism, and the seventeenth century up to modernism, in the works of “Le Corbusier, Aalto, Kahn, and others” (26). In Complexity and Contradiction, early modern architecture represents both a historical body of references and a sample of suprahistorical design principles.
With these claims Complexity and Contradiction resembles earlier essays by Colin Rowe and Anthony Blunt that had tested the relevance of mannerism for modernist architecture.2 It also prefigures later uses of the baroque in design theories and historiography critical of modernism, as in Christian Norberg-Schulz's Existence, Space and Architecture and its uptake of Paolo Portoghesi's monograph on Borromini.3 But the use of early modern architecture and its description as “Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo” is also specific to Complexity and Contradiction in the way it structures the book and articulates its agenda.4
Like the predilection for pre-1900 architecture and especially mannerist and baroque buildings, the role of the concept of mannerism in Complexity and Contradiction, and in Venturi's built oeuvre, has been emphasized, not least by Venturi himself. His stay at the American Academy in Rome and his European travels of the 1950s developed his interest in historical architecture but also complicated its purport.5 Venturi has recalled how during his final months in Rome he became less concerned with baroque architecture as a paradigm of architectural “space,” in line with Giedion's Time, Space and Architecture, than with “meaning” as embodied by mannerism, partly under the influence of the section on Palladio's mannerism in Rudolf Wittkower's Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism.6 If, in Complexity and Contradiction, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples still outnumber samples from the sixteenth century, conceptually Venturi claims to be interested in the baroque as a form of mannerism. This would change between Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), in which the baroque becomes the paradigm of a rhetorical architecture imbued with symbolism and power of persuasion, distinct from the mannerist play with form and convention.7
But a closer look at Complexity and Contradiction reveals that the role of mannerism is not entirely stable throughout the book. Venturi concludes the introduction with the statement that “today this attitude [common in the Mannerist periods] is again relevant to both the medium of architecture and the program in architecture” (26). He discusses the “medium”—forms as they are visually perceived—in chapters 2 to 5, and the “program”—the “growing complexities of our functional problems” (26)—in chapters 6 to 10. While cross-referenced examples tie both sections together, there is a notable distinction in their conceptual frameworks. Venturi's often-noted reliance on literary New Criticism is largely confined to the first part. It is reflected in the chapter titles: “Ambiguity,” “Contradictory Levels,” “The Double-Functioning Element.” In this last instance Venturi draws on Wylie Sypher's Four Stages in Renaissance Style, which had applied to literature Rudolf Wittkower's identification of such elements in Michelangelo's Biblioteca Laurenziana. Venturi returns the “double-functioning element” to architecture and in the process adopts Sypher's idea that mannerism, “a perennial overgrowth of ornate, clever, strained, abnormal phrasing,” is part of a recurring cycle of “baroque, mannerism, rococo” that “repeat[ed] itself during the renaissance and the nineteenth century.”8 Sypher recognizes this cycle in works of art that are contemporary but in different media, as they share similar formal principles, a view that supports Venturi's easy transition between architecture and literature in the first section of Complexity and Contradiction.
Sypher's mannerism-as-form, applicable across history, probably assisted Venturi in structuring and legitimating his own “partiality” for a wide range of pre-1900 architectural styles. As such, mannerism may have arrived quite late in the editorial process of Complexity and Contradiction.9 In an excerpt published in Perspecta in 1965, Venturi states that complexity and contradiction are a matter of “form and function,” but he does not associate the distinction with mannerism or present it as the principle structuring the book.10 The excerpted chapter, titled “The Inside and the Outside,” would become part of the book's second section, on “program.” It is driven by baroque and neobaroque examples, juxtaposed to Byzantine, Gothic, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings. “Mannerism” appears as a stylistic category (75), not as a formal principle; references to literary criticism barely figure.
The New Critical vocabulary and Sypher's “recurring mannerism” seem to have allowed Venturi to distinguish architectural “medium” from “program” and to describe the principles governing the medium. But by stating that mannerism is also “relevant” for the “program” of contemporary architecture, Venturi adopts a second interpretation of mannerism, present in Sypher but also in Blunt's article and its reception by Rowe: of mannerist architecture as the spatial and visual expression of society's complexities and uncertainties. Here, too, early modern architecture is an important model, in the way Palladio's architecture reacts to the contingencies of the environment or baroque buildings generate a layered urban space. But the real test case for architecture's dealings with the complexities of society is the contemporary city (59, 70, 75, 85–89). If Venturi sets out in Complexity and Contradiction by proclaiming a “partiality” for early modern architecture and the concept of mannerism, by the time he reaches his conclusion he also looks elsewhere: “It is perhaps from the everyday landscape, vulgar and disdained, that we can draw the complex and contradictory order that is valid and vital for our architecture as an urbanistic whole” (103).