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10 things I learned on a pilgrimage to the iconic Vanna Venturi House

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Paying a visit to the Philly-area icon

The front of the Vanna Venturi House. Matt Wargo/Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

On Thursday, November 10, the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, providing the 54-year-old house—which has been called “The First Postmodern Anything”—with its first preservation protection. The historical commission will now have to be consulted about any changes to the house’s exterior.

Pilgrimage. #vannaventurihouse

A photo posted by Alexandra Lange (@langealexandra) on

In a perfect world, the interior would be covered too, as the so-called Mother’s House without its angular stair or slot-like widow’s walk would just be a flat symbol— the kind of superficial interpretation of postmodernism Venturi and partner Denise Scott Brown have always fought against.

By coincidence, I had my first opportunity to visit the Mother’s House two days later, as part of a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art on Venturi’s concurrent project, the book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which just turned 50. Along with two busloads of architects, I descended upon Chestnut Hill to shift positions within and share in the strange beauty of the small, low-ceilinged rooms of this building, iconic because it was designed to be so, but unmonumental IRL.

The Vanna Venturi House is one of a short list of private homes to be awarded the 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects (the gold standard of architecture awards). Others include The Glass House and the Eames House and the Gehry House, projects that also serve as their architects’ built manifestoes. The citation hangs, with characteristic deflationary irony, in the narrow, crooked staircase to the basement.

1. It was good to get out of my own house and into someone else’s head.

“Communication is one of the functions of architecture,” Scott Brown told us in conversation at the end of the day, boiling down their epic career with typical bluntness.

Some of Venturi and Scott Brown’s projects communicate one idea (like my favorite, the wallpapered BEST Products Catalog Showroom) but the Mother’s House bristles with them. Being there is like watching Venturi thinking out loud, using what they called the “ugly and ordinary” elements of domestic architecture instead of words.

2. It’s not on the street.

The back of the Vanna Venturi House.
Photo by George Pohl/Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

The most popular photo of the house Robert Venturi and John Rauch designed for Venturi’s mother in 1962 shows Vanna Venturi sitting in a chair, reading a book, next to a flowerpot, under the great lintel that says, Enter here. She has become part of the symmetrical composition of gable, lintel, square cutout, arc. She doesn’t look happy to see us, though Scott Brown has said Mrs. Venturi enjoyed the company.

“Carloads—sometimes busloads—of visitors, mainly architecture students, would come by, and we would find her with a seminar seated around the dining table giving lectures on the architecture of the house and the babyhood of its architect. The house filled some long hours for her. As her son put it, ‘Architecture is the opiate of the mothers.’”

I assumed you could hail her from the sidewalk:

“Hello, Mrs. Venturi. Sorry to bother you! I’m an architecture student.” She thinks, looking at your black coat, I know. “Can I ask you a few questions about your house?”

But for Mrs. Venturi to hear you, you would need a megaphone. The Mother’s House isn’t part of a tidy set of suburban houses set an even distance back from a sidewalk. It’s no sore thumb in a shallow row of ranch, ranch, saltbox, ranch.

Chestnut Hill developed over the twentieth century as a “streetcar suburb” of Philadelphia. Much of the land was owned by one family, the Woodwards, who developed hundreds of houses and also sold individual lots—pending design approval. There are no sidewalks, and the houses meet the street in a variety of ways. The Mother’s House is set way back from the street, down an off-center paved drive.

Mrs. Venturi would have seen you coming from a long way off as she read her book, or tidied up in the kitchen behind the long horizontal window. There’s no garage because she didn’t drive.

3. It’s green.

A model of the house shows off its “unusual coppery gray-green.”
Photo by Alexandra Lange

While I must have seen a color photo of the house, in my mind it had slowly been tinged a salmon pink, the hue of the stucco sample in my mental filing cabinet. That seemed ordinary.

But instead the exterior is an unusual coppery gray-green, which underlines the flatness of the great, two-part gable and the chimney behind. It looks like a cardboard cutout, but not necessarily a playful one, for all the references to children’s drawings of houses. A child wouldn’t color a house this green, because it is not in the standard set of markers. In the basement, there are cans of paint stacked on the shelf, labeled by location.

The green is a clue that Venturi is serious. He built his mother the house in the picture she might have stuck to the refrigerator—though Venturi’s mother was a pacifist socialist vegetarian, so maybe she didn’t approve of such things—but he hadn’t done it as a joke but as a manifesto. He still lived with his mother, after all, and he lacked architectural commissions.

