Though Complexity's anniversary isn't receiving anything like the hype that Jacobs' book is, it won't go ignored, thanks to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the University of Pennsylvania. To celebrate the publication of Venturi's "gentle manifesto," MoMA's Martino Stierli and Penn's David Brownlee have organized a three-day symposium that will kick off in New York on Thursday, then move to Philadelphia on Saturday. The event, which is free and open to the public, should generate renewed interest in Venturi's ideas, which delivered the knockout punch to chilly, stand-alone modernist architecture and encouraged the appreciation of buildings tightly inserted into the urban streetscape.
Like Jacobs' assault on city-destroying highways and Corbusian-style public housing towers, Venturi's 1966 critique crystallized a latent public dissatisfaction with the status quo. Architects who were students when Venturi's book appeared recall it as a "great permission-giver" that liberated them from having to design endless variations of slab towers with flat roofs and ribbon windows.
The philosophical congruences between Venturi and Jacobs are fascinating. In his manifesto, Venturi, who is now 91, challenged orthodox modernism for its focus on placeless, unadorned, freestanding buildings - those Corbusian towers-in-a-park. At a time when urban renewal was mowing down vast swaths of American cities, Venturi and Jacobs championed the importance of maintaining older buildings.
He spoke about the "messy vitality," or complexity, that comes from a jumble of styles and urban facades. The phrase echoes Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet" performed by strangers who interacted as they went about their daily business on city streets.
Venturi's ideas were formed in the mid-'50s during a two-year residency at the American Academy in Rome. He fell in love with that city's street life, much as Jacobs did after she moved to Greenwich Village. He was especially taken with baroque buildings, and saw their undulating, ornate facades as screens that communicated meaning as effectively as a modern billboard. In Complexity, he explains how Rome's facades form the edges that define urban spaces like plazas and bring people together. They break down the scale of buildings and hold our interest.
One downside of hitting his target (orthodox modernism, that is) so squarely is that, over the years, Complexity's themes have effectively become the official line. The same thing happened with Death and Life. As a result, it is easy to forget the two books were once radical. Complexity hasn't exactly been forgotten, but it is much less read than it should be, MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll believes.
The book is frequently blamed for unleashing the postmodernist style, which has spawned a lot of faux-historicist architecture, like the Museum of the American Revolution now going up in Philadelphia, as well as thousands of strip shopping centers with temple-like pediments pasted above their entrances. After Venturi's initial success with the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, many in the public grew tired of his use of vaguely classical elements. Venturi, however, has always insisted he was merely extending the modernist vocabulary and not a champion of postmodernism.
Another critique, voiced by Anthony Vidler, former architecture dean at Cooper Union, is that Complexity elevated visual form over social concerns, which had been strongly advocated by the modernists. Sadly, in today's finance-driven developer buildings, we're now seeing the worst of both: dull slabs that lack any redeeming public component.