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The Robert Venturi Effect

The “father of postmodernism” had a seismic impact on architecture—and on me.
The architect Robert Venturi in 1991, with a model of a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the background.
The architect Robert Venturi in 1991, with a model of a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the background.George Widman/AP

By the time I got my hands on it, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s book Learning from Las Vegas was already 38 years old.* But the architects’ 1972 treatise on symbolism in architecture, the iconography of sprawl, and the limits of modernism felt—and still feels—exhilarating, radical, polemical, and new.

Venturi was well into his architectural career when the book appeared—he’d completed several of his most iconic buildings, including the Vanna Venturi House, Columbus Fire Station 4, and the Guild House, which was included in one of the analyses in Learning. The book not only advocated for the world of institutional architecture to pay attention and learn from the intricate and symbolic landscape of suburban sprawl, it also methodically dissected what Venturi and Scott Brown saw as a conflict between the form-follows-function rhetoric of modernist architecture and its execution.