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Iconoclastic Architects Catalyze Shift to More Populist Style

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art is highly eclectic

By Carol StricklandSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 1996


It was fitting that Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" was played during groundbreaking here for the expanded Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) San Diego, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

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The Philadelphia firm of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates has virtually defined populist architecture that glories in everyday life.

The enlarged, $9.25-million museum, which opened March 10, illustrates the architects' gospel of diversity. Bold neon signs on the exterior blare homage to our media age. Fat Doric columns show an offbeat historicism. As a nod to context, the architects exposed the Mission Style facade of the original building designed by Irving Gill in 1916.

Although most museum designs are neutral to highlight the art, MCA director Hugh Davies says, "If you have an architect who is the best architect working in the world today, how ridiculous to inhibit his creativity by putting strictures on what he can do."

Accolades like this have showered Venturi and Scott Brown in recent years. They've received major commissions like the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, and both received the National Medal of Arts in 1992.

For most of the firm's existence, however, commissions tended to be a few quirky, small-ticket projects. Their notoriety came from the iconoclastic books of architecture theory they wrote, which outraged the design community. After the initial responses waned, their influence changed architecture from mainstream modernism to Main Street post-modernism.

"After 50 years of what had become a fairly restricted dogma of modernism, Venturi's book ['Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture' (1966)] opened people's eyes.... It was a plea to understand the elegance of other forms of architecture, like Baroque," says Bruce Thomas, an architectural historian at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Modernism spawned the industrial aesthetic of glass-and-steel boxes, pared of all ornament and historical trappings. Mies van der Rohe summed it up: "Less is more." To which Venturi replied, "Less is a bore." Just as Pop Art replaced abstraction in the 1960s, "Venturi and Scott Brown reintroduced ornament and figuration into architecture," says Mark Taylor, professor of humanities at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He adds, "Their architecture grew out of the pop culture of Main Street. They catalyzed a shift from architectural obsession with purity of form to the use of images and decoration from commercial culture.

In separate interviews, Venturi and Scott Brown spoke about their ideas. Excerpts of the discussion with Venturi follow.

What are the current trends in American architecture?

There has been a tendency in the modern architecture of our era ... of glorying in being revolutionary. There was justification for revolution in the 1920s when the International Style began and the industrial vocabulary and abstraction were adapted.

Now we're in a cycle where evolution is more dominant than revolution. We have to acknowledge the past. The modern architect ... would design from the inside out, and to heck with what's around a building. On the other hand, some architects have taken the idea of context to an extreme.... You can be very contrasting to the old and still be harmonious. Different periods coexist in the Piazza San Marco. It has an outrageous Gothic Doge's Palace, correct and vital Renaissance buildings, and a Byzantine Cathedral. And they all work.

Your criticism of minimalism as a "bore" is perceived as a turning point. Did you mean to scuttle modernism?