Book Review: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

In our latest blog post, History of Art student and Museum Bookstore friend, Matt Page reviews Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and finds the book a persuasive case for architecture beyond modernism.

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

By the middle of the twentieth century, some began to see modernism as a languishing system. Its simplicity, modularity and internationalism was becoming stale, and functional flaws — as demonstrated at Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, Missouri — were starting to show. Modernism’s fall from grace led architects in America and across Europe to reconsider the programmes and systems they employed. One such architect was Robert Venturi.

In 1962, Venturi wrote Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture under a grant from the Graham Foundation. It was re-published by the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in 2002 as part of a series of occasional papers on the theoretical background of modern architecture. The re-publication of the book was not to accompany a museum exhibition, rather its purpose was to recognise the importance of Complexity and Contradiction as a critical and historical expression of a turning point in modern architectural history.

Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

The book is introduced by Vincent Scully, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History of Art in Architecture at Yale University. In his introduction, Scully argues that we should see Venturi’s book as a counterweight, or a balance, to Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture (1923) — a collection of essays which codified Corbusian modernism. Scully suggests that whilst Le Corbusier demanded a “noble purism” in architecture, Venturi’s position is the opposite: he suggests that architecture should welcome the complexity and contradictions of urban experience. Scully’s introduction ends with the argument that making and experiencing architecture are always “critical-historical acts” and therefore the strength and value of our contact with buildings will depend on historical knowledge — Complexity and Contradiction excels at deploying historical knowledge to expand our understanding.

Following Scully’s introduction, Venturi’s preface describes Complexity and Contradiction as an attempt at architectural criticism and an apologia for his work. The book targets the limitations of modern orthodox architecture and city planning, as well as architects who Venturi considers to be “platitudinous”. He criticises the idealisation of the primitive and elementary, in addition to the favouring of simplicity over diversity. Venturi advocates instead an approach to architecture in which truth is derived from paradoxes and complexity, damning the maxim “less is more” and claiming that forced simplicity results in oversimplification. At times, Venturi is provocative, suggesting, for example, that buildings such as Philip Johnson’s Wiley House (1953, New Canaan, CT.) are simplified to the point of blandness. That is not to say, however, that Venturi believes that simplification is intrinsically boring. He argues that true simplicity — i.e. one which is not from being economical with materials or using repeated modular forms, but from cognitive satisfaction — is achieved through an inner complexity. The example of the Doric temple is Venturi’s justification for this claim, suggesting that through distorted geometry and internal tension (complexities and contradictions) the temple as a whole evokes harmonious simplicity.

Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture

The comparison of twentieth-century buildings and historical examples provides the fundamental body of evidence within the book. For Venturi, as he suggests in his preface, architects should not be guided by habit, but rather a conscious sense of the past with a careful consideration of architectural precedent. Complexity and Contradiction is profusely illustrated with 350 images which range in form from photographs, architectural plans and elevations to crude sketches drawn by Venturi to elucidate his argument. The illustrations fluently switch between period and type, juxtaposing and comparing architecture and artworks not as a chronological stream, but instead pairing them based on shared concepts — this method leads to unexpected comparisons of images such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim (1960), the seventeenth-century Katsura Villa (Kyoto, Japan) and Renaissance pilasters, for example.

At times the book is complex — perhaps this should be expected, given the title — but there are many instances of accessible insight. At the end of the second section, ‘Complexity and Contradiction vs. Simplification or Picturesqueness’, Venturi discusses the problems of functionally complex building types such as research laboratories, hospitals, and even cities, which are large in scope. He states that these buildings are far simpler to design than engineering projects, but their goals — i.e. how they are used — are extremely complex. Venturi clarifies the relationship between means and goals with a simple analogy: he describes how the concept of sending a rocket to the moon is a simple goal, but the means with which it is achieved are infinitely complex. Analogies such as this are indicative of Venturi’s wider erudition and eloquence which is displayed throughout the book; for example, he effortlessly infuses T.S. Eliot, Piero della Francesca into his discussions.

The pitching of Complexity and Contradiction as an apologia and as an explanation of his work sets up the inclusion of twelve of Venturi’s own buildings in the final section as an excellent way to punctuate his discussion. Their inclusion demonstrates the dialogue between Venturi’s understanding of the past and his focus on its relationship with the present (mid-twentieth-century architecture). Looking at the Vanna Venturi House (1962, Chestnut Hill, PA.) or the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery (1991, London) might make us think that Venturi’s architecture is one of novelty, however by reading Complexity and Contradiction we see clearly the justifications for the architectural decisions that he has made.

Many of Venturi’s arguments are sophisticated and detailed, however, they are never dry or boring. The book is made fluent by the inclusion of so many illustrations which make Venturi’s arguments digestible. The non-linear approach to architectural history is successful and Venturi’s inclusion of engineering projects and non-Western architecture into his discussion makes his argument compelling. A criticism of the book is its focus on formal issues, but this is addressed by Venturi in his note to the second edition in which he states that the book is a product of the concerns of its time — namely a focus on form, rather than symbolism or social issues. Although reading Complexity and Contradiction today is unlikely to stir any “revolutionary” new ideas about architecture, it remains a valuable expression of an important moment in architectural history and is a persuasive case for architecture beyond modernism.

Read Matt's visual essay critiquing Venturi's Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery.