Robert Venturi, 93, architect who rejected modernism

In a retort to a postmodern assertion that “less is more,” Mr. Venturi wrote “less is a bore.”
In a retort to a postmodern assertion that “less is more,” Mr. Venturi wrote “less is a bore.” (Associated Press/file 1991)

NEW YORK — Robert Venturi, the American architect whose buildings and best-selling books helped inspire the movement known as postmodernism, in which historic elements enlivened contemporary forms, died Tuesday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 93.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son, James Venturi, a filmmaker, said.

For much of the 20th century, “serious” architects, led by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, favored unadorned surfaces and strictly geometric forms. But in his treatise “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” published in 1966, Mr. Venturi argued that ornament, historical allusions, and even humor had a place in modern architecture. The book was a retort to Mies’s assertion that “less is more.”


“Less is a bore,” Mr. Venturi wrote.

“I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,” he explained. His goal, he said, was to awaken architects “from prim dreams of pure order.”

The book, backed by the Museum of Modern Art and the Graham Foundation, became a perennial best seller translated into more than a dozen languages. In the introduction, eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully called it “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture” since Le Corbusier’s “Towards a New Architecture,” published in 1923. He accused Mr. Venturi’s critics of “preoccupation with a rather prissily puristic aesthetic.”

Mr. Venturi was based in Philadelphia, where he and his wife of more than 50 years, architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, ran a firm with international reach while living in a sprawling old house they filled with an eclectic mix of furniture, some of which they designed. Their buildings were known for using familiar elements in unfamiliar combinations.

In 1964, for example, Mr. Venturi completed a small house for his mother, Vanna Venturi, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. The building has a gabled roof that culminates in a deep slit instead of the expected peak. (In 2005, it was hailed as a masterwork on a US postage stamp.)


His Guild House, a retirement home in Philadelphia, also completed in 1964, has a flat facade punctured by mismatched windows. Its central bay originally culminated in a gold and aluminum television antenna.

In 1971, Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic of The New York Times, said Guild House contained “a perverse assortment of details that sets other architects’ teeth on edge.”

But, she wrote, “It is meant to make the educated viewer look twice, to see why the ordinary is extraordinary.”

Her successor at The Times, Paul Goldberger, saw in Mr. Venturi’s work “a kind of 20th-century mannerism that soars over the heads of most laymen,” alluding to a late-Renaissance style characterized by the use of decorative arrangements in new, sometimes surprising combinations.

By the 1980s the Venturi firm was winning large commissions, including additions to the Harvard, Yale and Princeton campuses. (Mr. Venturi described William G. Bowen, then Princeton’s president, as “my Medici.”) By decorating his facades, sometimes using brick in jaunty patterns, he helped the colleges bridge the gap between their historic buildings (such as Princeton’s Gothic dormitories) and the spare, stark, boxy forms that had become the 20th-century default.

Outside the United States, he and Scott Brown were known for their addition to the National Gallery in London, which opened in 1991 and was acclaimed for eccentricity in a country where eccentricity is prized. The building featured Corinthian columns arranged at uneven intervals, like a jazz musician riffing on classical themes.


Other important projects included the Seattle Art Museum, which also opened in 1991 and was later incorporated into a larger building by Allied Works Architecture, and a government complex in Toulouse, France. In both projects, elements of classical architecture are rendered in exaggerated form as surface decoration.

Though he disowned the title, Mr. Venturi was often called the father of postmodernism. Philip Johnson, who left his own large imprint on 20th-century architecture, said in a conversation with architect and author Robert A.M. Stern in 1985 that Mr. Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction” had helped liberate him from modernism’s rigidity.

“It was such a relief that it appeared,” he said of the book.

But others lamented the onslaught of postmodernism. Inga Saffron, the architecture critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote in 2009 that “as less talented architects appropriated” historical elements, America’s highways became lined with “a kitsch-scape of pediments, gables and arches.”

Explaining the philosophy behind his buildings, Mr. Venturi said, “I used history as a reference, but I never used it as inspiration directly.” But that distinction was lost on many.

Robert Charles Venturi Jr. was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1925. His father ran a produce business; his mother, Vanna (Luizi) Venturi, was active in socialist and feminist circles. Their only child, Mr. Venturi attended the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Penn., and then enrolled at Princeton University. Raised as a Quaker, he said he registered as a conscientious objector during World War II.


Mr. Venturi arrived at Princeton in 1944, when modernism had taken root at other architecture schools, particularly Harvard’s, then led by the Bauhaus master Walter Gropius. Princeton’s architecture program, however, was affiliated with its art and archaeology department, and Mr. Venturi became immersed in architectural history.

After receiving his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton, he worked for Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, modernists with iconoclastic streaks, before winning a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He spent two years in Europe, studying buildings by the likes of Michelangelo, Bernini and, in Spain, Antoni Gaudi.

In 1954, Mr. Venturi joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Scott Brown, an urban planner who was also teaching at Penn and who had recently been widowed. They married in 1967.

Mr. Venturi went into private practice in 1960, first in partnership with William H. Short and then, starting in 1964, with John Rauch. Scott Brown joined the Venturi Rauch firm in 1969 as partner in charge of planning. In 1989, when Rauch resigned, the firm was renamed Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. At its peak it employed nearly 100 people. It is now known as VSBA Architects & Planners.

Mr. Venturi won the Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s highest honor, in 1991. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged the role his wife had played in his success, making a point of using “we” instead of “I.”