Heralded by storefront windows packed with project photos and drawings, the red-brick office of Venturi Scott Brown & Associates in Manayunk offers a perfect introduction to its work. Inside, a McDonald’s sign emblazoned with an arrow that reads Thank you indicates the way to the architects’ third-floor suite.
It’s this fondness for the vernacular, for iconography, for commercialism, and for pop sensibilities that cemented the reputation of the firm—and its namesakes, the husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi Hon’80 and Denise Scott Brown GCP’60 GAr’65 Hon’94—decades ago.
But Bob and Denise don’t work here anymore, and upstairs the transitions from playful to business, from one duo to another, become very clear. This summer, when Venturi announced his retirement and Scott Brown vowed to concentrate on her writing, they named two successors: principals Daniel McCoubrey C’75 GAr’81 and Nancy Rogo Trainer GAr’85, with McCoubrey serving additionally as president of the firm, officially renamed VSBA.
It’s a change—or, really, an evolution—that’s been coming for a while, since before the two legends donated their archives to Penn in 2006.
“Architecture is a highly collaborative environment,” McCoubrey, 60, says, “and Denise and Bob were always wonderfully willing to give major responsibilities to people like myself and Nancy.”
The two VSBA veterans (each has been there for more than 25 years) have gradually assumed more and more management tasks, according to Scott Brown.
“They’ve learned what they need to know from Bob and me, and now the best we can do is to stay out of their hair.”
Still, some might say they’ve inherited a heavy burden. The founders’ daring theories and celebrations of both the ordinary and the ornamental (“less is a bore” Venturi once famously said in retort to Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”) sometimes overshadowed their work, even as their homages to classical architecture kicked off the entire postmodern movement of the 1980s.
But the new leaders feel neither weighed down nor intimidated.
“If anything, it’s very freeing,” laughs Rogo Trainer, 52. “It gives us confidence to move forward while retaining the principles and approaches to design that Bob and Denise have taught us. It’s certainly not prescriptive; it’s about the process, not where you end up. We’re not going to be wearing What Would Bob Do? bracelets.”
McCoubrey picks up the thread. “The attention to detail, the consideration of materials, the holistic, interdisciplinary aspects, those continue,” he says. And they remain relevant to today’s design concerns, such as sustainability, Rogo Trainer adds. “We don’t have to be tied to the conversations of the past.”
Sitting in a conference room that mixes standard-issue architect-office artifacts with whimsy, McCoubrey and Rogo Trainer are the picture of assured seriousness. They’re intent on conveying the message that VSBA is the same animal, but different, and that ramping up the firm will be job one. They don’t envision anything like the late 1980s, when the starchitect commissions from the Seattle Art Museum and London’s National Gallery poured in and employment rolls approached 100—but they can certainly see the current roster of 10 architects swelling to twice that number. “We’d like to grow in a measured way,” McCoubrey says.
Measured means that the firm will stay small enough for them to be “meaningfully involved,” adds Rogo Trainer. “We’re not interested in just pulling marionette strings.”
One of them will always serve as principal in charge of a project, while the other will usually be on hand as an advisor. “Our level of engagement is a lot greater than it was for Bob and Denise at the firm’s height because the shop was so much larger then,” McCoubrey points out.
VSBA has made a specialty out of campus master plans and buildings—including notable restorations of Penn buildings such as the Fisher Fine Arts Library and Irvine Auditorium—as well as work on hospitals and hotels. These kinds of projects dovetail nicely with the enthusiasms and experiences of the two new principals.
McCoubrey has long had an interest in preservation and adaptive reuse. Rogo Trainer is especially experienced in planning and in approaching design from a social perspective. “The focus on historical context and public space has always been what VSBA can bring to the table,” she says. “We’re often asked to look at site design, the bigger aspects of how a building or project presents itself to the public.
“I’d like to see us continuing to explore different building types, such as the hotel work,” Rogo Trainer adds. “And I think there’s a place for the firm to be involved in more urban projects. Campuses are great labs for looking at a sense of place, but we can take that expertise into other areas, such as thinking about how to reuse industrial properties.”
Wherever they end up, and however they get there, they’re intent on retaining the lessons of the iconoclastic Learning from Las Vegas, which Venturi and Scott Brown co-authored with the late Steven Izenour GAr’65, a principal of the firm who taught at Penn.
“Steve was a direct pipeline between the University and the firm,” says McCroubey.
“He was a great creative force—the office extrovert,” adds Rogo Trainer. “He found joy in pop culture, joy in things that were a bit loud. As we go forward, we don’t want to ever lose sight of that.”