This was his chance to show what the book he was then writing and rewriting, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, “A Gentle Manifesto,” would tell. The green is also a double-functioning element (the topic of Complexity’s Chapter 5): the house was originally buff-colored, but Venturi repainted after reading Marcel Breuer’s advice never to paint a house green. Along with flatness, it is another opportunity for Venturi to thumb his nose at the heroic modernists.

The house, which was designed and redesigned, is itself a gentle manifesto, the gable a blow against the aesthetic tyranny of the modernist flat roof; the square windows a blow against the aesthetic tyranny of transparent walls. He’s taken the poor little shivering glass houses and given them back their blanket.

Philip Johnson wrote to Venturi, after the publication of Complexity and Contradiction (at last!) in 1966: “Dear Bob: People tell me there are horrible things about me in your book, but I haven’t found them.” A lesson to all in how to respond to criticism.

4. It’s awkward.

Looking at the plan of the Mother’s House, the eye is immediately drawn to its center, the one place on the ground floor that there is open space. A semicircle marks the hearth in front of the broad skirt of the chimney, which takes up one whole wall in the living room. Lines show the staircase that winds behind it, but instead of broadening to an end in a curving waterfall, like the Baroque steps Venturi admired in Rome, his stair comes to a decisive point.

Photo by Jeroen Meijer

That point, and the narrowing of the stairs above it, have always looked like the most awkward spaces in architecture. They are.

The architects climbing up and down the stairs to see the “tent” bedroom above have to wait their turn, because the stairs are too narrow for two. Even ascending singly, you have to turn your body from side to side to grip first one handrail, and then the other, lurch sideways to look first down, and then up, as you realize the stairs offer a window onto the front entrance and up to the sky.

I can’t describe it and Venturi couldn’t draw it. Venturi has un-smoothed the Baroque curves, put back in all the angles, so that your body is always aware of the architect working you.

Perhaps it is best that Vanna Venturi didn’t have to use the stairs. As architectural historian Alice Friedman has written, “the many architectural ironies, false starts, and rhetorical flourishes that we encounter … suggest that ‘fun house,’ rather than the farm house of rosy memory, is the more apt metaphor here.”

5. Side-eye.

Photo courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

The nicest room in the house, with a great Palladian window and its own balcony sliced into the slanted roof, is the “tent” bedroom upstairs, a room Venturi designed for himself (his mother’s bedroom is downstairs) and in which he lived for six months with his new bride.

6. It’s not fancy.

One of the few conflicts Venturi and his mother had during the construction of the house was over the marble floor that runs from the entry under the dining table. He thought it was practical to install a stone floor in a house without a porch, and with a sliding door off the eating area. She thought it was fancy. He won.

Had he listened to his mother, we might have been saved the use of marble tile as floor-to-ceiling wallpaper in many a three-story McMansion front hallway. So many elements appear in the Mother’s House as ironic quotation, were absorbed back into the builder vernacular as signs of fanciness: marble tile; Palladian windows; giant chimneys.

7. It could have been Kahn.

The Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania have an exhibition up now on the making of Complexity and Contradiction. It’s fascinating to see Venturi’s manuscript, made up of handwritten and typewritten pages pieced together with tape and augmented by index cards. This is how we used to write.

Two taped-together cards hold nothing but synonyms for complexity and contradiction, synonyms I wouldn’t want the Silicon Valley heralds of disruption to get their hands on.

“Adjectives: discordant, precarious, ambiguous, equivocal, tense, versatile…

Nouns: inversion, comprehension, tension, frustration, multiplicity, reconciliation, compromise …”

On the wall is a drawing of a preliminary perspective on the house, executed by Venturi in 1959. The chimney is there, next to a tiny rooftop baldacchino, but it is surrounded by an unholy mish-mash of layered walls that look like an ordinary brick house has been inserted within a wrapper of Louis Kahn-inspired stone walls.

“Around the school it was a big joke, Venturi is designing his mother’s house again,” said Scott Brown at the symposium. ”He starts in 1958 and the first six houses are Lou Kahn groupie houses.”

When he starts writing Complexity and Contradiction, Kahn’s secretary types his application for the Graham Foundation grant that would support the writing. But there’s no mention of him in the acknowledgements in the published version.

