“The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease,’ said his son, James Venturi, an urban planner … ”
So began the very unwelcome news item that appeared in The New York Times obituary for Robert Venturi — news that all of us who were fortunate enough to have been working with him at the zenith of his career and fame knew we’d read one day but find hard to absorb.
According to the Times, he was listening to Beethoven sonatas in his last moments — which seems completely consistent with his deep love of classical music. Music, it’s said, is the last thing we give up.
I was startled to see the Times’ picture of Bob standing, arms crossed and confident, in front of the model of the never-built Philadelphia Orchestra Hall — a project that fell victim to the collateral damage of the 1987 stock market crash. It was one of his most cherished projects, and it lay at the intersection of all his interests, the cultural life of his beloved Philadelphia, and the opportunities that came with his fully matured career. I was lucky enough to work with him on that project, and I have the scars on my thumbs from the model-making exercise to prove it.
The office motto was “Princeton uber alles,” which meant that he’d drop everything for his alma mater, when the phone rang. His long association with its president, William G. Bowen, whom he referred to as “my Medici,” or sometimes as “my pope,” has a parallel for Texans in O’Neil Ford’s relationship with Trinity’s President, James W. Laurie. In both cases, a long and productive relationship yielded architecture that far exceeded the mere programs of any project. For both architects, their campus work led to much wider recognition and fueled their careers.
The most perfect description of Venturi’s work, I’ve always thought, was Paul Goldberger’s assertion that Venturi designed with “a kind of 20th-century mannerism that soars over the heads of most laymen.” Bob frequently lamented, “My obituary will read that I was the father of Postmodernism” — a title that always made him cringe — but then, well over the heads of most laymen, you know. And, of course, the headline in my local paper read, “Venturi inspired Postmodernism.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Venturi and his partner Denise Scott Brown were struggling with the consequences of too much opportunity: The office grew from 60, at my arrival in 1987, to more than 120 by the time I left, a little shy of four years later. It had something of the air of an Ivy League frat house: It was overwhelmingly male and young. There was no shortage of messy vitality, and with it an air of very slightly contained chaos. We were working on projects on three continents, and the time differences between them and us meant that the office was open, more or less, around the clock. Venturi was 62 when I started working with him, and he was on and off planes as much as he was in the office.
The three-story office, in a 19th-century commercial building in Philadelphia’s then un-trendy Manayunk — a blue-collar canalside neighborhood — was his refuge, especially on Sundays, when the phones were quieter, and when he could think without much distraction. He’d save favorite projects for that carefully defended time — and, if you were working with him, you’d enjoy him being funny, and, frankly, showing off. Bob had some favorite drawing stunts that were meant to impress, and they did: He could draw perfect circles free-hand, which could be proved by putting a compass on them.
Bob’s instantly recognizable fat pen sketches were just as perfect: A scale laid over them would always prove that the dimensions he wanted were there in the drawing. It was a reminder to all of us that Bob was really complete — as an architect, as a theorist, as a teacher, and, at the time, as a driven man who was preoccupied with the knowledge that late-career success gave him only so much time to see his work realized.
After the arrival of the news from Philadelphia, I have to admit that he was right.
Michael Guarino, AIA, leads UT San Antonio’s semester program in Urbino, Italy.