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Denise Scott Brown and the fight for recognition

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[Jane Drew Prize 2017] A fearless feminist icon, Scott Brown fought against a culture that assigned Venturi to the canon without her – and she’s still fighting

In 1966, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi took the research trip to Las Vegas that produced the famous photo of her posed arms akimbo, legs firmly planted in the desert against a pattern of casino signs. It’s a career-defining image: iconic in how forcefully it establishes her and Venturi’s belief in an architecture of communication and, in recent years, emblematic of Scott Brown’s position as an outspoken role model for women in the field.

The shutterbug in the couple, Scott Brown’s earliest photograph of a sign (a Coca-Cola ad in Mozambique) dates from 1954. Her photographs of the Vegas strip, Venice and Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile were exhibited as part of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale and reveal her eye for mess of the everyday and collapse distinctions between high and low, a technique now so familiar after Pop Art and Postmodernism, but then a radical step away from Modernism. Regarding Las Vegas, she tells me she posed Venturi ‘à la René Magritte’; surreal in a funereal black suit, he stands with his back to the camera, head aligned with the signs. Venturi, in turn, snapped her picture, her body mirroring the Dunes casino sign. 

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71 m6cxdtql

Learning from Las Vegas distinguished between two different building types, what buildings are and what they appear to be: the ‘duck’ and the ‘decorated shed’ respectively

Scott Brown has been called – and has called herself – the grandmother of architecture. While the title comes up regularly in interviews with the architect-theorist-educator, her fans and colleagues, at 85, Scott Brown is a different kind of matriarch. Asked about the photo, she explains she was ‘hamming’. Then adds with a nod to a poem by 18th-century English poet William Cowper and nary a whiff of grandmotherly frowzy, ‘I am monarch of all I survey … a female dominating monarch’.

Her emergence as a singular figure is particularly striking given the complexity and depth of the architects’ creative partnership that Scott Brown characterises as continual exchange of ideas. ‘We were happy to be finding all these ugly things together and kind of falling in love with each other’, she says, recalling the delight of their collaboration in Vegas. 

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3055360 vventuri house fall 11

Vanna Venturi House, 1964

Yet even now, crediting remains a sore point, with history assigning Venturi to the canon. Something she’s still fighting to rectify. The pair met at Penn in 1960 and married in 1967. Recently, she has illuminated on what went on between them during those years (and beyond), which is less an issue of credit than the acknowledgement of a two-way dynamic. She read and gave feedback on the manuscript of Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction and her time teaching at UCLA would ultimately lead to identifying Las Vegas at the site of the legendary Yale research studio in 1968.

In the afterword to Having Words, her 2009 collection of essays published by her alma mater the Architectural Association, she describes her grandmotherly status as ‘a guardian of institutional memory who knows the pitfalls and where the bodies are buried’. That knowledge often runs counter to the personalities and structures within architecture that over the years streamlined Postmodernism to a stylistic blip on the historical radar. Scott Brown was privy to and part of the debates and discussions that shaped discourse in the second half of the 20th century, which memorably included feuding with Philip Johnson as well as a sharp back-and-forth with critic and historian Kenneth Frampton on pop, plurality and the public. 

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19 congregation beth el exterior matt wargo

Congregation Beth El, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 2007, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Her pointed chronicle, ‘Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’, was published in 1989, but according to Scott Brown written much earlier.  The article maps a host of discriminatory slights and injuries: tight cliques of ‘young turk’ architects, wives’ dinners, tokenism and blatant misattributions of the designs shared with her husband. Years later, the piece still elicits powerful recognition upon reading. Not only is it feminist, it’s fearless. 

By her own account, Scott Brown’s upbringing in Johannesburg, South Africa, a place innately rife with sexism and inequity, shaped her forthrightness. ‘My mother studied architecture and I thought it was women’s work’, she recalls. ‘My father was highly patriarchal. I didn’t have much rule in saying “this is mine”. Somewhere I said “never again – never again subservient to any man”.’

‘Denise Scott Brown is the original revolutionary architect’, says Arielle Assouline-Lichten, who in collaboration with Caroline James spearheaded the petition (inspired by the filmed speech Scott Brown gave at the first Women in Architecture Awards lunch in 2013) that insisted that the Pritzker Prize committee rectify a past wrong and include Scott Brown in the prize they awarded Venturi in 1991. Although the petition failed to achieve its goal, it did garner thousands of signatures. ‘She has become a symbol for change, a celebration of the potential for progress, and a marker of an evolving definition of notion of the architect’, says Assouline-Lichten.

Yet discussing Scott Brown solely as a feminist role model can be maddening and limiting. As if celebrating only this facet of her career fails to properly acknowledge her contributions to design and theory and reinforces the very power dynamics that she has fought so hard against. In ‘Room at the Top?’ she writes, ‘For a few years, writers on architecture were interested in sexism and the feminist movement and wanted to discuss them with me. In a joint interview they would ask Bob about work and question me about my “woman’s problem”. “Write about my work”, I would plead, but they seldom did.’ Still, the personal is so intertwined with the professional that it envelops even the smallest of gestures, such as signing her full name on a drawing to show that a woman had done it. 

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Venturi 1024x666

The Big Duck, Flanders, NY. Venturi and Scott Brown said the building was noteworthy as it combined functional and symbolic aspects of architecture. Their term ‘duck’ described a building in which the architecture is subordinate to the overall symbolic form

Scott Brown’s biography lays the groundwork for her and Venturi’s continued quest to parse the ordinary built environment and tie together visual communication with the social aspects of architecture: first South Africa, then London – the AA exposed her to fellow pop culture travellers such as Alison and Peter Smithson. Her education in planning and urban sociology at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied with Louis Kahn and sociologist Herbert Gans aligned with the Civil Rights Movement and further distanced her from the tenets of CIAM and Brutalism. ‘The experience at Penn of having a planning education during the social uprising taught me ways of approaching questions that we’d eventually get to answer’, she says.

Venturi quipped, ‘Less is a Bore’, a maxim oft interpreted as a need for more – more complexity, more whimsy, more decoration. But that ‘more’ stands counter to its opposite, ‘less’ and the loss of meaning and belief. For Scott Brown, by the 1960s what Modernism produced was no longer enough. The impact of postwar development and changes in society had revealed the movement’s flaws. 

Robert venturi i am a monument learning from las vegas

Robert venturi i am a monument learning from las vegas

Cartoon from Learning from Las Vegas

‘Postmodernism goes back to philosophical thinking before it had anything to do with architecture,’ she says. ‘It goes back to a notion of the loss of innocence, which is very central to pop art and postmodern literature. Urban renewal was too innocent.’

Today, with a renewed interest in Postmodernism, there’s a tendency to interpret the playfulness of Learning from Las Vegas or the abstraction of the ‘ghost structures’ at Franklin Square (the white sketches of houses much quoted by the NeoPomo generation) as innocent fodder for ironic form making. 

But while the wit of Venturi and Scott Brown conveys pleasure it also is a critique that demands that architects reckon with history and society. Scott Brown is still trying to fix the record, cringing at how it was shallowly celebrated by architects like Johnson and Robert Stern. Looking back on the past, she issues a monarch-like edict for those who might follow her model: ‘PoMo isn’t Postmodernism.’