8. For heroic and original, walk one block.

I also got to see the Margaret Esherick House this weekend, but I don't like my photos ☹️️ #louiskahn

A photo posted by Alexandra Lange (@langealexandra) on

“Ugly and ordinary” is great intellectually. For living, “heroic and original,” Venturi and Scott Brown’s category for the brutalist and monumental works of their mentors and contemporaries, is awfully seductive. Down the street from the Mother’s House is another famous house, built the same year: Kahn’s Margaret Esherick House.

Margaret Esherick was the single sister of West Coast architect Joseph Esherick. When she asked him to design her a house, he deferred to Kahn as the local genius. The Esherick House has much in common with the Vanna Venturi House: designed for a single woman, with public areas downstairs and a private bedroom above. Big windows to the outdoors in every room. A traditional hearth and a striking disengaged chimney. Venturi reportedly said that Kahn got that idea from him, rather than the other way around.

The Esherick House changed hands in 2014, and the 16-month restoration won a Docomomo citation of merit earlier this year. Owners Paul Savidge and Dan Macey have restored the house to mint condition. Every wood detail glows, every shutter opens, and the built-in Wharton Esherick kitchen can even be the sculpture needs to be, because there’s now a second, functional one. The owners’ enviable collection of midcentury modern furniture and art looks thoroughly at home.

One can move through the Esherick House in straight lines, from front to back and side to side, pretending you are in a Palladian villa or an episode of Mad Men. There are no tripping hazards, no awkward angles but, one realizes, no place for visitors to sleep. The large openings to the outside aren’t windows but screens. The house is basically one big beautiful room.

Luckily, Savidge and Macey embrace the noseprints they often find on the glass when they return home. Macey’s sister asked him how he could deal with the busloads of strangers who want to look at the house. “I’ve learned not to leave anything out,” he says, “but I also told her, These people aren’t strangers.” The couple have a card that reads “Stewards of the Louis Kahn’s Margaret Esherick House.”

To live in a Kahn house, I think, one must always feel like a steward, while the Vanna Venturi house would never make you feel badly about a floral bedspread. The “messy vitality” Venturi collected between covers of Complexity and Contradiction remains written into his mother’s house.

9. It’s going to be OK.

Vanna Venturi moved into a nursing home in 1973, and died two years later, after selling the house to Thomas and Agatha Hughes. The Hughes family owned the house until 2015 when it was put on the market, causing a certain degree of soul-searching within the architectural community. Could the house be purchased by a museum? Should it be preserved under an easement? Scott Brown always wanted it to remain lived in and not become a static museum piece.

After ten months on the market, the house was purchased by a neighbor, David Lockhard, who wanted to downsize now that his children are grown. He greeted the busload of architects with great good cheer, glass of wine in hand. Before he bought the house, “Denise and Bob were concerned with who I was.” He brought a few mutual friends there to say, “I know this guy and he’s not a fool.”

Venturi designed the house to accept his mother’s taste in furniture, which ran to colonial revival antiques. Its new owner also owns antiques—along with a variety of collections of ducks, stuffed animals, and painted pottery—and they all look just fine.

Personal taste has no effect on the architectural wit and surprise—of how many famous 20th-century houses can that be said?

10. What about Bob?

In a reminiscence published in Uncube Magazine in 2015, Cristina Guadalupe Galván, Scott Brown’s project manager, writes that Venturi visits the house every Sunday, positioning himself in that great space between the crabapple trees in front.

“The car enters the driveway and parks halfway up it, not too close, but near enough to contemplate the house. The engine stops and then for a few minutes, in silence, Bob reflects… Bob blows a kiss to the house and off we go.”

At the end of the symposium, someone asked Scott Brown about her husband. Everyone has been talking about him, almost exclusively, for three days, but he isn’t there. “Bob is driving us all crazy and making us all love him,” she says. His memory is not good so he can’t talk about architecture any more. “He watches the Golden Girls, which I understand quite a few people secretly admire.”

I can’t help thinking of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Guild House (1963), whose brick facade culminates in a large window arch marking the common room, originally surmounted by a nonfunctional, branching antenna. In Complexity and Contradiction Venturi writes, “The antenna, with its anodized gold surface, can be interpreted two ways: abstractly, as sculpture in the manner of Lippold, and as a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV.”

It was removed because it was considered a joke at the expense of Guild House’s Quaker inhabitants but, of course, Venturi was prescient.