In Complexity and Contradiction Robert Venturi presents a critique of modernism, with its rigid systems and fetishization of the functional. Mining the past and utilizing examples as diverse as Borromini's churches and Frank Furness's houses, Venturi addresses the complexity of architectural form, made visible through unexpected juxtapositions and scalar manipulations. He considers intricate baroque ornament and heavy Egyptian columns alongside Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye to impress upon the reader that the study of architecture requires close analysis and historical breadth. The perspective is that of a designer, however, not a historian, a point Venturi makes clear from the outset.
The book ends with twelve of the architect's own projects, seven of which were unrealized. The same black-and-white photography that caresses the façades of Roman churches documents Venturi's Guild House housing project for the elderly in Philadelphia. The implicit connection is that of form and memory, and a blending of everyday materiality with historical reference. The polemic thus calls for an architecture of remembrance, the images composed like a dream sequence of memories long internalized. However, the past is not a passive imprint but a reflection of “society's inverted scale of values” (43).1 The central issue is that of representation, of architecture itself as well as the multiple discursive positions that it may enable.2
The book is provocative and visually sophisticated, and its influence in the fifty years since its publication cannot be overestimated. The power of Venturi's argument for historicism lies in its flexibility. Although answers to the questions “Whose history?” and “Which moment in time?” are alluded to in Complexity and Contradiction, they are also left somewhat ambiguous (for example, even though Venturi provides no dates and makes no attempt at geographic specificity, his bias toward Italian baroque comes through). Venturi's claim for using traditional building types as a starting point for modern design resonated in developing countries in the Middle East and South Asia, which were attempting to rediscover a past severed by colonial and nationalist modernization projects.3
The historicism to which Venturi alludes in Complexity and Contradiction and proposes more directly in his later writings became the lingua franca of nationalist projects from Turkey to the Persian Gulf. The early 1980s were a watershed moment for the Middle East, coming on the heels of the Iranian Revolution and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Governments in search of local forms of authority looked to Islamic history for political and ideological inspiration.4 The turn to fundamentals was not the ambition only of theocrats and nationalists but also of multinational institutions such as the Aga Khan Foundation, even if the styles and buildings they chose as exemplars sometimes (although not always) differed.
Venturi's writings were influential in the emergent discourses on identity, history, and regionalism, and they brought Venturi to the attention of both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva. For the former, he was asked to submit a proposal for a state mosque in Baghdad. In the latter case, he was asked to serve as a juror for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established in the late 1970s to recognize works that, among other characteristics, display “a heightened awareness of the roots and essence of Muslim Culture.”5 Both institutions saw Venturi's role as central to defining a discourse on architecture that would serve as a model for a new “Islamic” architectural identity. Within an environment of nationalism, development, and indigeneity, Venturi found himself being asked to make concrete his ideas on architectural postmodernity.
In January 1983, the Philadelphia-based architectural firm Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (VRSB) submitted its proposal for an international design competition sponsored by the government of Iraq under the auspices of President Saddam Hussein. The project was a monumental state mosque for the capital city, Baghdad, and the competition rules specified that the design must integrate “historical settings and styles as well as contemporary design qualities.”6 That is to say, the design should be both traditional and contemporary, paying tribute to the history of Iraq and of Islamic architecture while being technologically and programmatically innovative.
Of the six entries, VRSB's was the most self-consciously historicist in its form and iconography. The submission drawings and model show a massive rectangular hypostyle (columnar) hall, its horizontal expanse interrupted by a domed roof covering the courtyard. The firm's statement began with the proclamation that “the image of a State Mosque must be at once profound, to speak to future ages, and popular, to be loved by the people of Iraq today.”7 The latter goal, intangible as it may appear, was to be achieved through image making, or the creation of a set of associations.8 The building would be, in Venturi's own terminology, a “decorated shed,” with large-scale calligraphy, arched openings, freestanding minaret, and blue dome serving as signs advertising the building type of the mosque (Figure 1). Ornamental flourishes would embellish the façade and interiors, the motifs randomly selected, “without being historically literal in scale, context or materials.” The building was meant to appear “at once modern and familiar.”9 What was missing, however, were the irony and self-reflection that made projects such as Guild House so compelling.
Critics have condemned the Baghdad State Mosque project for its orientalist forms and its simple historicism. Even as VRSB's proposal was relegated to the cabinet of misplaced intentions (it did not win the competition), however, Venturi's writings continued to resonate with patrons and practitioners in the Middle East. In 1986, Venturi was invited to join the international jury that would select the winners of the third cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Also on the jury were Hans Hollein, Fumihiko Maki, Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil, Mahdi Elmandjra, Zahir Ud-deen Khwaja, Ronald Lewcock, Mehmet Doruk Pamir, and Soedjatmoko. The jurors were called upon to choose winners from a diverse group of projects built for or by Muslim communities across the world.
The 1986 cycle was likely the most contentious in the history of the Aga Khan Award, with Hollein and Pamir writing a searing critique of the award and what they saw as the biases governing the selection of the winners. These jurors reserved particular censure for the award given to the Bhong Mosque in Pakistan, which was designed and funded by a local landowner and comprised a variety of materials and decorative motifs (Figure 2). According to Venturi, the mosque is exuberant and flamboyant, a perfect example of “sources, high and low, focused and broad.”10 Critics of the award, however, saw the Bhong Mosque as “baroque,” kitsch, and undeserving. Its selection as a winner added fuel to criticisms of the omission of “modernist” buildings, such as the National Parliament House designed by Louis Kahn in Dhaka, from consideration for the Aga Khan Award. The “anti-modern bias,” as one commentator noted, was “troubling” and catered to populist sensibilities that were ideologically charged.11
The criticism was clearly directed at Venturi. One of the two dissenting jurors, Mehmet Doruk Pamir, wrote, “There is a romantic bias toward traditionalism, historicism and the vernacular. This represents at least one dominant strain within the architectural discourse in Europe and America during the last decade.”12 While Pamir was correct in identifying Venturi's influence on the outcome of the 1986 awards, the temporal and geographic effects of Venturi's influence were not specific to that moment. The seeds of postmodernism to which Pamir alluded were already sown in Complexity and Contradiction, and they found fruitful soil in the discourse on Islamic architecture put forth by patrons in the Middle East and the Islamic world.
The Baghdad State Mosque competition and the selection of the 1986 Aga Khan Award winners revealed the disjunctions in Venturi's theoretical stance, which aimed to reconcile historical, often elite, style with what Venturi characterized as the everyday. They also made evident the influence of his work on the broader discourse on “Islamic architecture” in the region. The primary shortcoming of VRSB's Baghdad State Mosque proposal was that it gave little consideration to the history of Iraqi architecture, as though regional and chronological specificity did not matter. In the case of the award, Venturi's championing of the Bhong Mosque, despite great resistance, revealed the tension between the high-minded discourse encouraged by the Aga Khan Foundation and the difficulty the jury faced in recognizing an unusual, if culturally relevant, project.
The question of representation, central to Venturi's explorations, remains elusive. Calling for a plurality not just of architectural design but also of use and function, Venturi seeks diversity in form and relevance in historicism.13 The lessons that he tries to derive in Complexity and Contradiction have not always been successfully adopted in the Middle East, although architects such as Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil in Saudi Arabia and Hilmi Şenalp in Turkey have implemented historicist style in their designs. Modern critics have often been hesitant to explore the cultural impact of Venturi's approach, while the academy falls short in its ability to judge works that do not fit easily into a modernist idiom. The challenge, as articulated by Venturi fifty years ago, remains to be met.