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Mark Lamster

At Home with Bob & Denise


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Over the weekend I had the very good fortune to spend an afternoon with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at their home in suburban Philadelphia. I thought they might live in a house of their own design — and in a sense they do — but when I pulled up at the given address I found myself looking at something unusual and of an older vintage — almost Prairie School. It turned out to be an authentic Art Nouveau mansion, built in 1907, one of very few in the United States. They've called it home since the early 1970s; they found it driving through the area after visiting Bob's mother at the famous house he designed for her, which is just a few minutes away.

A tour would come later, but for the moment we headed out to lunch, the three of us, to an unprepossessing nearby cafe, where student types were drinking their coffee and brunching. Bob and Denise, though a good four decades older than anyone else in the joint, were clearly regulars and greeted as such by the staff. (Their order: a crepe with spinach and chevre.) We chatted a bit and then walked back to the house, Denise providing a running commentary on their Mt. Airy neighborhood — I believe she called it a "dilapidated utopia" — its residents and its architecture of handsome local schist. Bob ambled along a few steps behind in a seersucker blazer, armed against the light drizzle with a folding Princeton umbrella. We looked like a cartoon from 1953, or maybe characters from a Kingsley Amis novel.

Back to the house. The interior is a happy agglomeration of books and images and furniture, all stacked and piled according to a system knowable only to the proprietors. Denise likes to call herself architecture's "Grandmother" — she looks the part, certainly — by which she means guardian of the field's "institutional memory," in particular the legacy of the work she and Bob have done together — together! — over the years. I think aunt and uncle might be a better analogy. They've always existed at something of a remove from architecture's inner-family circle. Period forms and vernacular images pushed up against each other and amplified in a humane, generous, and optimistic manner — that's a rather simplified description of the Venturi & Scott Brown design philosophy. I'm not sure it always works in practice. But their own home is a wonderful representation of their ideas and aesthetic. I'm pretty sure there's no better place to spend a few hours talking architecture on a rainy Sunday. A few images follow, and apologies for their blurry quality.

livingroom
The salon, or living room

fireplace
The walls, painted with a familiar floral pattern

chair
Work, in miniature

vase
Bob travelled Europe to find this vase

relief

Inspirational figures circle the dining room

desertinn

Happened in Vegas. Stays in Philly

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American Gothic

entry

Probably the only place in America where a McD's sign can be used without causing immediate intellectual repulsion

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Mother's House, just a few minutes away. It was not originally green, but shortly after its completion Bob was told "You can't paint a house green." So guess what

esherick2
Lou Kahn's Esherick House is about 200 feet (and an architectural revolution) away. PS: Bob has this image hanging above his desk at the office


Posted in: Architecture

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