Press | Robert Venturi’s Rome 10th Annual Alvin Holm Symposium/Lecture

January 5, 2020

Frederick Fisher, Steven Semes, and Stephen Harby at The Union League in Philadelphia.

City Safari: Celebrating Robert Venturi– From Burger Stands To The Cathedrals
By Thom Nickels Wed, Nov 13, 2019
Philadelphia Free Press

Robert Venturi’s Rome, the 10th Anniversary Alvin Holm Lecture/Symposium, held this past weekend in the Grant Room of The Union League of Philadelphia, might not have had the cache of Elton John’s farewell concert held at the Wells Fargo Center on the same weekend but in every way it was a concert of ideas and inspiration.

The event was sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture (ICAA). ICAA Chapter President, Steven Hendricks, opened the symposium. Among the 40 or so audience members was classical architect Alvin Holm, one of the few architects with a traditional classical practice in the revolutionary 1970s when startitects like Philip Johnson (1906–2005) were taking center stage. Holm’s course in the 1970s, “Drawing the Classical Orders at New York’s National Academy of Design,” was praised by architecture critic Henry Hope Reed as being the first formal course to be taught since the Second World War.

Robert Charles Venturi Jr. (June 25, 1925 – September 18, 2018) was an American architect and founding principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Many rate him as one of the major architectural figures of the twentieth century.

An article by a young architect, Oliver Wainwright, that appeared in The Guardian shortly after Venturi’s death in 2018 summed up Venturi’s work as “a pop sensibility that placed as much value in the burger stand as the cathedral, an inclusive folk art approach to architecture that found joy in the everyday.”

Wainwright elaborates:

“I met Venturi and Scott Brown for the first time at 18, when I was working as an intern at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. They came to lecture on the occasion of being awarded the Vincent Scully prize in 2002, and performed a quick-fire slideshow of things that they loved, under the banner A Disorderly Ode to Architecture That Engages. It was a fun-filled ride, from Michelangelos and bungalows to ketchup bottles and cartoons, but presented with poker-faced gravity by this besuited pair of pensioners. They took their fun seriously. …”

The phrase ‘besuited pair of pensioners’ of course is a snarky reference to age as the bedrock of fossilized cluelessness, a thoughtless remark that is typical perhaps of someone younger who thinks they have a “better” view of the things.

Almost a decade and a half ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art sponsored a press tour of Venturi’s offices with a bus taking media from the museum to Venturi’s Manayunk offices where participants had the opportunity to meet Venturi and Brown, chat with the staff and inspect a number of blueprints. Our group also accompanied Venturi and Brown on another bus trip to the Anna Venturi house for another guided tour. As press tours go, this excursion was historic and unforgettable, enough so that my mind kept drifting back to it as I sat with 40 or so attendees of the half day seminar in the Union League.

The event’s focus was Venturi’s book, Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture, first published in 1966, that master of ceremonies, John H. Cluver of Voith & Mactavish Architects called “a ground breaking and subversive work.” Cluver, a graduate of the Notre Dame School of Architecture, recounted the absence of any book on classical contemporary architecture in the Notre Dame library. “The only books available were works on classical and modern architecture,” he said, as if a wedge had cut the two in half and put them on different continents without any hope of a peaceful reconfiguration.

Vincent Scully called Venturi’s book “the most important book since Le Corbusier.”

Panelists included Stephen Harby, an architect and watercolorist who maintains his own practice in Santa Monica, California, and Frederick Fisher, an architect of (mostly museums) since 1978. Harby and Fisher are co-authors of Robert Venturi’s Rome, a small book that includes many of the sketches that Venturi made of the city after his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in 1962. The book contains Harby’s watercolor versions of Venturi’s original Roman sketches published in Complexities and Contradictions. It was an eight year on again-off again project when Harby and Fisher found time to get away from their other responsibilities. One of the notable buildings in the book is the Pantheon, a building that Harby says he found fascinating because of its contradictory structure.

Harby’s Pantheon watercolors picture the rays of light shining around and through the building like mystical beams shooting out from the eye of Providence. Harby spoke of Masses being held there (it is currently a church) and of the clouds on incense rising up into the heavens.

Harby offered his explanation of the displays of light around the Pantheon when he exclaimed, “The path of the sun as it travels around the structure as the world turns.”

The third and final panelist/speaker, Steven W. Semes, a Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, is also the author of several books on urbanism and historic preservation. Semes held the audience’s interest when he focused on the suburban sprawl now developing around the city of Rome. That sprawl, he said, is accented (in a positive sense) by something unique in all of Europe: the tendency of Italian architects to design new buildings that are somehow modern but retain a heavy traditionalist slant. The result, Semes said, is that “all the Roman yuppies love these buildings and move into them at break neck speed.”

Semes stated that traditional architectural movements can only be found in the United States and the United Kingdom and not in Europe.

Fisher told the story of his father, an architect of hospitals, and how his work depressed him. “My father always came home from work in a bad mood,” he said. He quoted his father: “By the time you design a hospital, it is obsolete because of the rapid advance of health care technologies.”

Fisher mentioned “muscular memory,” or the connection between the hand and the brain and why this practice must be kept and balanced against the current architectural practice of computerized design.

He related the story of how he wanted to be an artist when he was young. He spoke at great length on his love of “messy surrealism” and his belief that, “Architecture by nature is collage.”

“Some architects celebrate chaos,” he said. “The way the world is, architects need to enhance order, to increase the level of order. I am trying to create unity within chaos. We don’t need to celebrate chaos because it is already here.”

At a certain moment in the discussion, Harby noted that, “Light in different places has its own identity.” In southern California (and in Italy) the light is different than it is in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He described some of his watercolors in the Rome Venturi book as “the art work is the experience of the light.”

The life and work of Italian architect Armando Brasini (1917-1942) was discussed at length. Brasini, like Walter Gropius, had to deal with radically different ideological factions when it came to work. Gropius had to deal with the emerging Nazi regime in Germany in order to keep his practice alive while also designing projects in Communist Russia, but it was a tightrope dance filled with stress. Brasini learned to work with a cast of characters from different ideological camps, from the pope, to Mussolini and then the Communists. Brasini for a while went off the deep end when he advocated the demolition of the Trevi Fountain, a plan that was thankfully never realized.

Learn more about the event here.