The Short Answer: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Architects, planners, teachers, and writers, this husband-and-wife team has long challenged conventional modern-ism. Their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas (with Steven Izenour), showed how everyday art provides lessons in design. Their new book is Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Tim.

What did you learn from Las Vegas?

V: The main thing was the significance of symbolism in architecture, which had been forgotten by modernists. It was wonderful to go to Las Vegas and learn about symbolism via this pop-cultural complex teeming with commercial signs. We also learned about urbanism in a city that no longer existed for pedestrians but for people who drove along the Strip at 40 m.p.h.

How much has Las Vegas changed in scale and form?

V: It's entirely different now—the city as scenography, as Disneyland. It's theatrical, and you're an actor in the scenery. I'm repelled by it in some ways but want to say you can still learn from it. SB: It's fascinating that today's Las Vegas Boulevard looks much more like a traditional public sector, like a series of plazas or squares. The more it has become private, the more it looks public. But even the sidewalk is owned by the hotels. Only a tiny piece is left public, the 18-inch stone curb on the road.

Is there a role for wit in architecture?

V: If literature and music have wit, why not architecture? It exists in the architecture of the past and should exist now, and we employ it. SB: We find that students have been taught to take architecture very, very seriously. Here we are talking about "ducks" [a Venturi-Scott Brown coinage for the building as sign—from a duck-shaped store on Long Island] and other funny metaphors, but they're not sure if they're allowed to laugh. Wit humanizes architecture. It cuts monumentality—brings it to a respectable size. A little self-deprecation will make monumentality more worthwhile, less overblown. But the joke, if it's on anyone, should be on the architect, not on the client, not on the public. We're talking irony, not satire, not harshness.

Do certain principles guide your additions to historic buildings?

V: Context—the setting of the building as it affects its exterior design—is all the rage now, and that is valid. But harmony in architecture can derive from contrast as well as analogy. You can wear a gray suit with a gray tie, a gray suit with a red tie, or a gray suit with a gray-and-red striped tie. The idea is to make the new similar in some ways, dissimilar in others. In our extension for the National Gallery in London, we replicated some elements of the original, like the pilasters. But their rhythm became that of jazz rather than of the gavotte or minuet of the old facade. SB: That building and our Allen Memorial Art Museum addition at Oberlin College also follow the principle of inflection, meaning if you took away the original, the new part would look eccentric, unbalanced. V: Like a portion, as if it was incomplete.

Do your European clients look at additions differently from Americans?

V: There's no extreme difference—the same misunderstandings and mistakes occur. SB: For our provincial capitol in Toulouse, France, we tied into the context of the city itself, not into a building. We tried to relate to existing structures, but those we really wanted to keep were torn down. With our big new building, they wondered, why would we want to keep that ratty old thing on the main street? But it was part of our context and our composition. V: One can also be too ideological about history. Sometimes it really does make sense to tear down an original building. The Italian palazzo we admire undoubtedly did not replace a parking lot. There was probably a Gothic building there that was removed. I was the first modernist to say, Let's respect history and learn from historical precedent. But you can be too purist about it.

One of the remarkable phrases in your new book is "form accommodates functions rather than form follows function."

SB: We should think, while designing, of how the building can adapt and accommodate. [Architect and planner] David Crane used to say, "Plan for change that is unpredictable." You don't predict it will change thus-and-such, because you can't. You try to design it so that, however activities change, it'll work.

You state, Robert, that Sever Hall at Harvard is your favorite building in America. Why?

V: It's a wonderful combination of a loft structure that can be flexible inside over time, while outside it has very beautiful detail, variations of scale and rhythm, and symbolic references. The main idea it's based on is, Let's not be purist. You don't have to be pure modern, or pure historical. That, in a way, is a message for preservationists—that you have to be flexible. The really exciting architectural and urban complexes are ones where historical evolution is accommodated.