Decoding Design

Learning from Venturi and Scott Brown

Learning from Venturi and Scott Brown

Posting in Architecture

Architecture's postmodern heroes have left the building.

Distinguished American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown quietly retired at the end of July 2012. Their eponymous firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, has been replaced by VSBA, LLC.

Most famous for introducing the architectural concept of the duck and the decorated shed*, the married couple have championed pop culture and meaningful (communicative) design since the mid sixties.

Buildings these days are loud, colorful, and glitzy. It's a reflection of today's culture, heavy in advertising, imagery, and digital media. Venturi and Scott Brown may not have influenced the media and information obsession that has exploded, but they saw it coming and welcomed it. Instead of sketching utopian, pristine ideas meant for blank fields, Venturi and Scott Brown embraced and worked with what was in front of them. Main streets and suburbs might not have been attractive, but they were the reality.

If these two architects so had their fingers on the pulse of American pop culture, why aren't they as famous as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid? Partly, the technology and the public weren't ready for them. Electronic displays that cover entire walls might be expected now, but even in the late nineties, an LED zipper was expensive and signage of any type was seen as garish. Now, full height digital media walls are almost old hat. Electronic signage and supergraphics do the heavy lifting in communicating what goes on in buildings.

Signage, iconography, decoration, and branding are just some of the Venturi and Scott Brown inspired design elements that can be seen in modern architecture.

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates is also where I spent half of my architecture career. Bob and Denise are cerebral, brilliant people but they are also funny, kind, and down to earth. Communicating is genuinely important to them, and when they talk about design and architecture, there's no theoretical language or design lingo. Besides lessons in proportion and color, the importance of getting the parti (organizing idea) down, and how to work through exquisite, precise details, the most lasting thing I learned from them is that although the business of building buildings is difficult and serious work, architecture and design can -- and should -- be fun.

Photograph copyright Frank Hanswijk, courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

*As a former Venturi Scott Brown colleague explains, "The idea of the Duck and the Decorated Shed assumes that buildings are communicative in some way.  Whether it is intentional or not, we generate meaning from what we see in a building.  In a duck, the meaning comes from the form of the building itself.  Boston City Hall and Richard Meier's houses are good examples of ducks - they are unadorned buildings, and their form is responsive to the functions inside.  A decorated shed is a formally generic building that communicates its function through decoration or signage.  In the most extreme form, this can be found in the architecture of the commercial strip - think Home Depot.  Without the orange accents and the sign that says Home Depot, you wouldn't know what it is.  But any generic building that generates its meaning through signs can be a decorated shed.  They don't have to be cheap or ugly."

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Sun Kim

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure