The Vanna Venturi House, a 1960s design by architect Robert Venturi, is now for sale, and the news has quickly circulated through the design world. Curbed.com called the house “trailblazing“; Architectural Record, “iconic” and “one of America’s most historically significant works of architecture.” Philadelphia Magazine claimed the sale was the “Jaw Dropper of the Year” while Hyperallergic’s headline read: “The Postmodern House That Changed the US is Now for Sale.” Earlier, in 2013, PBS named the house one of the “10 Buildings that Changed America.”
Hyperbole (or is it?) aside, the residence, also known as “Mother’s House,” was an early reaction against the stripped-down white-cube modernist architecture prevalent at the time. Many historians have claimed the Vanna Venturi House as the first postmodern piece of architecture, others more cautiously have said it was the first self-consciously postmodern building. Without a doubt, the residence, on which Venturi’s soon-to-be partner and wife Denise Scott Brown collaborated, was and remains influential for generations of burgeoning architects and served as a sign of the designs, structures, and ideas to come for the architectural duo and their firm.
On the House
- Venturi began designing a house for his mother in 1959, and the Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, residence was completed by 1964 (technically by the firm Venturi and Rauch). At that time, many prominent architects were following codes of minimalism, anti-ornament, anti-decoration, less-is-more, clear and clean, anti-historical “style.” Conversely, postmodernism—and this example of it specifically—embraced references to history; ornament, decoration, and contradictions; both/and, not either/or; design challenging both structurally and theoretically; “less is a bore,” in Venturi’s words.
- Unlike the flat-roofed modern residences of, say, Mies van der Rohe, Venturi’s house uses the pitched roof reminiscent of a child’s drawing of a house, as well as the chimney of the same, but conflates them. It screams “ordinary house” as much as it screams “unique.” This caricature of a house offered a new way to envision architecture—where rigid rules of “good” and “bad” were replaced with creativity and contradictions.*
- Venturi is commonly called the “father of postmodern design,” or, with Scott Brown, “parents of postmodern design,” labels they have consistently rejected, as they did not want to be associated with all postmodernism, particularly the “bad,” thoughtless, or superficial design they saw sprouting around them by the 1980s.
- Scott Brown has credited the Vanna Venturi House, in an interview with the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, as influential to all of the firm’s subsequent projects.
- On May 8, 2012, the house received the Landmark Building Award from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
- The single-family house is just under 2,000 square feet, with three beds and two baths, on a .85-acre site.
- The house was last on the market in 1973, when the architect sold it to Dr. Thomas P. Hughes, a University of Pennsylvania professor, following the death of his mother, for $75,000, according to zillow.com. It is now listed, with Kurfiss Sotheby’s International Realty, at $1.75 million. That’s a 2,233% price hike. Its icon status has only increased since the 1970s, so sure, why not?
- Zillow reports that the postmodern structure is 289.4% more expensive than the median home price in the area. The Chestnut Hill neighborhood, 25 miles outside the center of Philly, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 for its impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century residential architecture by nearly every renowned Philadelphia architect of the period. (Venturi was born in Philadelphia.)
On Venturi and Scott Brown, and the Dreaded Authorship Question
- Some recent news stories of the house have mentioned Scott Brown’s name in passing: “a formative project for Mr. Venturi and his wife and longtime colleague, Denise Scott Brown,” as the New York Times ArtsBeat blog phrased it, recognizing Brown played some role in the house’s design. Scott Brown had begun collaborating with Venturi at Yale by the time the house was completed, but she was not yet employed by his firm, so the Vanna Venturi House was perhaps the last piece of clarity in the authorship questions and controversy that would riddle the duo’s careers—Venturi consistently praised as hero-architect, Scott Brown relegated to wife, secretary, and simply less essential.
- They met in 1960 at the University of Pennsylvania, where they were both on the faculty, and immediately formed a bond through their criticisms of the stagnant and socially unaware state of modern design. Their intellectual and architectural collaboration began, and by 1967 they were married and Scott Brown had joined the firm Venturi and Rauch, Architects and Partners. (This firm, where Scott Brown became partner in 1969, eventually became Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, now VSBA.)
- In 1991, Venturi received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, widely dubbed the profession’s highest honor. Denise Scott Brown, with whom he had collaborated for thirty years, was not recognized. Some defended the decision, wondering why the committee hadn’t recognized the architect sooner; others, including Venturi, saw it as a sexist, inexcusable snub. According to a 2013 New Yorker article, Venturi asked the jury to also recognize Scott Brown, but “was told that would not be possible.” With the firm facing financial struggles, Venturi accepted the honor, and the press attention—and $100,000 award—that it brought.
- In March 2013, a change.org petition begun by Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Women In Design student group, called for the Pritzker committee to retroactively recognize Scott Brown as joint recipient of the 1991 prize. It came on the heels of Scott Brown’s own call for an “inclusion ceremony.” The petition received 19,789 signatures (including Venturi’s, a host of influential figures in the architecture world, both male and female, and less significantly, my own). With this petition, Scott Brown completely won over public opinion, if not the Pritzker committee.
- In addition to significant postmodern buildings, Venturi and Scott Brown designed furnishings and tabletop goods, now considered museum-quality design objects.
- The architects are perhaps as well-known for their theoretical writing as they are for their built work. The most significant publications are Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966; Venturi is the sole author, though the publication derived from a class he taught and for which Scott Brown collaborated, running corresponding seminars and workshops) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972, with Steven Izenour).
- Venturi, at age 87, retired from Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in 2012, at which point the firm was renamed VSBA. Scott Brown remains an active writer and lecturer, though her role at VSBA is unclear. They collaborated for more than half a century, and the Vanna Venturi House marks the first completed project where, though he is decidedly the architect, their collaborative ideas first took physical form.
*For a full breakdown of the house, see this 2010 ArchDaily Classics article.