Published  19/03/2004
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Passing in the Night

Passing in the Night

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, erstwhile architects of the National Gallery, London, ('More Post Office than Post Modern', according to one critic) spoke at the Royal Institute of British Architects on 15 March 2004. They rely upon being controversial, and indulged in popular critique of Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, Foster's London Gherkin, and Will Alsop's Fourth Grace design for Liverpool, all billboard architecture, says Venturi. But Venturi's most famous contribution to late 20th century architecture was not a building but a book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966. This undoubtedly caused a revision of ideas which shook the very foundations of architecture. Venturi has always taken a scholarly view of the importance of history, not to be copied, but to inspire by example. 'Modernism is as historical as the Renaissance these days' says Venturi. It has to be admitted that Po-Mo, a particularly virulent pastiche architecture has somehow perforated and flown in the wind, in a surge of crisp packets, bereft of any serious design philosophy. Says Venturi, like Peter of biblical fame, 'I am not a postmodernist and never have been'. Always they knew themselves as modernists.

But somehow the tide of history has moved on, and Venturi and Scott-Brown seem stranded on the shoreline of the fast-moving eclecticism that could not have happened without that book. And the National Gallery? We have begun to actually like it, despite the spoof grand staircase, the absurdly over pronounced roof trusses, and the jokey fading classicism on the façade. It does still look like an abandoned post office of the imperial era and, yes, it did (sadly) replace a promising 'carbuncle project' criticised by Prince Charles. But time marches on. You can't even hail a passing cab now with the new traffic plan.

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