Page N2.2 . 11 July 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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VSBA Exhibition


Venturi discussed the contention around the VSBA design for a Philadelphia Orchestra Hall that was cast aside after the firm had originally been awarded the contract to design the building. They worked on the project from 1987 to 1996 only to have their design replaced with a multipurpose "regional arts center" assigned to Rafael Vinoly.

"The building was too cheap," Venturi said simply. He explained that his firm had tried to accommodate a low budget in their several revisions. Finally, the orchestra committee cast out the VSBA design that featured a vibrant frosted-glass structure decorated on the front patio with a string of notes from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

The VSBA design is not to be built but neither will it be forgotten. It is featured through the first part of the exhibit in nine huge colored panels.

Crusaders from the Beginning

Scott Brown, a planner as well as an architect, taught at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s and met Venturi when they served on a committee together. They helped save the university's 19th-century Frank Furness-designed library when they successfully fought against an administration proposal to demolish it.

About 20 years later VSBA renovated the massive circular brownstone building that is now the Fine Arts Library at Penn.

The visitor to the exhibit enters the display under a huge poster of the unbuilt VSBA-designed Orchestra Hall set over the doorway. A glass-paneled display case includes copies of Venturi's book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture translated into 17 languages.

To introduce the visitor to the display, architectural historian Vincent Scully speaks in a continuous video to the right of the doorway. He explains that Venturi, like French architect Le Corbusier, is an innovator, who is able to free himself from the "fixed patterns of thought and the fashions of his contemporaries."

Scully, who wrote the introduction to both editions of Complexity and Contradiction, explains in the video that he sees the Venturi model of architecture as the Italian urban village.

On Exhibit

The show was designed and installed by Tony Atkin of Atkin, Olshin, Lawson-Bell and Associates and organized by David DeLong, David Brownlee, and Kathryn Hiesinger.

The exhibit includes a dazzling variety of drawings, renderings, photographs of buildings, and a full-sized model of the Vanna Venturi House that Venturi built for his mother in 1959. The grayish-green model occupies most of the middle of the three cavernous halls displaying the VSBA work.

According to Delong's description of this house, it began as a square whose simplicity recalled the work of Louis Kahn, but Venturi cropped two of the corners and pierced the others with diagonals. He then introduced a great semicircular window and began framing the two story public rooms with gables unlike conventional modern architecture.

What's in a Name

The title "Out of The Ordinary" comes from an essay in the show catalog by DeLong, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But his double entendre applies to only half of the spectrum of examples of the work of Venturi and Scott Brown.

Many of the items in the show, such as a "William and Mary Bureau" of painted plywood, gilded brass handles, and bright colored plastic with "William" and "Mary" written on their drawers, display the firms' characteristic playfulness.

On the other hand, "ordinary" has nothing to do with some other designs in the exhibit, such as the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, which radiate original elegance.

It is difficult to imagine a universally applicable title for the collection of 250 examples spanning 40 years of design work, from academic and government buildings, hotels, mosques, museums, and corporate headquarters to furniture and wallpaper.

For this spectrum of work, VSBA has won countless architectural awards in the United States and Europe including the AIA Architecture Firm Award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pritzker Prize.

Ducks, Apples, and Sheds

Scott Brown was credited with coining the phrase, "The Duck and the Decorated Shed." A "duck" is a building that is shaped like its function, such as the unbuilt giant Apple in New York's Times Square that the firm designed.

A "decorated shed" makes a visible reference to some function inside the building. For example, Venturi designed the Guild House for senior citizens, also in Philadelphia, with a television antenna reaching skyward like a church spire. This decoration recognizes the habit of many older people who spend a lot of time watching television.

The last exhibit of the display snaps any complacent visitor to attention with an electrically lighted marquee with changing messages. This exhibit, "The Architects' Dream," is inspired by a Thomas Cole painting.

It includes a presentation of the architects' favorite things in lights, video screens, and posters. It includes a large mock-up of their unbuilt design for the National Football Hall of Fame with a large billboard that lights up in coordination with multiple video screens.

Overlooking the exhibit is a large framed photo of Venturi and Scott Brown in front of their Manayunk Studio, set in Northwest Philadelphia. In a pose reminiscent of a "mom and pop" in front of their grocery store, they seem to ask exhibit visitors not to forget their sense of humor while they tour the display.

The exhibit travels to California and Europe after it closes in Philadelphia in August 2001.

Diane M. Fiske is an architecture writer in Philadelphia.



ArchWeek Photo

Elevation of the Wike House, Willistown, Pennsylvania, 1968-69, marker on yellow tracing paper.
Image: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

ArchWeek Photo

Brant-Johnson Ski House, Vail, Colorado, 1975-77.
Image: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

ArchWeek Photo

Franklin Court, Philadelphia, 1972-1976.
Photo: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

ArchWeek Photo

Gingham floral fabric designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for DesignTex, 1989-91.
Photo: Graydon Wood

ArchWeek Photo

William and Mary Bureau for XVII International Triennale, Milan, 1984.
Image: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

ArchWeek Photo

Interior perspective of the Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London, 1985-91.
Photo: Will Brown

ArchWeek Photo

Gordon Wu Hall, Butler College, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1980-1983.
Photo: Tom Bernard

ArchWeek Photo

Elevation of the United States Pavilion, Competition Entry, Expo '92, Seville, Spain, 1989. Airbrush and colored plastic film on foam core.
Image: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.


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