The caption read: "Architect Robert Venturi at his office in Philadelphia in 1991, with a model of a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra."
It was a strange postscript to a giant career — the Associated Press using this particular photo with an obituary that was published nationwide after the Philadelphian died at home a couple of weeks ago.
Strange and poignant, because this was the concert hall that was never built.
Had it been, it would have filled a significant gap in the output of Venturi and his wife and partner in work, Denise Scott Brown. Their firm achieved ambitious, large-scale projects all over the world: at the Seattle Art Museum, the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
But what they never saw come to fruition in their hometown was a large public building. Robert Venturi was born here, did his work here, and died here. But for a wide swath of the public to experience an actual realization of the couple's influential theories, to be among such a building on a daily basis, you'd have to live somewhere else.
As Venturi himself noted: "We are busy at Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, UCLA, Disney, and in France and Japan — and our getting no work in Philly (except at Penn!) parallels Lou Kahn's experience," he wrote in a 1997 letter now in the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. (Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates did quite a bit of work at Penn, including the Perelman Quadrangle and restoration of the Furness-designed Fisher Fine Arts Library).
There's something very Philadelphia about all of this. Reliably a couple of times a year, I'll find myself at a party or dinner where some lifelong Philadelphian will ask me whether the Philadelphia Orchestra is considered a good orchestra. No. The answer is no. It is not merely good, but great. For decades, it's been widely considered among the best in the world. I've come to believe there's an additive in the local water that makes it impossible for natives to entertain the idea that anything here can be tops.
There was modesty, too — if that's what this odd civic quality is — to the first (1990) Venturi design for the concert hall and adjacent recital hall, though the commission started with the recognition that the city's most visible world-class arts organization should be paired with the city's most visible world-class architects.
The second design was a knockout. For one thing, the 1995 iteration was pop-art fun rather than bricked-up institutional, with large cutout notes from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata signaling the building's purpose. Tall windows allowed life inside the building to interact visually with life outside. The flattened tracery of a classical-architecture pediment in the window pattern was a sly bit of humor. An electronic ticker beneath the notes added a kinetic tech element.
Venturi was engaged in the Philadelphia Orchestra concert hall for about a decade while the proposal tried to attract funding. Eventually, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates was, in effect, dropped. When then-Mayor Ed Rendell, developer Willard Rouse, and philanthropist Sidney Kimmel took control and the project was rebranded an arts center, another firm, led by Rafael Viñoly, was chosen.
How is it possible that Philadelphia let Venturi and Scott Brown slip through its fingers without ever having extracted from them a large, public downtown building?
"It's not unusual for great architects to build more elsewhere than in their hometown — it comes with greatness. But the situation for Venturi, and also Kahn, in Philadelphia is more complicated," says University of Pennsylvania architectural history professor David Brownlee.
He cites two factors:
One is poverty. "We built relatively little here, period, during the last third of the 20th century. We were a city in decline."
The other, Brownlee says, is "lack of visionary clients. We built very little by any architects that one could call great architecture. Even our huge, costly urban renewal projects, Penn Center and Market East, were spiritless. In short, we were a real hotbed of architectural thinking and innovation, but we didn't see a lot of it because we lacked the money and the vision."
Venturi did leave the city some influential projects, Franklin Court and the Guild House among them. The recent dorm and rehearsal-hall building at the Curtis Institute of Music "came as he was withdrawing from practice," says Brownlee, though "there is still a lot of him in Lenfest Hall."
And there is Venturi's mother's house in Chestnut Hill, which Brownlee ranks among the half-dozen most important buildings of the 20th century. "It's not public, of course, but, boy, it sure draws the eyes of the world to Philadelphia," he says.
But what would life have been like for the city, the orchestra, and the thousands who pulse through that busy corner of South Broad Street had the Venturi concert hall been built?
For one thing, it might have kept the focus on the orchestra, giving it a prominence that would have continued into the fund-raising firmament. It has always seemed deeply wasteful to me that, from the street outside the arts center, you have no idea that one of the great orchestras of the world lives inside. There is a sign on the outside of the complex for Volvér, the restaurant, but none for the orchestra.
And the Venturi design would have been good for the vitality of the city. The Kimmel's vast lobby is technically public but remains largely unused outside of performance times. The exoskeleton of the complex puts a significant barrier between the street and the art inside.
Venturi telegraphed what was going on inside — music — and invited the public in with colorful iconography.
Kimmel leaders have spent years correcting and refining, making up for the building's deficits. A master plan for renovating the lobby into something more lively and transparent is promising and awaits funding.
And Robert Venturi, who designed a hall that would have brought the music right out onto the street, is gone. His New York Times obituary, topped so enigmatically with that shot of the architect with the model for a hometown project that would never get built, included the small detail that Venturi died while listening to Beethoven piano sonatas.