Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fate of Venturi Shore House Uncertain

The staff in the Manayunk office of Venturi Scott Brown & Associates are holding their breath, waiting to learn the fate of Robert Venturi's well-known Lieb House on Long Beach Island. The 1967 house, which sits on a sizable lot in Loveladies, has apparently been sold as a tear down. But VSBA's Dan McCoubrey told me negotiations are afoot to move the boxy structure to a new location. The irony, of course, is that the house would lose its specific seaside context, a quality that it is so essential to Venturi's work in general and this house in particular. (See my recent piece on Episcopal Academy.)

This little house looks so modest and inoffensive today, particularly given all the bloated beach houses that have sprung up on Long Beach Island in recent years, covering every available inch of the building lots. But in 1967, what repelled neighbors and delighted architects was the design's boxy form and supergraphics (remember that word?). Venturi was already becoming well known for his writings and for Mother's House in Chestnut Hill, but he still hadn't built very much. The construction of Lieb House "showed that Venturi was not going to be a mere historical pasticheur," recalled Penn professor David Brownlee, who is author of the most comprehensive survey of Venturi Scott Brown's work.
While Mother's House riffed on our cultural perceptions of what a house should be, and was full of historical references, the Lieb house was assertively modern. Brownlee says it clearly rejected that "housey appearance" of Mother's House. So, instead of eaves and pediments, you get a flat roof and ribbon windows. The lineage is Corbusier rather than Hansel & Gretel.

In an interesting New York Times period piece from 1970 by Rita Reif (try here), the Liebs engage in a spirited discussion about which was uglier: their neighbor's pretentious shore houses or Venturi's faux-ugly shore house. Venturi, of course, has always used the word "ugly" to describe his brand of ordinary, seemingly vernacular, unheroic design. Here's what the architect himself had to say on the subject:

"We had to recognize that it was in a very ugly and banal environment, "Venturi said. "This house is purposely not pretty, not refined, not sensitive, not delicate, not full of high-fashion architectural articulations of little wings popping out and other lovely structural refinements. Anything else would have made the landscape look worse than it is."

The story goes on to say that the Lieb's neighbors stopped talking to them soon after they built the house (for $31,000! On a lot that cost $20,000!) For some reason, Venturi's love of bold signs - iconography - seems to upset people more than anything else about his work. The Liebs sold it a short while later to the Ellmans, who maintained the place intact, keeping the bold No. 9 next to the front door.


Anonymous Davis said...

I'm not sorry in the least to see it go.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally don't understand why Venturi is so revered, I find his buildings to be uninspired and garish at the same time. I'm not an architect, but I do have an open mind when it comes to aesthetics and architectural integrity, as well as functionality. Every building I've seen of his leaves me with the same impression, It should be better.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I am in the design industry and personally I think Venturi is HIGHLY overrated. We have much better talent in the Delaware Valley than Venturi. Inga, quit gushing over such an inadequate structure (not architecture).

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wonderful about this house is how well it opens your eyes to the esthetic of its surroundings. Come to think of it, this seems to be a common feature of Venturi's work.

4:20 PM  
Blogger LiberaL said...

What's remarkable about this house is that it makes you conscious of the esthetic of its surroundings. Some people probably don't like this. This seems to be a feature of most of Venturi's work, as I come to think about it.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The house is quirky, idiosyncratic, and more than a bit endearing. Its likely replacement, given the location, will be a godawful mega-house straight out of a catalogue. Ugh.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tear it down! I agree with John in regards to your constant gushing over an overrated marginal architect!

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Bret said...

There are plenty of reasons to love this wonderful house. I've always loved its transitioning staircase, which starts out in the front as a large stoop; its Corbusian riffs that look good in the shore environment; and the upper terrace that must get wonderful ocean breezes (if not views). I always think the big side window looked like a mast and sail. The beauty is that it aspires to be nothing more than what it is: an occasional house for weekends at the shore.

Tearing down everything one doesn't like is hardly a reasonable solution. Remember all those Furness buildings?

9:34 AM  
Blogger jet said...

as a ex-bldg insp what is all the fuss about? Ill be a gentleman,this home doesnt deserve conversation.The best architect in the Del Valley is Tim McDonald of ONION FLATS,the McDonald's are proponents of the LEEDS program,the designs are refreshing,bold,unique and practical.McDonald along with his brothers build their designs.IN 30 yrs as a city bldg insp no bldg/architect firm in this area can match the quality of work as ONION FLATS.At this pt. in time they are 10 yrs ahead of their competition.JERRY HENNESSY L&I

12:15 PM  
Anonymous DCnPhilly said...

As a huge fan of modern and postmodern styles, International Style, I even see merit in the foreboding Brutalist styles of the 70's and 80's, but I have never found anything aesthetically appealing about any of Venturi's work. I understand and respect the fact that often time has to pass for us to recognize the street value of past artistic movements, but his work has been around long enough to prove him untalented hype. In four decades he has failed to reinvent himself or progress his vision. I think Venturi's true talent lies in self promotion and marketing gimicks.

12:17 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Perhaps it's Philadelphia's tendency to disparage its own, but I don't see how Venturi's tremendous accomplishments can be overlooked. At Penn, for example, he restored the Furness Library, and then designed the Vagelos Laboratory across the street. These were transformational works with gorgeous results. He significantly enhanced the understated and reticent beauty of the Penn campus and gave it a sense of place that was previously missing. He accomplished something similar at Princeton, although it's an entirely different body of work. That he built an odd little house on a very low budget in a barren spot in New Jersey, and filled it up with subtle theoretical gestures many of us don't understand simply means he fools around with his own ideas once in awhile. I still can't believe his design for the new Academy of Music was rejected.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is such tunnel vision to the negative comments about this house. To understand its importance, and what makes Venturi's work then significant, you must consider the design in the context of what was being built in the US at the time- conventional Levittown cape codders on the east coast- with case study types on the west. Venturi combines the models to create a Jersey shore vernacular- one that reflects the non- designed, crab-shack architecture that was Loveladies in the early 60's. In reference to Onion Flats - (talk about good promotion)- this house is a precursor to their own industrial, mix n' match aesthetic. Built with locally supplied, renewable materials, operable windows and no a/c, all this little house needs is a green roof to match LEED goals. Don't be so arrogant in your dislikes- thought, like architecture, must be understood in context.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous DCnPhilly said...

Just because it's different doesn't make it good. When trailblazers attempt to break the mold, they should intend to take us somewhere, and I fail to see how Venturi's body of work has progressed in the past 40 years. Perhaps that's because I'm not an architect, but architecture isn't built for architects, it's built for the rest of us. True masters of modern design - Wright, Pei, even Corbusier - and even those who tried to break the mold prior to the Modern movement such as Furness - shattered people's expectations and then moved on. Whether you like their work or not, any great artist must continue to reinvent himself. For me, I feel Venturi, as well as other pop-architects like Graves and Gehry, have simply branded their styles, marketed a niche for themselves, and now we're all simply buying an overpriced t-shirt just for the logo.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

Some of his projects have interested me a great deal, this house is not one of them. To suggest that we can't somehow comprehend the workings of his brilliant mind is a bit silly I think.

It will be interesting to see what his firm comes up with for the new Curtis Institute building on Locust Street.

3:44 PM  
Blogger varetron said...

DC, you exhibit the malaise of the culture in thinking that architects need to "reinvent" themselves. if what you're saying/doing is good, there's no need for re-invention. just thoughtful/competent evolution, which venturi/scott brown have surely demonstrated in their work. it's our aberrant culture/society that expects novelty and re-invention every waking moment, the pathology of arrested development, unsophistication and childish impatience. not to mention an underlying cause for the throw-away culture that wreaks havoc with the environment.

the house is a gem, good luck with the efforts to save/move it!

11:23 AM  
Anonymous DCnPhilly said...

I don't see "thoughtful/competent evolution" in Venturi's work. Like Graves and Gehry, I see the Ikea of architecture. And yes, I do think that architects, like artists, need to reinvent themselves. That's not to say an architect, or artist for that matter, can't successfully brand a style that sells well. But if anything satisfies the unsophisticated audience, it's the label, not the product. And you're right, we do live in a developmentally arrested and childish society, but this society doesn't demand quality, it doesn't demand reinvention. It demands a brand, and Venturi knows how to play this stunted audience.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with David and varetron and teh anaymous poster who spoke about tunnel vision. As an architect who grew up in Philly but now lives and practices on the left coast, I find the negative comments about Venturi staggering (not architecture, John? DCn, you want continual reinvention, but you're a O.M. Pei fan?). Venturi has never been adequately appreciated in his own town, but it truly saddens me to consider just how parochial Philly remains after all these years. It's one thing not to like someone's work--there's no accounting for taste, or lack thereof--but it seems small to belittle an architect whose ideas and buildings are as important to the last half century as Venturi's have been.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a cool house. Unique. I'd like to see pix of the inside.

1:25 PM  

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