Case Study Fourvanna Venturi House

Robert Venturi designed this the Modern Movement, ques-house for his mother. It was built tioned them, and rebelled

Vanna Venturi House Scale

Reference for Vanna Venturi House:

(Venturi)—Venturi Scott Brown & Associates, on houses and housing (Architectural Monographs No. 21), 1992, pp.24-29.

The site of the Vanna Venturi House is flat. Around its boundaries it is enclosed by trees and fences. It is entered through a neck of land, and the house is positioned to present its gable elevation to the approach.

at Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1962. At about the same time, he was writing a book called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which was published in 1966. The design of the house is related to the argument of the book.

against them. His arguments are set out in detail in his book. In general he rejected the quest for simplicity and resolution associated with Modernism (arguments for which are found particularly in the writings and works of Frank Lloyd Wright,


At the time of both the house and the book the teaching and practice of architecture were dominated by Modernism. Venturi, rather than accepting the prevailing orthodoxies of

Mies van der Rohe and of Louis Kahn), in favour of complexity and contradiction, which he argued made products of architecture more witty and less boring; more appropriate (poetic) reflections of the complexities

House Vanna Venturi

and contradictions of life, and more stimulating, intellectually and aesthetically.

Venturi used the design of his mother's house to express through architecture his reaction against the orthodoxies and seriousness of Modernism. In it he consciously avoided what might be considered 'right answers', and contrived conflicts in the arrangement of forms and the organisation of space.

Basic elements

Even in his choice of basic elements Venturi expressed his reaction against Modernism.

The distinctive palette of elements used by orthodox Modernist architects included: the flat roof; emphasis (externally) of the horizontal floor; the column (piloti), allowing the opening up of the ground level and 'free planning'; and the glass wall, which reduced (visually) the cellular division of space internally and between inside and outside. Modernist architects also tended to play down the formal importance of the hearth , and of its external expression in the chimney stack. (Scharoun used this palette in his design for the Schminke House, Case Study Two.)

In his mother's house Venturi directly contravened every one of these 'rules' of Modernism. The roof is pitched; the horizontality of the floors is not expressed externally; there are no columns (except one—an expedient to hold up the roof over the dining area, and which is omitted in some published plans of the house), and the house is firmly set on the ground; there is a glass wall (between the dining area and a covered terrace) but in the main elevations Venturi prefers to make windows (almost caricatures of traditional windows) in the walls; he also gives significant emphasis internally to the central hearth, and externally to its chimney.

Space organisation and geometry

There are quirks in Venturi's design which are well-discussed elsewhere in critiques of this house: his 'mannerist' touches (the broken pediment of the front elevation for example); his (counter-Modern) use of ornament (the appliqué 'arch' superimposed on the clearly structural lintol over the entrance); the 'ingrowing' bay-windows in the downstairs bedrooms, and verandah off the dining area; the stair going up to nowhere from the upstairs bedroom; and so on. But Venturi's attitude of complicating and contradicting orthodox ways of doing things is perhaps most architectural (in the terms

In this early version of the Vanna Venturi House, the chimney stack is even more prominent than in the built version. In his architecture Venturi borrowed ideas from historical examples; he took the idea of prominent chimneys from British domestic architecture (of the Arts and Crafts and Edwardian period, and from the eighteenth-century work of John Vanbrugh) and from similar houses in the United States. Venturi was also interested in conflicts of scale: in this version the chimney is 'too big' for the house; in the final version (on the previous page) the chimney appears to be both 'too big' and 'too small'.

In positioning the house, Venturi lays the parallel walls across the main axis of the site.

set out in this book) in his spatial organisation of the house and in the ways in which he deals with various of the sorts of geometry.

The design of the house 'begins' with two parallel walls, which define the area of ground of the inside of the house.

As discussed in the Parallel Walls chapter, these tend to establish a longitudinal axis which sets up a dominant di-

rection within the plan and also begins to order relationships between 'inside' and 'outside'. But Venturi contradicts the orthodox architecture of parallel walls in a number of ways.

First he positions the walls perpendicular to, rather than parallel with, the principal axis of the site, which is the axis of entrance (left).

Then he contradicts the arrangement of gables found in ancient parallel wall buildings

(temples), by placing the gables of his complex roof on the long sides of the rectangular plan. In ancient temples it was the geometry of making that influenced the three-dimensional geometry of the roof, resulting in triangular pediments at each end. Venturi's contradictory arrangement, together with his avoidance of columns, results in the 'front' of his mother's house being like a pediment on one of the 'wrong' sides of the rectangular plan, and resting directly on the ground.

Venturi Masks Explained
As can be seen in the sections (below), the geometry of
Venturi House SectionsHow Put Together Venturi Mask

Venturi's roof is complex: there are slopes in three different directions; it doesn't always reach the walls that 'should be' its support. (This happens over the entrance, and at the 'ingrown' balcony outside the upstairs bedroom, and reinforces the sense that these very two-dimensional walls are 'masks', screening rather than expressing the inside—another counter to the Modernist suggestion that barriers between inside and outside should be broken down.)

Venturi's contradiction of orthodoxy informs his plan too.

In his own explanation of the house in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venruri describes his plan as deriving from, but a distortion of, 'Palladian rigidity and symmetry'.

As Rudolf Wittkower has shown in Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Palladio's villa plans, whether square or rectangular, were generally arranged according to a division into three in both directions; they were given a dominant central space, surrounded by subsidiary rooms. (Bottom left, for example, is Palladio's Villa Foscari.)

If Venturi's design had followed these Palladian arrangements, it might have turned out something like this:

If he had adhered to Palladian principles, the plan of Venturi's house might have been like this.

Villa Venturi Layout

with a large room in the middle, and secondary rooms arranged symmetrically at the sides. There might have been a

The fireplace and the stair compete for space with the entrance...

...and partition walls distort Palladian geometry to accommodate different-sized spaces.

portico protruding at the front. Windows would, as far as possible, have been arranged symmetrically within rooms. The staircase and fireplace might have occupied equivalent positions in the two halves of the plan.

Venturi broke this Palladi-an discipline in various ways, establishing and then destroying symmetry; creating then denying axes.

The contradictory 'move' that he appears to make first (above), is to bring the stair and the fireplace together, and to position them centrally so that they block the axis of entrance. In the Palladian plan that axis would be open, as a line of passage leading into the main central space (and maybe also as a line of sight out into the surroundings). Venturi, having set up the axis, denies it with solid.

This 'move' does other things too. It creates a porch, but one that recedes into the building rather than projecting out from it.

It also gives Venturi another opportunity for complexity by setting up a situation in which entrance, stair and fire all vie to occupy the same part of the plan. The orthodox form of each is changed in some way in response to this (contrived) 'competition' for space: the fireplace is moved off axis to allow room for the stair; the stair is narrowed half-way up conceding to the chimney stack; and Venturi makes the entrance doorway, which itself has been usurped from its axial position, 'push' the adjacent wall to an angle that nudges into the stair.

The angle of this wall seems intended to acknowledge the line of passage into the house, now made diagonal, mitigating slightly the blocking effect of the stair and fireplace. The line of passage is further managed by the quadrant curve of the closet wall, turning an axial Palladian line of entry, into a chicane.

Elsewhere in the plan (left) partition walls are positioned both to accord with and to distort Palladian orthogonality. The wall between the living room and the bedroom (to the left on the plan) is at a right angle to the parallel walls, whereas the walls which run across the plan, which help delineate the small bedroom, the bathroom, entrance, and kitchen, are afflicted by a spatial warp, seemingly caused by the position of the stair and fireplace.

Structural Analysis Vanna Venturi HouseStructural Analysis Vanna Venturi House

Finally, the positioning and nature of the window and door openings presents Venturi with more opportunities for architectural contradiction.

A Modernist use of the parallel wall strategy would probably make a clear differentiation between the characters of the 'ends' and the 'sides'. In Craig Ellwood's design for example,

(below) the end of each apartment is fully glazed, and there are no openings in the side walls. In the Maisons Jaoul (bottom) by Le Corbusier openings in the side walls are clearly such, while the end walls are screens.

Venturi refuses such clarity, putting a mix of types of opening in each elevation of the house.

Venturi breaks a classical rule of architecture by positioning a window so that its edge, rather than its centre-line, aligns with the axis of the house. Another window has the end of a partition wall intruding into it.

In these apartments designed by Craig Ellwood (above), and in the Maisons Jaoul by Le Corbusier (one of which is shown below), the nature of the interface between inside and outside is very different at the ends of their parallel-wall plans from the sides. The ends tend to be glass walls, and the sides walls with windows in them. Venturi, in contrast, mixes the two types of wall on all four faces of his mother's house.

Woodland Chapel Scale

Reference for The Woodland Chapel:

Caroline Constant—The Woodland Cemetery: towards a spiritual landscape, 1994.


The Woodland Chapel stands in the extensive grounds of the Woodland Crematorium, on the outskirts of Stockholm. Designed by Erik Gunnar Asplund, just after the First World War, it was intended for the funerals of children.

of traditional forms and methods of building—a movement which has been called 'National Romanticism'.

