Few people recall, and the history books still do not record, the oppressiveness of the practice, and especially the education, of architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Nothing was permitted in schools or reported in the journals that was not “orthodox modern,” and no forms from any other century were allowed. Gropius-Mies-Corbu were the Holy Trinity. There were no “alternative modernisms” (art deco, reductive classicism, and so on) of the type that historians now include in the narrative of the architecture of the twentieth century. Even Louis Kahn's luminous monumentality, redolent of Rome and heroic striving, was often suspect.

The salient assertion of modernism was that the present is so different that the forms of the past are irrelevant. Modernism is well named, since the Latin word modernus means simply “just recent” (from modo, “just now”). From Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier onward this committed designers to a formal vocabulary and problem-solving method that was primarily autarkic and purist: new forms were to be reasoned abstract forms detached from history.

Robert Venturi's “gentle manifesto” Complexity and Contradiction came out at a critical period in architectural history, when “a false complexity [had] recently countered the false simplicity of an earlier Modern architecture” (25).1 Venturi refers to what we now know—pace Charles Jencks—as late modern architecture as histrionic arbitrary forms, and which he and Scott Brown would later categorize as “ducks.”2 More significantly, the book arrived at a time when a younger generation was just beginning to feel that modernism had debased the language of architecture with its idealization of the “primitive and the elementary,” to the point that its ability to speak to the human spirit was stifled, and that “single-function” rational design was producing a string of unpredicted technical and cultural disasters. At Harrison & Abramovitz's U.N. Secretariat, the windows leaked because wind blew the rain upward on the curtain wall. So many windowpanes blew out of I. M. Pei's Hancock Tower that it became known as the plywood skyscraper. And in his introduction to Complexity and Contradiction, Vincent Scully notes “that cataclysmic purism in contemporary urban renewal which has brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe” (13), most famously in Minoru Yamasaki's Corbusian Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, which was to be dynamited in 1972.

Although his book is a “gentle manifesto,” there is an almost ruthless logic in Venturi's citing Vitruvius's commodity, firmness, and delight (utilitas, firmitas, venustas) as proof that good architecture is innately complex and never completely resolved or pure.3 If architecture is to be vital and simply useful, it must be inclusive, and if inclusive, complex. Anyone who has tried design knows that it is a struggle to resolve conflicting demands, and the result is at best a vital compromise that achieves unity by prioritizing some demands over others. Venturi quotes Paul Rudolph, “All problems can never be solved” (24), although Rudolph made this statement in support of Mies's highly selective purism.4 

Judging anything as complicated as how a building works requires the empirical examination of actual buildings, and that means engaging with the past, but engaging critically, “precedent thoughtfully considered” (18). That remark has a strong similarity to Vitruvius's own attitude toward precedence and innovation. A quick reading of Vitruvius gives the impression of an emphasis on conservatism, on the maintenance of mos maiorum (ways of our ancestors—literally, our “greaters”) and suspicion of foreign influences and of innovation (don't trust the new opus reticulatum) (2.8.1). But a close reading reveals that Vitruvius throughout the Ten Books exercises a critical appraisal of his “maiores,” for good or ill. He praises those who passed on knowledge of successful practices by writing useful treatises (7.praef.1), but he advises against the practice of others who built heavy stucco cornices (7.3.3). Throughout the Ten Books Vitruvius is constantly interested in recent innovations: new types of surveying instruments, more spacious temple interiors, new types of foundations. For Vitruvius that critical empiricism was an essential component of innovation; by employing a modernist suspicion of tradition, most writers in the twentieth century missed it.

Venturi's signal accomplishment is his argument that architecture's innate complexity commits designers to reconnect innovation with (as he quotes T. S. Eliot) “not only the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (19). Venturi arrives at this antimodern attitude by adopting Eliot's reversal of the meaning of the word traditional. Trade, tradition, and traitor all derive from the same root, tradere, “to hand over.” But, as Venturi quotes Eliot, tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (19). In this view of tradition the active participant is thereby not the ancestor but the descendant. Venturi opens his preface by arguing that criticism is—as any artist should know—an essential component of the creative process, again quoting Eliot: “This frightful toil is as much critical as creative” (19).5 

As Scully points out, Venturi also invents a new and American way of generating legible form by combining the monumental European tradition (mainly Italianate classicism of Renaissance and baroque) with American vernacular (“Main Street is almost all right”). The postmodern movement that began in the later 1970s, inspired by Venturi's work, is almost entirely classically based. And a salient point of classicism is tectonic signification.

Charles Moore, Michael Graves, Robert A. M. Stern, and Philip Johnson (among many others) practiced what I would call ironic classicism, which recalled the tectonic forms of classicism that made buildings more familiar, complex, and communicative, but that also irritated many observers with the witty falseness of forms borrowed from tectonics rather than actual tectonics (e.g., Graves's keystone capitals in Portland). This practice was based on one of Venturi's main formal tactics: the employment of a semiotic approach that he and Denise Scott Brown would later call the “decorated shed,” but I would call the “honesty of fiction.” When Venturi employs arches that are not arches on the Guild House and the Vanna Venturi House, he uses a tectonic form, but the fiction is foregrounded. Charles Jencks quotes an anecdote from Umberto Eco about a young man who recovers the ability to talk of love by self-consciously citing a typical line from a romance novel (“As Barbara Cartland would put it, ‘I love you madly’ ”).6 In a similar manner, the Vanna Venturi House has recovered the ability to speak about its own meaning by reacquiring and reshaping the language of architectural, not abstract, form while acknowledging its “artificiality.” (Artificial means choice, but not necessarily false choice.)

When I was at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the early 1970s, I was repelled by the distinctly oppressive modern orthodoxy then current. I went across the street to the Department of History of Art and Architecture (moving in the opposite direction from Philip Johnson) and wrote a PhD dissertation on the invention of the Doric order.7 My main thesis was that the Doric order does indeed express the tectonics of stone trabeation, but with forms that do not derive from the forms of structure. But Doric hides that fiction, which is why scholars have been frustrated in their attempts to explain its creation for centuries. The distinction is that Doric does not express the innate tectonic character of a structure; it expresses an architect's opinion of the character of that structure. This is a disjunction that Venturi acknowledges when he writes that Kahn “has referred to ‘what a thing wants to be,’ but implicit in this statement is the opposite: what the architect wants the thing to be” (19–20).

Venturi's prime contribution is not just complexity, inclusiveness, the difficult whole, and “precedent thoughtfully considered”8—it is also a strategy of form that puts the thinking mind of an architect between the perceived reality of a building and its communicating visible form. Form does not follow function, nor function form. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Venturi are both right: the high Gothic cathedrals of France are virtuosic expressions of structure, and they are decorated sheds.


Page numbers cited in the text refer to the first edition of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972), 88. Regarding late modern architecture, see Charles Jencks, Late Modern Architecture, and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), esp. 32.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Ten Books on Architecture, ed. Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe, trans. Ingrid D. Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.3.2. Further citations of this work appear in the text.
Venturi quoting Paul Rudolph, “For Perspecta,” Perspecta 7 (1961), 51.
Venturi quoting T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), 3–4, 18.
Charles Jencks, What Is Post-modernism?, 4th ed. (London: Academy Editions, 1996), 31.
Thomas Noble Howe, The Invention of the Doric Order (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1985).
This is the main opinion of Charles Jencks in his review “Complexity and Contradiction Turns 50,” Architectural Record (May 2016), 24–25. Jencks points out that Venturi “doesn't deal with social or scientific ideas that bolstered complexity in other disciplines.”