When Robert Venturi’sComplexity and Contradiction in Architecture was published 50 years ago, Vincent Scully announced in the introduction that it was “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture” of 1923. With this endorsement and its prestigious publisher—the Museum of Modern Art—probably no other tract in American architecture had ever had such a powerful send-off. Spin like that made one bristle, even if it turned out to be true. Venturi’s slender white book, with its postage-stamp illustrations, was a well-aimed manifesto that fell on the barren ground of orthodox Modern architecture as very welcome fertilizer. Like Jane Jacobs’s polemic of 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it challenged the hegemony of Modernism by planting the seeds for a future Postmodern argument. Jacobs had attacked the simplified planning proposals of Robert Moses’s highway expansions and Le Corbusier’s tower-in-the-park urbanism in her last chapter and argued persuasively that, like a biological organism, a city is fundamentally based on “organized complexity.” Later, Venturi pushed for complexity in architecture instead of Modernism’s generic and simple solutions. While Postmodernism as a movement manifested itself in different forms in dance, literature, and art as well as architecture, the underlying concept—first noted in the environmental-science writings of Rachel Carson and Herbert Simon—proved to be complexity.
Supporting Venturi’s argument of a need for an architecture based on “the richness and ambiguity of modern experience” were all sorts of historical insights. Eight precepts called for such approaches as “Both-And in Architecture” (architecture that is inclusive, with various levels of meaning) and “The Double-Functioning Element” (such as the chimneys of Lutyens’s Grey Walls that act as sculptural entrance markers). His gentle manifesto overturned Modern architecture’s emphasis on simplicity and its Miesian belief that “less is more.” For me, the most important concept was “The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole.” As Venturi pointed out, unity is found in multiplicity, where all the diverse elements or fragments of architecture establish a sense of relationship—and this is difficult. It takes effort and skill.