“The city is the place of availabilities,” declared Louis Kahn. “It is the place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”
If the small boy was Robert Venturi and the city was Philadelphia in the 1930s, that something would be architecture.
What the young Venturi saw and heard on the streets of Philadelphia confounded him, at first, and then it inspired him. As noted here a while back, he later remembered the Provident Life and Trust Company on Chestnut Street and “loving to hate those squat columns as my father drove me past.” Those columns were the work of Frank Furness. And in time, Venturi would develop an “absolute unrestrained adoration and respect” for Furness.
Before Venturi learned from Las Vegas, he contemplated on Chestnut Street, leered on Locust and became fortified by what he saw on Fairmount Avenue. Philadelphia was Venturi’s formative architectural learning lab. What he studied on the city’s streets in the 1930s helped him forge a unique architectural identity.
Philadelphia in the middle third of the 20th century burgeoned with finely-wrought buildings that had grown out of style—and many more of less distinguished parentage. For an emerging visual talent such as Venturi, a creative who would come to take pride in theoretical and design perversity, that Philadelphia was nothing less than an inspirational smorasborg. Not only could Venturi learn from the bold expressions of self-assured, industrial Philadelphia, he’d translate their vocabulary into buildings that would become his masterpieces.
Take Mothers’ House, aka the Vanna Venturi House (which has recently been placed on the market). Here’s a building modest in scale with an outsized reputation, a manifesto for Post Modernism. Consider its billboard of a façade, an element with playful wit using flawed symmetry, a gratuitous arch and boldly-arranged negative spaces. Then look at the (now-butchered) façade of Dr. Casper Wister’s residence at Juniper and Locust Streets. See the parallels: a cave-like quality to both entrances; the use of compressed arches and blockish jutting of forms, in and out. But they are more like far-flung cousins than siblings.
Somewhat closer might be the industrial vernacular found in the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company’s car barn on Fairmount between 24th and 25th. Here stood a structure with significantly less provenance, but, it seems, with a closer familial tie.
Yet neither of these examples has been mentioned as part of the design parentage for Mothers’ House.
What has been mentioned? Stanislaus von Moos, the Swiss architectural theorist, suggests inspirations as far away in time and place as Michelangelo’s Porta Pia and Palladio’s Nymphaeum at Villa Barbaro. He noted, as did Venturi himself, a relationship with Luigi Moretti’s Roman Il Girasole (The Sunflower) house of 1950.
But Venturi left wide open the possibilities for more influences and inspirations—more ways of finding and creating meaning. “I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality,” he stated in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning…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,” he continued, “its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.” This “architecture of complexity and contradiction…must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”
“More,” Venturi famously put it, “is not less.”
He likens Mother’s House to “a child’s drawing of a house” adding “the front in its conventional combinations of door, windows, chimney and gable, creates an almost symbolic image of a house.” But there was nothing childlike about it. “The varying locations and sizes and shapes of the windows and perforations on the outside walls, as well as the off-center location of the chimney, contradict the overall symmetry of the outside form: the windows are balanced on each side of the dominating entrance…but they are asymmetrical. …”
“These complex combinations,” Venturi observed, “achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.”
That diversity of experience, we imagine, acknowledged inspirations from many times and places. Among them were the ample “availabilities” in the city where Venturi was born and raised.