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Columbia Business Monthly

Remembering architectural great Robert Venturi

Dec 07, 2018 10:30AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John Temple Ligon
Principal, Gervais Studio

For the Twentieth Century the three most important architects, according to Ligon, were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
You might remember an American building designed by each of them: Mies, Seagram headquarters in New York City; Le Corbusier, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University; Frank Lloyd Wright, the Fallingwater residence in Mill Run, Pa.
However, another more thoughtful architect must be added to the list: Robert Venturi, who died on September 18. He was 93.
Venturi makes most lists of the top ten for the century, and not just for his buildings but also for his two books: “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture“ (1966) and “Learning from Las Vegas” (1972).
During his professional career, Venturi worked alongside his wife, Denise Scott Brown. One course they taught together at Yale was the basis for the Las Vegas book. The pair declared, “Main Street is almost all right,” meaning every building can’t be a masterpiece, but with the application of thoughtful signage, the non-masterpiece can do alright. The Strip in Las Vegas can have just as much to offer as the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Well, not quite, but the intellectual approach can allow for acceptance and enhancement. Humor, possibly, can work its way into the mix.
One point they made was that a lot of crap has gone up since World War II, but some of that crap can be kinda fun and entertaining, even. Lower middle-class taste might miss the art history mark, but there’s so much out there among the Great Unwashed—we should learn to work with it. We can learn from Venice, and we can learn from Las Vegas. 
Venturi divided the built world in two: the duck and the decorated shed. The duck came from a restaurant on Long Island that served Long Island Duckling, and the whole restaurant building was a duck, a big one, suitable for 30 diners or so. Problem was, the building had little use other than serving Long Island Duckling. If the restaurant had to go to a larger facility, say, what use was the building?
The decorated shed, on the other hand, had all kinds of use and flexibility. It was a simple rectangle with signage that said what was for sale inside. And if and when that business moved on, the decorated shed could still be adjusted for use as a bank branch, a real estate office, you name it.
The decorated shed, then, was a whole lot more business-minded than the duck.
Venturi was slow in hustling clients, so he spent his time studying, traveling, teaching, and writing, but by advocating the decorated shed, he was getting out the good word he was available to help property owners build sensibly enough for themselves and the market.  
As an unofficial Venturi follower, I had the opportunity to put a duck and a decorated shed together. I was asked to help my friend Steve, owner and manager of the Drake’s Duck-In on Columbia’s Main Street, with his move from the southwest corner of Hampton and Main, the old Haltiwanger’s, to a few doors north on Main next to Brittons.
He had no logo, no brand advertising. He was asking me to put the Duck-In next to Britton’s in a decorated shed, although he didn’t call it a decorated shed. No one else did, either. This was not the most erudite crowd.
No one around me in this matter had ever read Venturi, and no one appreciated the purity of the placement or the importance of the combination of the duck and the decorated shed.
I was having a ball. I called my friend Peter in Philadelphia, who had a history of eight years in Ivy League schools. He was suitably impressed, envious, even. He offered to set up a meeting with Venturi when all this was done.
Too bad. The duck over the front entry to the Duck-In and its decorated shed didn’t make the cut. The company where I was employed didn’t get it. Any of it.
I moved on and stayed a regular fried chicken sandwich customer at the Duck-In. Then Steve moved again and left us all behind. He did, though, put one big duck on his outside wall, just like I recommend. Columbia, my hometown, had a duck and a decorated shed together in one Main Street building. (Sigh.)
Years later in the early ’90s, I was getting ready for a trial. I remembered sharing my duck stories, and I was afraid the sound principles in my Duck-In design wouldn’t be understood in the courtroom. After all, no one around here got it the first time. And neither could I call Peter in Philadelphia.
Probably the top architectural historian who best knew Venturi was Vincent Scully at Yale University. So on a Sunday night I called Vince at his home in New Haven. “Oh, no, Mr. Ligon. What you’re doing makes sense to me, and I bet Bob would say the same thing. In fact, give him a call at home right now and let him tell you himself.”
So at nine at night, I called Robert Venturi at his home. 
“Go right ahead,” he said. “And don’t hesitate to tell anybody we had this conversation.”
RIP, Robert Venturi.