by Pete Mazzaccaro
I saw a news item last week that caught me by complete surprise. It was sitting there at the top of the page on WHYY’s Newsworks news site: Architects Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, a dynamic (and married) duo of international architecture that even went to the office on Christmas Day, were retiring.
This is big news for many reasons. The first, obviously, is that the Mt. Airy pair’s Manayunk firm is one of the most famous in contemporary architecture. It has a reputation for rebelliousness that began with “Learning from Las Vegas,” a book authored by the pair that was considered controversial when it was published in 1972.
Venturi’s credits go back even further with a set of iconic buildings including The Guild House at 7th and Spring Garden streets and the Vanna Venturi or “Mother’s” house on Millman Place in Chestnut Hill, which Venturi designed and built in 1964. The house is considered one of the most important pieces of 20th century residential architecture.
The other reason I was surprised is based on the fact that I know they’re both hard workers who enjoyed their careers. I’m lucky enough to know Bob and Denise, as I called them for three years between 2002 and 2005, when my wife and I lived in an apartment in their Mt Airy house. We came to live there by a stroke of good fortune when my wife, a student at Penn’s School of Design, answered an ad the couple had posted on a wall at the school looking for tenants. We interviewed – a meeting on the patio behind the couple’s 100+-year old home – and “got the gig.”
The deal was this: We got a nice and inexpensive place to live and in return helped the Venturi’s manage their home. This included gardening, tree care, an occasional ride to or from the office, shoveling snow and more. During my time there, I repaired at least three old toilets and two sinks.
Aside from getting to know both Bob and Denise as really great people – no evidence of the egos you’d expect from world-renowned architects – I came to know that they were both hard working. They went to the office early and came home late. They’d go no matter how hard it snowed. They rarely ever took time off. And, yes, they would spend a Thanksgiving or a Christmas Day at the office. Often, I’d be called to pick up Denise who had decided to stay at the office to 8 or 9 p.m., several hours after Bob had already called it quits for the day.
You don’t become world-famous architects by taking a lot of time off. At least not when you’re Venturi and Scott Brown. But the main thing, I think, was that both really loved what they did.
Bob told me a story once about the approval process for his mother’s house in Chestnut Hill. Even in the early ’60s, the Chestnut Hill Community Association was known for its fastidious desire to keep local architecture “in line” with the norms.
On one hand, he was building very close to Louis Kahn’s Esherick house, which had been completed four years earlier in 1960. So there was precedent in the area for new ideas of what a house should look like.
After one particular meeting in which Bob had shown a committee his plans, a committee member took him aside and told him essentially this: that he’s getting the approval he was looking for, but he absolutely had to reduce the height of what was an enormous chimney that rose out of the center of the triangular home.
The chimney, of course, was part of Venturi’s symbolism – the house was a home and its center was the hearth. But, of course, Bob was eager to build the home and edited the plans.
The story elicited a big chuckle from Bob. He always seemed to delight in the challenge. An attitude that probably kept him and Denise going so well for so long.