Robert Venturi
Courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. Robert Venturi

One of the best presents I’ve ever received is a pair of silver candlesticks that Robert Venturi designed in 1984. My aunt and uncle got them for one of their anniversaries, if memory serves, and having little inclination for postmodern decorative arts, they eventually passed the candlesticks on to me.

Never has there been a finer regift.

The candlesticks sit on a side table in my living room, and I’ve been obsessing over them since Venturi announced his retirement this summer. The architect and his still professionally active wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, have been heroes of mine from adolescence, when I bought a copy of Venturi’s treatise, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture—mostly because I liked the pictures. The writing proved just as interesting.

Until that point, I hadn’t realized that architecture could embody an idea. Feelings, sure, such as the sense of uplift I got as a kid, standing at the base of Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, or the solemnity that would wash over me in the sculpture hall of Cass Gilbert’s St. Louis Art Museum. But fully baked intellectual concepts? In a building? Who’d have thought?

Great architecture speaks equally to the heart and mind. To hear the voice of a Venturi Scott Brown & Associates building is rather like having Oscar Wilde whisper in your ear. Venturi and Scott Brown are a rare breed: architects whose wit translates intact into built form. If you share their sense of humor—ironic, semantic, cerebral—their buildings have the capacity to make you laugh out loud.

Both Wilde and Venturi are tweakers of convention. The poet and playwright upended Victorian morality with scripts such as The Importance of Being Earnest, and he drove his points home with extremely clever wordplay—“Work is the curse of the drinking classes” being one of my favorites. Venturi, for his part, exposed the single-mindedness of postwar, corporatized Modernism in Complexity and offered a delicious alternative in 1962, in the form of the house he designed for his mother, with its miscegenistic wedding of Orthodox ribbon window and heretic pitched roof.

Venturi’s famous quip “Less is a bore” intellectually justified a career’s worth of such architectural conceits. He never hesitated to reuse the best ones: the split pediment, the familiar pattern applied in a strange context, the silhouette of a traditional form. One can trace a direct line from the squashed Cape Cod elevation of the Vanna Venturi House, through the Georgian silhouettes of my candlesticks, to the sequentially flattened classical façade of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London (which Prince Charles derided as “a monstrous carbuncle”). The addition proved to be the high-point of the couple’s career.

Alas, in the past decade or so, someone or other decided that the jokes were getting old. The architectural intelligentsia went looking for a shiny new paradigm, another form of complexity. And, just possibly, Venturi wore out his welcome. He and Scott Brown are true gentlefolk, but they’ve never backed down when they perceived a threat to the integrity of their work. During the course of their careers, they walked away from some seriously plum commissions. The commissions, perhaps as a result, started going to other talents.

Today, Frank Gehry’s is the name that leaps to mind in conjunction with the phrase “America’s greatest living architect.” Venturi and Scott Brown are of no lesser caliber. Indeed, the two practices are flip sides of the same coin: Venturi and Scott Brown’s decorated shed versus Gehry’s mighty duck.

Venturi and Scott Brown have had an undeniably profound influence on the subsequent generation, even if the Herzog & de Meurons and OMAs are too hip to acknowledge their indebtedness. But then Venturi himself has an uncertain relationship with the movement he and his wife helped launch, together with their late partner Steven Izenour. Ten years ago, Venturi wrote an essay for me at Architecture with the title, “I Am Not Now and Never Have Been a Postmodernist.” History will be the judge of that.

What’s certain is that Venturi and Scott Brown fomented a revolution in architecture, one that reawakened the discipline to its long, proud heritage. I’ll never stop learning from them, and from their candlesticks.