The chapel is reached through the grounds of the Woodland Crematorium. Arou-und the main crematorium—a

Erik Gunnar Asplund Tree Chappell

At first sight the chapel appears simple and without pretensions to being anything more than a rudimentary hut in the woods. But Asplund managed to imbue this unassuming, elemental building with a remarkable range of apt poetic ideas. The underlying subject of the 'poem' is, of course, death.


Asplund designed the Woodland Chapel at a time before Modernism had become the dominant movement in Swedish architecture. The prevailing interest was in the power later building also by Asplund— the landscape is open, undulating, and with a 'big' sky. By contrast, the Woodland Chapel is hidden away, in a dark wood of pine trees.

Identification of place

Asplund's task was to identify a place for funeral services; where family and friends could come together to mourn.

Basic elements

Basic elements are used in clear and straightforward ways. There are defined areas of ground, columns, walls, and a roof. There is a pathway leading to the building, a platform on which the coffin is placed, and another used as the lectern. The floor, walls and roof form a simple cell, in which there is a doorway on the line of the approach, and a small domestic window in one corner. The floor around the perimeter of the inside of the chapel is raised by two steps, suggesting that the main place is a shallow pit.

Modifying elements

The chapel stands in the dappled light of the wood. There is the faint smell of pine. Walking towards the building, one's footsteps are muffled by the carpet of pine needles, except on the stone paving which defines the area of the chapel floor, inside and under the porch.

Inside, the main place is lit by a roof-light at the highest part of its domed ceiling. Sounds are reflected by the hard surfaces.

Elements doing more than one thing

As one approaches, the roof appears as a pyramid, and acts as a marker. The porch columns support the roof, but also channel the route into the building. The returns of the walls alongside the entrance help to create small subsidiary places off the main chapel space, but they also make the cell walls appear much thicker than they are, increasing its cave-like quality. This effect is reinforced by the deep reveals of the small window, and the niche in which the lectern stands. The internal columns appear to support the dome above, but

also define the main place.

Using things that are there

Asplund uses the woods to give the chapel a particular setting. The pathway to the building, which begins at a gateway some distance from it, strikes a straight line through the irregularly spaced trees. The porch columns are themselves like trees, though regularly positioned, bringing something of the character of the surrounding woods in under the roof.

Primitive place types

The niche in which the lectern stands is not a hearth, but like

one. (Externally there is a chimney stack in the same position, but this leads from the basement.) The lectern itself is like an altar. The catafalque, on which the coffin rests, is both a bed and an altar. It is also the focus of the performance place—like a clearing in the woods—defined by the shallow pit, surrounding columns and domed ceiling.

Architecture as making frames

The building is a temporary frame for the body of a dead child, and for the ceremony associated with its funeral.

In its outer form the chapel is like a house, framed by the surrounding woods. The porch frames the gathering mourners, who mingle with the columns (which have a presence like ancestors come to the funeral).

Under the roof there is also the cell which separates the special place of the ceremony from everywhere else, and inside that there is the pit and the ring of columns like a primitive henge.

This circle, lit from the sky above, frames the catafalque, which frames the coffin, which is itself a frame for the body. The lectern is framed in its own niche. The henge, catafalque, lectern, coffin, and the mourners are all framed, pictorially, by the entrance doorway, but architecturally by the womb-like interior.

Temples and cottages

The chapel is a 'temple' in 'cottage' clothing; the unquestionable authority of death is cloaked in the appearance of domestic simplicity. The building, though not raised on a platform, is formal and symmetrical. It has no pragmatic irregularity, though its materials are simple and natural. Its scale is small; it is a building for human beings.


Asplund employs many of the various kinds of architectural geometry.

The circle of columns— again like ancestors standing around the shallow pit—define,

Erik Asplund Woodland Chapel

literally, the circle of presence of the catafalque and coffin; it is within the social geometry of this circle that the mourners sit.

The line of passage and the line of sight from the entrance gateway coincide. In experience and symbolically the building— the pyramid—terminates this axis. It establishes two of the six directions inherent in the chapel—stretching from the symbolic hearth to the western horizon and the setting sun.

The circle of eight columns set up the cross axis—the other two horizontal directions blocked by the side walls—and thus establish a centre. Below is the basement; and above is light coming through the 'sky' of the dome, (the ideal geometry of which disrupts the geometry of making of the roof). Through the centre is the vertical axis—the axis mundi (axis of the earth).

The catafalque is positioned, not at the centre of the circle on the axis mundi, but between the symbolic hearth and that vertical axis—suspended for the duration of the ceremony between home and eternity.

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