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"Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates"
2002-11-08 until 2003-02-02
Carnegie Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Out of the Ordinary: The Architecture and Design of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates, on view at Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, surveys the work of one of the late 20th century's most influential architecture and design firms. Out of the Ordinary, with a wide variety of objects, including architectural drawings, models, and photographs, as well as furniture, textiles, and decorative arts, documents more than four decades of the firm's eye-catching, iconoclastic work.

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) is known for combining design elements in unexpected ways-an approach that has spurred some to include Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown among the founders of architectural Post modernism. Though they reject the Post- modernist label, Venturi and Scott Brown are guided by design principles that contrast sharply with Modernism's tendency to pare structures to essentials: turning the Modernist's rallying cry "Less is more" against itself, Venturi declared "Less is a bore." The firm has become known for an eclecticism that draws freely from varied sources, such as historic design styles and popular culture, including contemporary commercial architecture and advertising.

In 1950, Robert Venturi completed his master's thesis at Princeton, which sent out the first shoots of what would flower into an enduring architectural philosophy. Against the Modernist tendency to treat buildings as solitary objects without regard for their settings, Venturi argued that a building derives meaning from its context, and different contexts require different forms of architectural expression. A decade later, Venturi met Denise Scott Brown, when both were teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite vastly different backgrounds, from the outset Venturi and Scott Brown shared fundamental beliefs about design. They have been married since 1967 and became business partners in 1969.

Although Venturi has never completely cast off the general principles of Modernism, VSBA prefers an eclectic and practical approach-what they term "messy vitality"-to the stripped-down, universalizing tendencies of Modernism's earlier, more dogmatic advocates. VSBA's buildings, urban planning projects, and decorative arts designs all have strong links to their physical or historical contexts, so that while their projects are obviously contemporary, they strike a note of familiarity.

Venturi revealed his synthetic attitude and intelligence as early as his second completed building, the house in Philadelphia that he designed for his mother. For the fašade of the Vanna Venturi House (1959-65), he combined a handful of basic architectural elements-in this case a gable, door, windows, and chimney-arranging the forms into a simple, inviting design that is plainly modern, yet also a strong expression of traditional ideas of home.

In the nearly four decades since the completion of the Vanna Venturi House, VSBA has created residential designs and many other types of buildings that are freely inspired by historical and contemporary sources. In his Eclectic House Series (1977), Venturi presented a sequence of elevations that captures the firm's inclusive yet radical embrace of history. From ancient Egypt through contemporary commercial architecture, with stops in the Gothic, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau periods, among others, the drawings chart architectural history as imagined in the design of dwellings.

Other objects in Out of the Ordinary spotlight the firm's fundamental design principles. A replica of the large coffee cup that Venturi incorporated into the fašade of Grand's Restaurant (1961-62) reveals the architect's developing concept of "decorated sheds," or utilitarian buildings, some with oversized graphic elements (so-called "supergraphics"), that announce the building's function. The willingness to blend iconic and vernacular architectural elements has been consistent in VSBA's designs. For the Reedy Creek Improvement District Emergency Services Headquarters and Fire Station (1992-93), designed for Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, VSBA created an exterior that declares the building's purpose through imagery associated in the popular imagination with fire departments, in particular the black-on-white spotted coat of a fire company's Dalmatian mascot.

Recent high-profile international projects reveal the consistency with which VSBA has applied and interpreted that architectural philosophy. For the critically acclaimed Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery (1985-91), VSBA sensitively related the building's fašade to its 19th-century neighbors on Trafalgar Square, creating an historically inflected yet distinctly contemporary complement to the original building. The firm's design for its largest commercial commission to date, the Hotel Mielmonte Nikko Kirifuri in Nikko, Japan (1992-97), brings together a variety of traditional architectural features and elements of Japan's lively contemporary commercial streetscape. Set in a national forest, the spa and hotel manage to harmonize the diverse aspects of Japanese culture.

Like the firm's architecture, VSBA's decorative arts projects are marked by practicality enlivened with bold eclecticism. The Campidoglio Tray (1980-83), created for Italian housewares retailer Alessi, has a radiating star pattern that mirrors Michelangelo's design for the pavement in Rome's Piazza del Campidoglio. A Cuckoo Clock (1986-88), also designed for Alessi, has bright colors and unexpected proportions, adding contemporary features to a timepiece with a decidedly traditional form. Among numerous other decorative arts objects, Out of the Ordinary includes chairs that VSBA created for Knoll between 1978 and 1984-the Chippendale, Sheraton, Art Nouveau, and Gothic Revival chairs. Each borrows from historic designs yet is sturdy, comfortable, and clearly modern.

The exhibition includes a multimedia installation, The Architect's Dream (2001), inspired by an 1840 painting by the same name. The original work, created by the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, synthesizes an astonishing variety of historical architectural styles into a utopian scene. In their version of The Architect's Dream, VSBA used digital technology to blend contemporary and historical images, creating a work that not only dramatizes the firm's liberal embrace of historical influences, but also serves to illustrate their philosophy of unifying our architectural past with the practical demands of the present day. Tracy Myers, associate curator of architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, considers the exhibition a fitting compendium of the firm's wide-ranging, decades-long practice. "The scope of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates' ouevre-geographically, typologically, and in terms of scale-is really quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that they have hewn to their design philosophy with such constancy, and this exhibition dramatizes their fidelity to their principles as well as their creativity."

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates
Eclectic House Series, 1977
elevations, Robert Venturi
Colored plastic film on photomechanical print
24 5/8 x 25 1/2 in.
Collection of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

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