Bob the (Messy) Architect

Last night, a packed house crammed into IIT's Crown Hall to listen to Robert Venturi talk about Mies van der Rohe and himself, who he called Bob. As part of the Chicago Humanities Festival's recent embrace of architecture, Venturi was a natural choice to shake things up at the bastion of Mies's preaching.

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Brief history: Mies coined the phrase "Less is more". In reaction to that, and pretty much all of Modernism, Venturi countered with "Less is a bore". (Late in Venturi's talk he mentioned a twist on his quote that somebody coined, one I actually prefer to the original: Mess is More)

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Thus Bob, the "Anti-Mies" spoke last night about classicism, symbolism, and mannerism. In the first case, he stated that Mies was a classicist, because his buildings and spaces were stripped-down renditions of what came before; in the second case, he attested that Mies used symbolism, most apparently in the non-structural, applied steel sections on the facades of multi-story buildings, symbolizing industry; in the third case, he argued that given the first two -- and the fact that Mies did not acknowledge the classicism or the symbolic ornamentation, Mies was not mannerist. Bob is mannerist, according to Bob, because he is overtly symbolic. His conclusion was that Mies was covertly symbolic and classicist in a complex and contradictory time, while Bob is overtly symbolic and mannerist in a complex and contradictory time.

So what does this mean? To me, Bob is trying to bring Mies closer to himself by aligning him with his beliefs. Having popularized the phrase "complexities and contradictions" in the influential book of the same title, he takes that as the defining characteristics of the 20th century, the industrial century. If one doesn't take this to be true, then his argument pretty much falls apart, as Mies's architecture has a different frame of reference. But that won't work for Bob. For him, the 20th century was complex and contradictory and only symbolic and mannerist architecture accurately represents that time. While I've never been a big fan of him and his wife's architecture, the duo's updating of their theories to the signs, symbols, and iconography of the digital age is unfortunately just as off-putting.


  1. I think Mies was just trying to show that buildings could have purpose without stressing over all the details.

  2. Mies never denied that his "I-beams" were expression of structure- not structure itself. "Bob" came from the wrong premise, presented a miasma of information and generally imploded."Less" of Bob is truly "more" than enough.

  3. Interesting that Venturi is now trying to align himself with Mies when before he denied any link. It's been obvious to me that Bob's entire career has been spent trying to upstage Mies. Perhaps his new version of the facts stems from a recognition that he has not yet succeeded.

  4. Michael - I agree, except for the yet. I don't think he'll ever succeed.


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