The first edition of Venturi's explosive little book, written in the period 1962–64, appeared in a new series called Papers on Modern Architecture published under the imprimatur of the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. It was preceded by a lengthy excerpt in Yale's journal of architecture, Perspecta, the year before.1 In an introduction written for the MoMA book, Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully hailed it as the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture, “one of the few basic texts of our time—one which, despite its antiheroic lack of pretension and its shift of perspective from the Champs-Élysées to Main Street, still picks up a fundamental dialogue begun in the twenties, and so connects us with the heroic generation of modern architecture once more” (16).2
Most of the initial reviewers confirmed Scully's opinion of the book's import, although they voiced reservations about Venturi's methodology, above all his neglect of questions of function and technology and his skirting of social issues. For some, precisely these omissions, along with the author's explicitly subjective point of view (“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture”), were what made his “gentle manifesto” so radical.
Peter Blake, whose image of Main Street Venturi had appropriated from his own book God's Own Junkyard of two years earlier to make the opposite point, deemed Complexity and Contradiction less original. Writing in Architectural Forum, he allowed that “The history of art is bound to be retold in every generation,” but he found Venturi's notion of complexity superficial and his formal contradictions to be contrived: “‘accidentalism’ has been raised to a discipline.’”3
Among other early responses, Colin Rowe, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review together with Reyner Banham's The New Brutalism: Ethic …
Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture addresses architecture as the only place where redundant and simple construction, in thinking and in material reality, takes shape. All other art forms indulge and promote complexity in their art form especially in the multiplicity that occurs in poetry, fine art and even mathematics, which build on the multitude of possibilities to creating the art. Architecture is different because it does not adapt to the opportunity of variety. Venturi suggests that architecture is rationalized through rejecting and excluding the complexities that emerge in architecture because the building is essentially comprised of a multitude paradoxes, from dealing with outside and inside, movement and immobility and so on.
Venturi finds great value in embracing the complex layers that have emerged from previous and old methods of architecture that have rendered architecture complex. In Venturi’s time of practice and older defined philosophies of architecture recognized complexity in thinking and building in architecture from, ecological conditions and expanding scale, such as skyscrapers, as well as fitting with the city context leaves architecture to be caught in a theoretical vortex of multiple necessities. “I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties.” Venturi criticizes modernism for rejecting the complexities and being exclusive as oppose to accommodating.
Ventrui focuses on embracing contradiction and complexity by recognizing the various paradoxes present in architecture and the society that architecture accommodates. A visually complex, constructed, environment is necessary and can exist between regimented order and barren architectural forms. Venturi recognizes the work of Mies van der Rohe in his statuesque pavilions that are recognizable by their simplicity. Ventrui is hesitant of the oversimplification of architecture especially when he elaborates on Mies’s infamous statement on modernism in “Less is more,” to “Less is a bore” because the complex behaviour of people and how they move through their environment is not reflective to one unified, simplified form. Although, oversimplified architecture is able to make selective decisions and create a building that is successful in use and memorable in appearance, it is bland for a program of living. The program of living is referring to how people congregate differently in architecture because people are varied so they respond to an environment that accommodates for this instinct that responds to change and chaos. Such features of architectural nakedness helps the architect to make evident judgments on what works for the building but this oversimplification is also the down fall for the architecture because it ignores the desire for visual stimulation that is achieved through variety.
The complex architecture, Venturi says, has multiple meaning, which at the same time takes part in a fluid system. The meanings contradict one another when analyzed side by side but Venturi suggests that they should be addressed together, not excluding one or the other for the sake of clarity in simplification. The clarity can lead to a bare and bland architecture that stands alone separate from the people it accommodates. Even separating elements of architecture, such as the idea of outside versus inside or window from wall creates levels of importance. The ranking system fosters a tense existence for simplified bland architecture, as Venturi says. The separations of elements create a hierarchy between the components of architecture. Worse, when the rules of order are not followed, the order breaks producing negativity through anxiety and rejection of the disruption of order. Venturi suggests each part has their place in architecture and should be recognized for the complexity by addressing the architecture as a whole.
Venturi sees an obligation toward the difficult whole. “It is the difficult unity through inclusion rather than easy unity through exclusion,” acceptance rather than rejection is ideal to achieve a rich architecture. The “difficult whole” is the challenge to unify the numerous components that encompass an architectural form. The challenge to achieving a more valuable architecture is through consciousness off all the potential parts and finding a way to bridge them all into a cohesive mass. The whole is the “sum of its parts” as a result a complex equation creates a more interesting and valuable result that is incomparable to previous solutions especially in architecture. An architectural work can be richer by reevaluating the complexity and the all the parts that function as the architecture.
Filed under: Idea Bank, postmodernism, venturi