ARCHITECTURE MAY 24, 2013
In 1991, when Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize in architecture for a “lifetime achievement” of work he mostly completed in collaboration with Denise Scott Brown, I remember people in architecture circles publicly expressing their fury at the profession’s sexist culture—while whispering behind cupped hands an abashed satisfaction that Denise had been dissed. Tweed-clad, Quaker-raised Bob exudes a quiet gentility; Denise, his South Africa-born spouse, does not. Stately and even imperial, she speaks her mind, seems to care little if you like her or not, and does not shirk confrontation. She spent years swimming in the ocean of white, privileged males that is architecture; many found her a little difficult to swallow.
To protest her exclusion from the Pritzker Club, Scott Brown made herself a visible absence at the award ceremony in honor of her husband, who had, without success, implored the Hyatt Foundation to include her in the award. And then, until recently, the scandalous omission became ancient history. At a public event in London in February, she characteristically remarked that the Pritzker Foundation still owed her and should right its wrong, and those videotaped comments were posted online. Two Harvard architecture students, Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James, launched and promoted a Change.Org petition demanding that the Pritzker Committee retroactively award Scott Brown the prize. Now, owing to the Internet’s immortalization of those comments and the synergy of social media, Scott Brown’s snubbing has drawn widespread attention: as of this week, the petition had over 12,313 signatories, among them Venturi himself, as well as nine subsequent Pritzker winners, many of them today’s starchitects.
The dust-up highlights the game-changing nature of social media: After all, for twenty-two years, few people were talking about the 1991 award. But it also raises some more provocative questions about architecture—for instance, why it continues to be an astonishingly, notoriously male-dominated profession.1 And, especially important in the case of Robert Venturi’s Pritzker, just why its professional culture fails to recognize architecture’s inherently collaborative nature. This or that individual architect—Venturi, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, whoever—gets anointed and heroized with awards, but everybody knows that designing a building of any substantial size is such an immensely complicated undertaking that it is rarely if ever done alone. But no one has asked whether or not Scott Brown deserves a Pritzker based on her actual contributions to the projects attributed to Venturi and Scott Brown.
Denise Scott Brown’s admirable emphasis on collaboration,2 and generosity toward Venturi, risks cloaking her pivotal role in the formation of their intellectual and architectural project, in the architectural and urban language they jointly developed, and in their enormous influence on the trajectory of American architecture after World War II. But unlike in many wife-husband professional partnerships, where you need to crawl between blueprints and bed sheets to ascertain attribution, just what Scott Brown brought to Venturi can actually be deciphered. We know what kind of buildings he was designing and what theory he was writing before they met. We know her intellectual orientation and training before they met. And we know what kind of work they produced after they began to collaborate, first by teaching studios together at the University of Pennsylvania from 1962-1964. To this partnership, who added what is clear.
Venturi, who subtitled his famous Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (largely written before he befriended Scott Brown) “a gentle manifesto,” earned undergraduate and graduate architecture degrees from Princeton. In those days, the architecture program was deeply integrated with the university’s art history department. So by the time he graduated, he’d learned western architectural history inside and out—and then learned more of it during two years in residency at the American Academy in Rome, where he overlapped with the great historian of Italian architecture and cities, Richard Krautheimer. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Venturi began work on Complexity and Contradiction (1966), an attack on a certain desiccated strain of modernism represented by Mies van der Rohe. The book exhorted designers to study, take inspiration from, and even pilfer architecture’s traditions. Crammed with photographs of Italian Baroque and other monuments, the text tries, in a tortuously complex, muddle-headed sort of way, to construct a taxonomy of formal devices for an architectural language inspired by Michelangelo, Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, and others.
