An architectural guide to Rome. Talking to Stephen Harby

11th December 2017

Robert Venturi’s ROME” re-interpreted by two authors and architects, Frederick Fisher and Stephen Harby.

This guide is intended for all travellers to Rome, whether of the armchair or shoe leather variety, and whether the traveler is novitiate or veteran

Robert Venturi wrote Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1962, at the age of 37 when he was spending two years at the American Academy in the city, gleaning all he could about the city of such rich and diverse architectural styles, both complex and contradictory. Both authors studied his seminal work when they were students. In the original, Venturi illustrated his book with black and white photos, but in this volume by Fisher and Harby there are beautiful watercolours that bring magic to the pages, a deft and light hand.

When Venturi was in the city, the buildings were largely covered in grime and soot and his photos capture that two dimensionality. Now, when many buildings have undergone cleaning and renovation, a lighter medium is ideal to capture the light and the innate dancing of light that is present in the city. Watercolour is ideal to bring to life the light and shade, that chiaroscuro. Thus, Stephen Harby shares his watercolours as they describe selected buildings around the city, some well-known like the Pantheon, the Vatican.. to Luigi Moretti’s more stark and linear post World War II apartment building, Casa Girasoli, in Parioli, which I would now choose to visit when I am next in Rome. Porta Pia by Michelangelo would also be on my list.

This is such a diverse and wonderful selection of buildings dotted around the city, all beautifully brought to life. If I had one niggle it would be the format of presentation – a book slightly larger than A5 size and in order to access some of the double page illustrations, you would have to crack the spine (sacrilege in our house!). But wonderful to be able to slip it into your bag as you tour the city.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

Over to Stephen for our #TalkingLocationWith… feature. Here he shares background context for the book, Robert Venturi’s Rome by Frederick Fisher and Stephen Harby, published by ORO Editions, September, 2017

Rome: Continuity and Change or the City Layered in Time

Rome is unique in offering the architectural visitor a span of history whose visible remains encompass the longest timeline of anywhere in the world. There may be destinations whose history begins earlier (the pyramids in Egypt) or where the focus on a single period is deeper (Renaissance Florence), but Rome offers the best chance to explore and unpeel the layers of time spanning over three thousand years. Whether you are looking for ancient Roman ruins, early Christian churches, fountain filled baroque squares, or the latest project by architects Richard Meier or Zaha Hadid, you will find it in Rome!

It is for this reason that creative geniuses of all epochs have come to Rome to find their inspiration. Writers Keats, Shelley, Goethe, painters Ingres, Turner and Sargent all spent time in Rome and emerged transformed as artists. In the 19th century and even earlier in the case of France, countries established academies in Rome so that their citizens could go there and be inspired. In 1893 the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was opened to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. There was a great reawakening of interest in the classical tradition of architecture as embodied in ancient Rome and in the Italian Renaissance. The group of architects who led the creation of that fair including Daniel Burnham and James Follen McKim and financier J. P. Morgan decided that architects, painters, and sculptors practicing the new style, which came to be called the American Renaissance, should have an opportunity to study at the source in Rome. The American Academy in Rome was founded a year later in the tradition of the many earlier Academies.

Sixty years later, in 1954, American architect Robert Venturi arrived in Rome at the age of 29 to spend two years at the American Academy for the prestigious Rome Prize Fellowship. In the intervening time, since the founding of the institution, much had happened in the world at large to radically reshape ideas about history and its continuity. In the world of architecture, in the first quarter of the new century a revolution had taken place with impacts no less profound than the political cataclysms of war and revolution had been for society as a whole. Modern architecture, ushered in by such figures as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, the latter two exiles to the United States from war-torn Germany, took firm hold in the postwar period of the 1950s, banishing the idea that architectural practice should be inspired by historical examples from the past, and calling into question the very idea of an institution whose purpose was to inspire architects and artists to come and learn from the past. The principles of modernism in art as well as architecture espoused minimalism, purity, and the creation of original and unique solutions and expressions without any reference to what came before.

Robert Venturi’s education as an architect reflected this period of transition from a traditional sensibility to a modernist one, and although much of his early training had been rooted in traditional methods, he was also of his period and by no means inclined to be a practitioner of traditional design, a stance he has maintained throughout his long career. While he was in Rome he quickly became enamored of the Renaissance and Baroque architecture and urban spaces that filled the city, and in particular the work of Michelangelo, Bernini and Borromini. While there he laid the groundwork for a revolutionary book on architecture, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which was published in 1966, and would proceed to revolutionize thinking about architecture in the following half-century. In this dense and very personal book, he cited over 100 examples of buildings drawn from all over the world, principally in Europe, and with approximately 30 taken from Rome.

This book was widely read by architects, and particularly students of architecture in the 1970’s, which we both were. Our book, Robert Venturi’s Rome is both homage to the importance the original book had for us, but also an expression of the deeply rich lodes of architecture and urbanism that Rome can offer us. We have taken as our starting point the some 30 buildings that Venturi singled out, and have written about them both in the context of Venturi’s observations and our own impressions of the same places. This book is highly personal, dependent on both the lens Robert Venturi presented to us, but also our own unique visions of the city.

Thank you to Stephen for such wonderful insights into the city, its architecture and Venturi himself. Do take a look at Stephen’s website where you can find out more about his escorted tours to various countries and about his art, He is also on Instagram.

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