From Mannerism to Postmodernism in Architecture

Mannerism and Symbolism in Architecture

Robert Venturi began his famous book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, with a “gentle manifesto” for what he called “Nonstraightforward Architecture.” The young architect stated,

I like complexity and contradiction in architecture in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, 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….Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, being as well as “interesting,” convention 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 include non sequitur and and proclaim the duality. 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 serval ways at once…More is not less.

It is necessary to quote this opening passage at length because it is one of the earliest statements about what would be called Postmodernism in America and because it would form the basis for the definition of Postmodernism later fashioned by the architectural writer, Charles Jencks. In addition many aspects of his “manifesto” would find their way into the basic elements of Postmodern thought. Although Venturi declared that he was not a Postmodern architect—and as a pioneer, he could not be—his playful approach to re-examining Modernist architecture would change the thinking of an entire generation. His book, published in 1966, reflects the slow process his thinking had gone through during the five years he spent designing a small modest house for his mother, Vanna Venturi. Architectural historian, Vincent Scully, called this book the most important book on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture (1923).

If Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is his verbal manifesto, then the famous Mother’s House (1963) was his physical manifesto, demanding a change in architectural thinking. In his introduction to Mother’s House. The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, Frederick Schwartz noted that architectural students at the nearby University of Pennsylvania were warned by their professors to not visit this radical house. However, not only did they come, but Venturi also won a Gold Metal for this opening salvo against Modernism. If this house is a challenge to Modernist purism in architecture than it is instructive to compare it to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both houses set alone on a small lot, a grass lawn, rimmed with trees, announcing each as a work of art. While the Villa is clearly a new and modern design that was a “machine for living,” Mother’s House was based on an old and familiar prototype—or a combination of traditions.

As he describes it, Venturi was seeking a combination of “essence” and “classicism.” The essential house or dwelling is an enclosure as evoked by the plain salt-box New England shape and the peaked roof. The classicism of the house is its split or divided pediment which interrupts while retains the classicism. Some of the playfulness comes from his desire to defy the elders of his profession—he returns windows to their original source, as holes in a wall and he repainted the stucco house from a taupe gray to a green to make the house blend in with nature, because Marcel Breuer would never do. And in the worst infamy of all, Venturi added moldings—from the unfunctional arch to the decorations around the windows—ornamentation. While symmetrical the exterior and interior have elements of asymmetry, from mismatched windows from a staircase hidden behind a door. Today this private home is a place of pilgrimage for architects seeking the source of Postmodernism.

Another iconic work of Postmodern architecture was designed around the same time as Venturi was working towards his final version of Mother’s House and that was the Sydney Opera House, which was not opened until 1973, a decade after the architect, Jorn Utzon. This building, an engineering marvel, was also a display of visual “double-coding,” a term coined by Charles Jencks to indicate that the visual forms of Postmodern architecture had codes, meanings, that had multiple meanings. The two sail-shaped, triple layered roofs of the Opera House refer to the Sydney Harbor and the ships that sail for pleasure in front of the famous building. The code for “sails,” “sea,” and even of vaults which capture the sound of the music are local and specific, rather than being universal forms favored by Modernist architecture. Although some wits have equated the layers or shells to a ménage à trios of mating turtles, the Sydney Opera House can, in Venturi language, be called a “Duck.”

Venturi confronted Modernism with his famous “duck” and “decorated shed” comparison put forward in his 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The “Duck,” inspired by a duck shaped structure on Long Island, is the Modernist building, which is a symbol of Modernism and of the machine. The Decorated Shed is a generic building that symbolizes nothing but enclosure or “shed” in which its actual function is designated by signage. That signage is symbolic but frankly so, for Venturi maintains that although Modernist architects deny it, all architecture, even theirs, is symbolic. When Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and Steve Izenour visited Las Vegas, the town was full of “Sheds” Decorated with neon signs, designating them as casinos. But, interestingly, today Las Vegas is comprised of “Ducks:” a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, a Venice, a Statue of Liberty and so on–an entire gaggle of ducks marching up and down the main highway.

The years following the publication of Learning from Las Vegas were the first years of acknowledged and frankly Postmodern works of architecture. One of the most successful works of Postmodern destination architecture was the Centre Georges Pompidou (1972-75) in the Beaubourg district of Paris. One of the grand projects of the post-war era, the museum for contemporary art celebrated technology. The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano turned the building inside out, like a sweater, and displayed the seams or the technology that makes the building work. The conduits and pipes are on the outside and the outside is on the inside. Scaffolding permanently surrounds the building and, also on the outside, a clear tube escalator, a “people mover,” elevates the audience from one level to the other. The pipes on the exterior are color in codes for hidden functions: red for elevators, blue for air, yellow for electricity and green for water. The Beaubourg has been embraced by the Parisians and visitors, with the large sloping cobblestone courtyard becoming a theater for performance and street artists.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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