As an exemplar of what he meant, Venturi designed a house for his mother in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood, finished in 1964. The Vanna Venturi House, together with Complexity and Contradiction, liberated architects from the orthogonal stupor of corporatized, steel-and-glass modernism. But how much value, in hindsight, should we attribute to Venturi’s solo work, to that house and that book? Venturi’s mother’s tiny house remains widely celebrated (it’s on a postage stamp, even!), but as much if not more as a symbol of the post-modernist turn in American architecture as for its intrinsic architectural virtues. Overwrought outside and in, the house is effectively two doodly calling cards stood parallel to one another, on edge, sandwiching a fireplace-cum-staircase-cum-skylight between them. Some critics like the interior; I think it’s stiflingly crammed up with ideas, really awkward.3 In any case, the house is largely admired because it brims with effete—gentle—in-jokes, like an arcing string cornice sliced in two by a flat, planar broken pediment, classical elements that no tradition-minded architect would dare combine thus. It’s an arch kind of humor, one that only the art-historically-saturated mind and eye can understand. And, let’s face it, Venturi’s other major pre-Scott Brown project, Guild House, a low-cost residential project for the elderly in Philadelphia, is monstrously banal, except for the occasional insider’s joke, like the clunky, polished black granite column deflecting you off axis as you enter the building.
Scott Brown is originally South African, and came to Philadelphia via London, where she studied from 1952-1955 at the Architectural Association. Nothing was Princetonian about the AA, where Scott Brown admired and learned from (among others) Alison and Peter Smithson, the wife-and-husband architect team who were leading members of the avant-garde art Independent Group, which was steeped in Dada, comic books, American advertisements, and science fiction. From the Independent Group in those years—London was still reconstructing from the blitz and the war, the economy was in shambles—came the early pop art of Richard Hamilton and the haunting street photographs of Nigel Henderson. Every architect worth her salt wanted to Do Something for Society, which often meant pursuing urban planning (as Scott Brown did), or designing social housing, or both. In the Independent Group and at the AA, interdisciplinary boundaries were there to be broken, and social scientific research like that conducted by Mass Observation, a governmental research organization devoted to the study of everyday life—ordinary people’s conversations, kids playing on litter-strewn streets, that sort of thing—could be consulted as part of the architectural endeavor.
So, what did Scott Brown—whom everyone agrees is penetratingly intelligent—bring to Venturi? A lot. Greater capacity for conceptual clarity and precision. Interdisciplinarity: Venturi showed no signs of ranging outside the pastures of art historical formalism before they met. Ethics: for pre-Scott Brown Venturi, architecture was high-minded play; for Scott Brown, and then for them both, it was a social calling and a mission. A wide-angled orientation to architectural design: She was the urbanist, not he. Popular culture and pop art: her passionate interest in ordinary life mitigated Venturi’s elitism, pulling him out of the Ivory Tower. One would have to crawl between bed sheets and blueprints to know for sure, but I suspect that, once they began to collaborate, she was more the mind and he, the hand. (Their joint interviews are extremely, extremely telling.)
Venturi and Scott Brown’s influential Learning from Los Vegas, which combined formal analysis with social scientific research, emerged out of a project Scott Brown first conceived and conducted solo, at UCLA. The book is as tough-minded and original as Complexity and Contradiction is “gentle” art-historical pastiche. Its contributions are many. It initiated a movement in pop architecture in the U.S. It was the first attempt to document, Mass-Observation-like, the postwar American city, using photography and film. It was the first serious architectural effort to deal with the impact of the automobile on the urban landscape. And—perhaps the project’s most lasting contribution, still in evidence in how innovative architects conceptualize their practices today—it expanded the field of architectural inquiry far beyond its traditional province of architectural history, into the streets, the suburbs, the many other arenas of everyday life.
Nearly all of the firm’s really significant architectural work, including the work lauded in the original Pritzker citation, came after Venturi and Scott Brown began to collaborate: the brilliant Franklin Court in Philadelphia; Fire Station #4 in Columbus, Indiana; the Coxe-Hayden House and Studio in Block Island, Rhode Island; Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton University, and the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery. Their firm also did scores of masterful, really superb renovations and master plans, especially at academic institutions across the country.
Don’t get me wrong. I never much liked Venturi and Scott Brown’s approach. I think their contextual approach to design is wrong-headed. I dislike their architecture’s flatness and its emphasis on obvious imagery. I reject their somewhat patronizing fondness for kitsch. I think a lot of the work is just plain ugly and a lot of it architecturally uninteresting. But whether or not Venturi and Scott Brown’s work is your or my cup of tea is not the point.
This is the point: Venturi was awarded what’s come to be known as architecture’s Nobel Prize for work he did not do, could not have done, and would never have conceived without Scott Brown. So, if the Pritzker Foundation is going to stand behind its having celebrated this kind of work, then for god’s sake, give the prize to what is literally in this case the firm’s better half.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.