Versatile Architect Wins Pritzker Prize
For Robert Venturi, a building's design has to serve the needs of the occupants, not constrain them to live by its limitations
THE Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture, will be presented May 16 to Philadelphia architect, Robert Venturi, the seventh American to receive the honor. Described as one of the most original talents in contemporary architecture, he has looked with fresh eyes on the world around him, leaving his mark through a variety of buildings, trend-setting books, teaching, and theories. Mr. Venturi joins previous winners such as Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, James Stirling, Keven Rochs, and I. M. Pei. In previous years, the award has been presented at Goldsmiths' Hall in London, the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, and Palazzo Grazzi in Venice, Italy. This year's award will be presented at the magnificent 18th-century Palacio de Iturbide in Mexico City, with the president of Mexico attending.
Venturi's 1966 book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" began a fundamental shift in direction for the architecture world. Many insist Venturi saved modern architecture from itself by making it acceptable to enjoy the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings. The Pritzker Jury citation states: "No other book, with the possible exception of Le Corbusier's "Vers une Architecture" has had the power to divert the mainstream of architectural thought."
In an age of starkness and simplicity, where the rule was summarized in Mies van der Rohe's dictum, "Less is more," Venturi's reply was "Less is a bore."
"It was a reaction against late modern architecture when the movement began to be stale and rigid," Venturi says. "I felt it was time to connect with complexity and contradiction. What's wrong with ornamentation and decoration?" Venturi explains that "I was arguing for what might be called 'the messy vitality' of the built environment. I was responding to the elite who called ordinary and commercial architecture totally bad."
He has always been a leader. One of his first projects, a house for his mother in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, drew both negative and positive reviews. The neighbors didn't like it. Then, 25 years later, it received the American Institute of Architects's 25th Year Award as "a design of enduring significance that has withstood the test of time." Venturi enjoyed a critic's comment on the house: "It looks like a child's drawing." "Young people look at that house today and accept it," he smile d, "but at the time the designs were unheard of in late modern architecture. It has big and little scale, a pediment at the front, applied decoration and a nonstructural arch."
VENTURI and his partner and wife of 26 years, Denise Scott Brown, agree that a structure should accommodate and draw inspiration from its surroundings. Each of their projects begin with a "learning from" report. They go to the city where the building is to be constructed, talk with the natives, discover old and new problems, and learn the ethos of the place.
Perhaps this is why Venturi's designs offer such diversity. "It used to be considered a sign of weakness if your buildings were different, without the architect's personal vocabulary stamped on it," Venturi says. "I don't like the prissy approach to design that now exists in some urban designs. I think the best thing that can happen in the future is to allow the natural vitality that is in the air to live, new things to be born, and not to worry too much about whether it's precisely tasteful or precisely r elated to some ideology."
Venturi has always taken a unique tack. "I've often been called an outsider," he remarked, "and I don't object. As someone looking in, I tend to see things from different perspectives."
Venturi's work can be seen at Princeton, his alma mater, where his most recent building is the Economics Center for International Studies. He has also designed buildings on the campuses of Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Shippensburg University, and Dartmouth College. His current projects include a new Philadelphia Orchestra Hall, the Seattle Museum of Art, a Medical Research Laboratory at UCLA, and a major addition to the National Gallery of Art on Trafalgar Square in London.
The latter was a particular jewel in his crown because Prince Charles, a critic with strong opinions about modern architecture, is on the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery.
"I wish I could say I received the news of the [Pritzger prize] while I was dramatically working over my drawing board, charcoal in hand," Venturi says, "but like most modern architects I was in a meeting at my office when the call came."
Robert Venturi's newest and highest honor includes $100,000, a medallion, and a citation. His only regret: "I wish it could have been given in tandem with my wife, Denise, who is a part of everything I do."
From the Book 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture'
'I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art.... Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements which are hybrid rather than "pure," compromising rather than "clean," distorted rather than "straightforward".... I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.'