John K. Rauch, who died on August 16 at 91, was one of the unsung heroes of postwar American architecture. As the managing partner of Venturi & Rauch (later Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown) from its founding in 1964 until the late 1980s, Rauch played an integral but often-unacknowledged role in the design and realization of such landmark buildings as Guild House (1964) and the Institute for Scientific Information Headquarters in Philadelphia (1979), and the Trubek and Wislocki Houses (1971) on Nantucket. Working closely with the late Robert Venturi and later with Denise Scott Brown, Rauch helped effect a watershed change away from the heroic acrobatics of late modernism toward a rich architecture laden with historical references—postmodernism, as it came to be called.
The staff of Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown in the 1980s. At the front are Robert Venturi (left), Denise Scott Brown (center), and John Rauch (right). Photo courtesy family of John Rauch
But the work of Rauch and his partners never fit comfortably into caricatures of postmodernism as substance-free riffing. It was instead marked by the strong belief that buildings should be legible to, representative of, and useful to their users, rather than monuments to the egos of architects. Venturi originated many of the firm’s designs, but it fell to Rauch to ensure that the firm delivered well-constructed buildings for its clients—and that it stayed in business. Rauch had a “master grasp of the totality of the architecture,” says Terry Vaughan, an architect who worked closely with him for several years.
Rauch’s role extended beyond the traditional duties of a managing partner. He was more interested than Venturi in the mechanics of building, and he often oversaw technical design. “John knew how to put a building together,” says Stephen Kieran, who worked at the firm for several years and later co-founded KieranTimberlake. And for countless alumni of the office—Kieran and partner James Timberlake included—Rauch was a mentor and role model.
Rauch designed a house for himself and his wife, Carol, in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy Izzy Kornblatt
Rauch was also a talented designer in his own right. In a 1986 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Venturi described Rauch as “a very good architect and one of the best design critics I have ever known.” Scott Brown felt similarly. “He was an artist, and he knew a whole lot about structure,” she told RECORD.
Despite his talents, Rauch built just two projects of his own design: a house for his sister, Helen Rauch Hughes, completed in 1963 in Connecticut, and a house for himself and his wife, Carol, completed in 1985 in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. Both mix iconography and functionalism in the firm’s signature manner, but Rauch's designs differ from Venturi's in their subtle attention to texture and materiality. The front facade of Rauch's house consists of stucco and wood siding topped with gabled asbestos roofing; the multiple textures and shades of gray-green play off the sloping lawn and grove of trees among which the house is nestled.
The earlier house for his sister is strikingly modern, with large, irregular windows, vertical cedar siding, and a large arched opening on one facade that recalls Venturi’s work of the period. “It turned out to be a work of art, but mostly a great, fun house to live in,” says Hughes. It is now owned by Alan Zinser, Rauch’s nephew, who describes it as a “light-catching machine.”
John Rauch in 2016. Photo courtesy Izzy Kornblatt
Born in Philadelphia in 1930, Rauch studied first at Wesleyan University and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1958. Soon after he began work at the firm of Cope & Lippincott, with which Venturi was loosely associated, and the two began a decades-long friendship. In 1964 they formed their own partnership, and over the course of the following two decades, Rauch helped build the firm into a powerhouse that won commissions for university and museum buildings around the world.
Rauch retired from the firm in 1989 and in subsequent years helped lead a successful campaign to save Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market from demolition. And he took up painting, which he studied in a certificate program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “John liked painting because he liked learning,” says his widow. For Rauch, the process was in some ways as important as the finished product.
Even so, many of Rauch's paintings—including one of his own house that expertly captures its siting within the rolling Pennsylvania landscape—are substantial achievements. But Rauch didn’t like to brag. “John never cheapened the lines in his paintings or in his houses by talking about them,” says Zinser, his nephew. “Those perfect lines stand on their own merit.”
Rauch expertly painted his house in its verdant setting, capturing the rich interplay of architecture and landscape. Photo courtesy family of John Rauch