In his introduction to Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Vincent Scully declared, “This is probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, of 1923”—a statement that has become a truism in architectural history. But what can be made of this pronouncement more than half a century after it was written? Moreover, how are readers to revisit a book that is already so canonical?
In 2016, numerous exhibitions, symposia, and publications marked the fiftieth anniversary of Complexity and Contradiction's first appearance, including a three-day event at the MAXXI in Rome, features in JSAH and Architectural Design, and, most important, a two-day international symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose press first published the book. At MoMA, scholars and architects from around the world gathered to discuss the book's significance and enduring impact. This was followed by a one-day event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, which led to the publication of Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty: On Robert Venturi's “Gentle Manifesto,” an edited volume complemented by the facsimile edition of Venturi's original book with which it is packaged. Edited by Martino Stierli, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, and David B. Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty includes essays by Stierli, Mary McLeod, Joan Ockman, Andrew Leach, Jean-Louis Cohen, Lee Ann Custer, Dianne Harris, Peter Fröhlicher, Stanislaus von Moos, and Emmanuel Petit. Between these in-depth essays are shorter texts by Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, Pier Paolo Tamburelli, Michael Meredith, Sam Jacob, and Deborah Berke, and two short original interviews, one with Rem Koolhaas (interviewed by Stierli) and the other with the late Stanley Tigerman (interviewed by Brownlee).
The volume opens with a brief introduction by Brownlee and Stierli, followed by Stierli's essay “Robert Venturi and MoMA: Institutionalist and Outsider,” which provides an institutional history, explaining Venturi's intricate and paradoxical relationship with MoMA in the period leading up to the publication of his book. Published during Arthur Drexler's long tenure at MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Stierli notes, “articulated the increasing concern about the fate of modernist architecture that was shared by both Drexler and [Philip] Johnson” (21).1 Stierli maps the complex network that included Drexler, Arts & Architecture publisher John Entenza, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and Venturi, relying on extensive work in MoMA's archive and the Venturi, Scott Brown Collection in Philadelphia. Following the correspondence among these protagonists, Stierli leads the reader through the archives, setting the tone for the new, edited book, the richness of which lies in its attentive and detailed exploration of archival material. In so doing, he shows how Venturi's book, like some of Drexler's canonical exhibitions, was part of the same “institutional apparatus whose ideological foundation [Venturi] challenged” (23).
Books are often highly collaborative enterprises with complex genealogies, the traces of which may be seen in the authors' acknowledgments. These short texts, generally a page or two, can be gold mines for researchers. Mary McLeod unravels a tale of inspirations and friendships in her essay “Venturi's Acknowledgments: The Complexities of Influence.” She explores the relationship between Venturi and his mentor, Vincent Scully, explaining how they met through Robert Stern. Stern's is among the first names mentioned in Venturi's acknowledgments. At the time, he was a graduate student at Yale and the editor of a double issue of Perspecta that published excerpts from Venturi's then-forthcoming book. McLeod also mentions Venturi's relationship with Marion Scully, Scully's second wife, who edited Venturi's manuscript before he submitted it to MoMA. Marion Scully's influence is illustrated by an annotated page from the draft manuscript (56), which reveals how she not only edited but also sharpened and clarified Venturi's text. McLeod then recounts the lifelong friendship between Venturi and Philip Finkelpearl, a student of English (and later professor at Wellesley College) who met Venturi at Princeton in 1946: “It was Finkelpearl who proposed the title Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (57). McLeod's essay adds a layer of humanity to Venturi's enterprise and helps contextualize his well-known book. Its eleven pages of endnotes construct another, parallel narrative—full of color, but confirming the rigor of McLeod's scholarship.
