Robert Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Study notes for Architecture

Robert Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Study notes for Architecture

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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. Venturi finds great value in embracing the complex layers that have emerged from previous and old methods of architecture that have rendered architecture complex. 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 behavior of people and how they move through their environment is not reflective to one unified, simplified form.

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. 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 book focuses on the question why some architecture is interesting and fascinating while other types are not. Venturi says architecture becomes interesting when visual tension is introduced in the building. I use the word tension in the way he uses the term contradiction. It is contradiction but the overall result is a tension that catches the observer’s attention. However, it is also ambiguity in the overall design, the position of the building in the space and vis-a-vis other buildings that contribute to this feeling of pleasant tension. The calculated ambiguity of expression is based on the confusion of experience as reflected in the architectural program. This promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning. His work was and still is a great statement against modernism in architecture. He regarded modernism with its focus on simplicity, symmetry and harmony, as boring and completely devoid of vitality.


“… 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. Everywhere, except in architecture, complexity and contradiction have been acknowledged, from Godel's proof of ultimate inconsistency in mathematics to T.S. Elliot's analysis of "difficult poetry and Joseph Albers' definition of the paradoxical quality of painting. 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," ambiguous rather than "articulated," perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as "interesting," conventional rather than "designed," accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning. For the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer "both-and" to "either-or," black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once. Nevertheless, an architecture of complexity and

contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less."

“The movement from a view of life as essentially simple and orderly to a view of life as complex and ironic is what every individual passes through in becoming mature.” That suggests that a mature structure should include elements of complexity and irony. Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier are examples of architects who have rejected simplification, but the complexity in their work is often overlooked or misinterpreted. The interdependence of form and function should be blended in a structure, instead of looking at them as one-follows-the-other. The growing complexities of our society and problems should be recognized and expressed in our architecture.


Venturi also touches on the concept that richness can contrast with clarity, and urges architects to leave the tenets of traditional Modernism behind in pursuit of "truth in its totality," a sort of organic messiness that he perceives as more real and useful than overly planned, hyper-logical Modernist constructions. "Complexity and Contradiction vs. Simplification or Picturesqueness" criticizes "orthodox Modern architects" and their treatment of (and attitudes toward) complexity. Venturi feels that diversity in architecture represents a type of sophistication that is lost in the works of the Modernists. Venturi explains that challenging the observer actually enhances his/her experience with the architecture because the work becomes "more vivid." He talks about "complex architecture" as a "both-and" scenario (rather than strictly "either-or," which is not inclusive). "Both- and" architecture promotes hierarchy within it, which leads to contrasts, layers and levels of meanings. Additionally, Venturi seems to appreciate the double meanings that can result from traditional forms of architecture or architectural elements, which derive one meaning from their original/historical context and those associations, and the new meaning from its contemporary function or context. Some examples of this type of architectural recycling include old palazzos transformed into embassies or museum, or old city walls that become boulevards around downtown in later centuries.

He credits the idea of order in some ways, suggesting that "order must exist before it can be broken." In order to create the "anomalies and uncertainties" that "give validity to architecture," the architecture must be reacting against something. So while "there are no fixed laws," architecture benefits from some sense of order or a system so that it can react. Because systems cannot accommodate every circumstance, architecture should strive to defy order or create a new order. The altering or breaking of order enhances the deeper meanings of the architecture. To that end, in the ongoing battle of standardization and variety, Venturi encourages architects to consider how they can use principles of standardization "in an unstandard way."

Venturi believes that variety in the cityscape and individual buildings creates a certain type of tension that not only promotes many levels of interpretation but also forms a sophisticated unity. He gives examples of certain works that are "complete" even though they are technically unfinished, such as the series of sculptures Michelangelo left unfinished at the end of his life. These "contradictory or circumstantial" parts can make a work more dynamic because they rely on the principle of inclusion: they are open to interpretation, sometimes loose, more

expressive, and not rules-based. He suggests that architecture should look to and learn from Pop Art's "contradictions of scale and context" instead of relying upon "the easy Gestalt unities of the urban renewal projects of the establishment."

A major manifestation of contradiction in architecture can be the contrast between the inside and the outside. One of the powerful orthodoxies of 20th-century architecture has been a continuity between the inside and the outside. The inside should be expressed on the outside, it says.

An architecture of complexity and contradiction, however, does not mean picturesqueness or subjective expressionism.

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