The Seattle Art Museum, which opened in 1991 and was later incorporated into a larger building by Allied Works Architecture has elements of classical architecture rendered in exaggerated form as surface decoration.
Robert Venturi, the American architect who designed the Seattle Art Museum and whose buildings and best-selling books helped inspire the movement known as postmodernism, in which historic elements enlivened contemporary forms, died Tuesday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 93.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, James Venturi, a filmmaker.
The Seattle Art Museum, which opened in 1991 and was later incorporated into a larger building by Allied Works Architecture, has elements of classical architecture rendered in exaggerated form as surface decoration.
In his treatise “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” published in 1966, Mr. Venturi argued that ornament, historical allusions and even humor had a place in modern architecture. The book was a retort to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who favored unadorned surfaces and strictly geometric forms. known for asserting “less is more.”
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“Less is a bore,” Mr. Venturi wrote. “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.”
Mr. Venturi was based in Philadelphia, where he and his wife of more than 50 years, architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, ran a firm with international reach. Their buildings were known for using familiar elements in unfamiliar combinations.
In 1964, Mr. Venturi completed a small house for his mother, Vanna Venturi, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. The building has a gabled roof that culminates in a deep slit instead of the expected peak. (In 2005 it was hailed as a masterwork on a U.S. postage stamp.)
By the 1980s the Venturi firm was winning large commissions, including additions to the Harvard, Yale and Princeton campuses. By decorating his facades, sometimes using brick in jaunty patterns, he helped the colleges bridge the gap between historic buildings (like Princeton’s Gothic dormitories) and the spare, boxy forms that had become the 20th-century default.
Outside the United States, he and Scott Brown were known for their addition to the National Gallery in London, which opened in 1991 and was acclaimed for eccentricity in a country where eccentricity is prized. The building featured Corinthian columns arranged at uneven intervals, like a jazz musician riffing on classical themes.
Other important projects included a government complex in Toulouse, France.
In New York, Mr. Venturi labored for years on a new Staten Island Ferry terminal, which was to be topped by a clock as tall as a 12-story building. An editorial in The Times praised the design, but others ridiculed it; the Staten Island borough president, Guy Molinari, said the clock’s lone benefit “would be to remind people that they’re late for work — again.”
Peppered with demands for design changes, Mr. Venturi resigned from the project in 1996, saying his work had been compromised.
Explaining the philosophy behind his buildings, Mr. Venturi said, “I used history as a reference, but I never used it as inspiration directly.” But that distinction was lost on many.
After receiving his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton, he worked for Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, modernists with iconoclastic streaks, before winning a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He spent two years in Europe, studying buildings by the likes of Michelangelo, Bernini and, in Spain, Antoni Gaudi.
Mr. Venturi won the Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s highest honor, in 1991.