While McLeod discusses Venturi's personal relationships, Joan Ockman expands on external references that were, she argues, part of the “complexity revolution” of the 1960s. In “On Robert Venturi and the Idea of Complexity in Architecture circa 1966,” Ockman shows how other books, such as Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander's Notes on the Origin of Form (1964), were, like Venturi's, imbued with the notion of complexity. “Indeed, Alexander, Jacobs, and Venturi were all of the opinion that a paradigm shift had occurred that architecture could ill afford to ignore” (79). Returning to Finkelpearl and the influence of New Criticism and T. S. Eliot's modernist poetry (something also mentioned by McLeod), Ockman discusses Gestalt theory, which Venturi first encountered at Princeton in 1949, and its reliance on relationality. Venturi's interest in Gestalt can be attributed to his concern for how “context” affects building and, “reciprocally, how new buildings change the meaning of the pre-existing environment” (79). Understanding this helps the reader reposition Venturi's postmodernism within a larger time frame, one that extends back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Ockman further traces the influence on Venturi of such figures as Josef Albers, György Kepes, D'Arcy Thompson, Herbert A. Simon, and Warren Weaver. In short, she examines the foundation of thought upon which Complexity and Contradiction stands.
In his essay “Opus 2: Robert Venturi's Metamorphosis of Duke House,” Jean-Louis Cohen provides a detailed account of Venturi's first completed design, the renovation of the James B. Duke Mansion, home of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Delving into the early history of Venturi's practice and the history of the institute, Cohen unravels the negotiations between proponents of old and new architecture in the late 1950s. Arguing for Venturi's interest in contemporary Italian design (Franco Albini, Ignazio Gardella, and the firm BBPR), Cohen examines drawings, correspondence, photos, and other archival documents from the Venturi and Scott Brown archive at the University of Philadelphia and the Institute of Fine Arts.
In her essay “Teaching Complexity and Contradiction at the University of Pennsylvania,” Lee Ann Custer traces the genesis of Venturi's book in the graduate course Theories of Architecture, which he and Denise Scott Brown taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Based on her examination of lecture notes, teaching records, and Venturi's own slides, as well as interviews she conducted with his former students, Custer asserts a close connection between the course and the manuscript for Complexity and Contradiction. Her essay is delightfully illustrated with Venturi's slides of Hagia Sofia, Saint Peter's Basilica, and Pier Luigi Nervi and Annibale Vitellozzi's Palazzetto dello Sport, as well as pages from Venturi's MFA thesis and his handwritten lecture notes, and an image of the young architect working in the slide room at the University of Pennsylvania.
Most of the essays in this book project the reader into the history-laden atmosphere of the archives, so what does it mean to look at Complexity and Contradiction from the perspective of architects working today? According to the British architect Sam Jacob, “Venturi's writing is far more than a functional window onto the world: it is a place where ideas are generated through the use of language” (157). A similar insistence on Venturi's intellectualism is emphasized in the interview with Stanley Tigerman, who said of Venturi's book, “It made me think,” and “He was much more of an intellectual than I was.” According to Rem Koolhaas, the book's relevance today lies in its bold opposition to the current architectural culture: “It has a smallish format, it's not fat, and it has content, it has an argument, and all three conditions are absent from current architectural discourse” (76).
Between the seminar in 2016 and the edited volume's publication in 2019, Venturi died, making this celebration of Complexity and Contradiction all the more poignant. But one could wonder if it is even useful to analyze every detail of a book such as this, looking backward and forward, digging, exposing, speculating. Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty will undoubtedly appeal to those who love archives, and to students and aficionados of postmodernism. It also suggests a more inclusive definition of postmodernism, which now appears to be embedded in a large network of ideas and people reaching back to the early twentieth century and forward to our present day.
Despite unavoidable repetition between a few of the essays and other texts included, Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty offers a detailed study of one of postmodernism's most seminal publications, greatly contributing to the emerging scholarship on both architectural publishing and postmodern architectural culture. Postmodern thought in architecture was constructed largely through a series of books, among them Aldo Rossi's L'architettura della citta (1966), Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Charles Jencks's The Language of Post-modern Architecture (1977), Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language (1977), Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter's Collage City (1978), Koolhaas's Delirious New York (1978), and Christian Norberg-Schulz's Genius Loci (1979). All of these were important contributions to the writing of architectural history and theory, yet the stories of many of them remain unwritten.
Famous episodes in Drexler and Johnson's reevaluation of modern architecture were the MoMA exhibitions The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts (1975–76) and Transformations in Modern Architecture (1979), both curated by Drexler. One could argue that the edifice of modernism had already been shaken as early as 1964, when Drexler's predecessor, Bernard Rudofsky, organized the original and ambitious exhibition Architecture without Architects.