Architecture, unlike, say, tennis, is a profession for late bloomers. Even so, the career of Robert Venturi, 66, seems an incredible case of delayed gratification. It's been 25 years since his startling attack on the austerity of modern design, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," made him famous and jump-started the postmodern boom. In the book, he shot back at Mies van der Rohe's dictum, "Less is more" and said, "Less is a bore." Let's have "messy vitality," he argued, let's have ambiguity and a nod to architecture of the past. Those ideas influenced architects from Robert A. M. Stern, with his classical columns, to Frank Gehry with his street-smart materials. Everybody agreed Venturi was a brilliant thinker, but no one asked him to build skyscrapers or huge civic monuments. What his firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, did build didn't have an unmistakable "Venturi look": the beach houses were send-ups of fisherman's shacks; the campus buildings were brick schoolhouses with a twist. Venturi wasn't out to develop a personal signature: "We get our kicks from accommodating to different places, different ethoses or situations," he says.
That deceptively simple and seemingly unegotistical tack is finally bringing the professorial Venturi some significant rewards. Last month the Philadelphia designer was cited for "changing the course of architecture in this century" when he was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize in a ceremony in Mexico City. And he now has two major projects opening that test his conviction that buildings should respond to their surroundings, not just impose an architectural style. On July 9 in London, Queen Elizabeth will officially open Venturi's biggest project yet: the Sainsbury Wing, a major addition to Britain's neoclassical National Gallery, squeezed onto a corner of Trafalgar Square. In December his big, colorful new art museum for Seattle, going up in a busy downtown district, will be finished.
The London National Gallery project was born out of controversy, and Venturi's wing already has modernist British critics frothing. The original scheme, designed by the London firm of Ahrends Burton & Koralek, was the target of a notorious attack by Prince Charles, who called it a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." So the National Gallery scrapped the plans, and Venturi was ultimately chosen to design the wing, which will be home to the museum's great collection of early Renaissance paintings. His approach was understandably cautious: he matched the height of the original building and used the same pale Portland stone on the facade; he borrowed the classical pilasters of the original but bunched them with pizzazz. The basic idea came quickly: his collaborator and wife, Denise Scott Brown, who is an architect and urban planner, says Venturi sketched it on an airline menu after their first trip to London for the project.
The simple facade has some bold touches, like the big entrance set into the stone. "We have huge, almost rude openings," says Venturi, "almost like a sports facility," because museums these days are populist places. A dark wall of glass on the side joins the stone front in an ungainly way, but the play of classical details is wonderfully witty and the harmony of new and old seems right. Yet the overall effect is almost too well-mannered, a guest at tea who's afraid to make a gaffe. (When a reporter commented on the wit of some of the details, Venturi replied, "But it's not a joke. You don't make jokes in architecture. It's too expensive." True enough.)
Inside, Venturi has created a spectacular grand staircase up to the galleries that's set against the glass wall, so that visitors can glimpse the colonnaded portico of the old gallery and the bustle of Trafalgar Square beyond. The galleries are graceful, airy rooms, with natural light filtering from above. They recall Italian palazzos, with their arches and robust columns. "All of this is a touch of theater, but the whole idea is not to upstage the art," says Venturi, who admits the curators had some rigid ideas "that went against our grain." He won't specify. Walking past a magnificent Pollaiuollo painting of Saint Sebastian riddled with arrows, he said, "Sometimes we say that's the architect."
Half a world away, the $62 million Seattle museum is very different: a whole building, not a fragment, but one that has to stand up to neighboring office towers. Venturi designed a big dumb box that curves at the corner, and he put the fun stuff on the surface: fluted limestone, polychrome terra cotta, a progression of windows, arches and piers. In other words, the ornament so dreaded by modernists, which Venturi loves: the basic design is put at the service of structure and function, and the artistic expression is in the decoration.
In office in an old mill neighborhood in Philadelphia, Venturi muses on his achievements. Tweedy, avuncular, a bit shy, he admits he's "very disappointed that we didn't get our chance earlier to do big buildings." Bad luck has played a role: an extraordinary mosque designed for a Baghdad competition in 1982 will never be built. The $100 million Philadelphia Orchestra Hall is on hold while funds are raised. But his office has done rich and varied projects from jewelry and chairs to urban planning in Washington, Miami Beach and Austin. Buildings such as the award-winning Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton, built in 1983, have been the bread and butter of the firm's work; that and other projects for Princeton convinced the National Gallery that Venturi was their man. Another of the architect's disappointments: that his wife was not included in the Pritzker Prize. "We are equal partners in designing and thinking and writing," he says. Though he's more involved in design and she in planning, they often work together on new projects, analyzing the context. When Venturi went to the Pritzker ceremony, he took their 20-year-old son; Scott Brown stayed home.
Venturi's ideas as much as his architecture brought him the prize, though he's distanced himself from the postmodern movement he helped spawn. "Many of these people using historical reference were promoting one way of doing things," he says. "They weren't really in the spirit of pluralism." Nor do many of them know when to keep quiet. "There's nothing more boring than being exciting, if it's not warranted," says Venturi. "We must remember that architecture is about shelter elementally." This is a highly unfashionable notion, but unlike the ideas of many of today's trendy architects, Venturi's are likely to live at least as long as his buildings.