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Denise Scott Brown: ‘People have learnt from Las Vegas, but they haven’t learnt the half of it yet’

Denise Scott Brown
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As Denise Scott Brown is recognised with the 2017 Jane Drew Prize, Laura Mark talks to the architect about the Pritzker Prize, recognition and Postmodernism

How does it feel to be recognised with the Jane Drew Prize?

There is an irony in it because I knew Jane Drew. I hold very different opinions from the ones she held.

When we met over the years sometimes it was up and down. I gave a lecture once and I said something about Walter Gropius and there was a lot of shouting from the back of the room and it was Jane Drew. She was quite a down right woman and I’m a down right woman.

She might mind that I have been given the prize – but I don’t. I’m very happy that people want me to have a prize and that she should have a prize named after her.

How do you feel about architecture prizes?

I’m a bit punch drunk on the whole subject of prizes as you can imagine given my history with them.

I felt very bitter about prizes like the Pritzker and the AIA Gold Medal. I couldn’t even be nominated for the AIA Gold Medal for about 30 years. We kept getting our submissions sent back because they wouldn’t give it to two people and we wouldn’t take it separately.

But things have happened which have made me very happy in my old age, and one of those is this prize and the petition which came out of the AJ’s work.

For a woman like Zaha Hadid – who had her own identity – it was easier for her to get a prize when people began to say ‘we really should give a woman a prize’. They look for the same things they are looking for when they are making a single genius man. And in Zaha they have found a single genius woman. It may take a long time to find many other women who fulfil that role.

Is there still a problem with equal recognition in architecture?

I think so. I wanted to work with Bob because there was so much we had in common and we had so much fun together. We could evolve and think about so much stuff with our two minds being in sync the way they were, while having our two roles which added to each other. We also made other people around us creative. It was a wonderful way for me to do architecture.

Working with Bob was a wonderful way for me to do architecture

I once met Ray Eames (she was old and sick by then) but she was standing next to me and I got vibes of support from her. It was 1966 and I wondered ‘why is she signalling that way to me’, and then I realised she had exactly the same problem that she knew I was having. I didn’t realise that she was so much of a partner to Charles Eames as she was.

You wrote an essay entitled Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture about your struggle to ensure equal recognition. How did you try to overcome it?

The essay was about special problems when you get to be someone who everyone thinks is a genius – not me, but him. It is very easy to make that happen – to look around, find the man, and say he must be the genius.

I had all the same problems other women have before all that too, and it still went on. People would say ‘she has to be his business partner’ or ‘maybe she is a decorator – it can’t be that she is a partner in design with her husband’.

It is very easy to look around, find the man, and say he is the genius

When the petition came out about the Pritzker Prize there was no opportunity for people who disagreed to write about it on the petition, but when the articles came out I saw lots of bitter comments in the threads of online articles. They said ‘she only married him in 1967, so what right does she have to claim anything to do with Complexity and Contradiction or the Vanna Venturi house?’ At a conference for the 50th anniversary of Complexity and Contradiction Robert Stern stood up and said ‘Denise Scott Brown had nothing at all to do with it’. This is absolutely 180 degrees wrong. If you go through the dates of our working together from 1960 to 1965, you see it all in the progression.

Those are the things that have always been there and since I turned about 50 I decided to write what I saw – I have seen some unusual things.

Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

The Vanna Venturi House by Venturi Scott Brown

By giving the Pritzker just to Bob, was it made worse for you?

Much worse. Its very sad because the award originated out of admiration for one of Jay Pritzker’s teachers at Harvard. But Philip Johnson was brought in as an advisor. He was the one that would give penguin parties at the century club where no women were allowed. He would always say ‘just the men – no wives invited’.

Has the Pritzker decision and the subsequent petition changed architectural history?

Yes. It is probably one of the reasons why the AIA finally shifted and allowed the Gold Medal to be given to two people. They still haven’t got as far as giving it to a group. 

I was very touched by the Pritzker petition – and that is my prize in the end. 20,000 people wrote from all over the world and every one of them called me Denise. It was young women and also young men and sometimes the young men said ‘we have it hard but not nearly as hard as my girlfriend’. I found it all very heartening.

I was very touched by the Pritzker petition – and that is my prize in the end

It was also a datum on social conditions in architecture. The petition was people giving an account of their vulnerability and difficulties which showed where architecture was at in 2013. It is very fascinating and people should study it. The two young women at Harvard who organised the petition have done a great service to the profession.

I said I would like to see a counter ceremony. I suggested they have small ceremony in Philadelphia, where I live, and make it a very modest thing and call it an inclusion ceremony. It would be really nice to have that. But Lord Palumbo said, ‘you can’t rewrite history’. Lord Palumbo isn’t thinking straight. I never said I wanted to rewrite history – it would be a comment on history.

What effect do you think it had on the prize’s reputation?

Prizes’ values are also demonstrated by who they choose. I feel that the RIBA Gold Medal is devalued because it was never given to the Smithsons. Similarly the AIA gave the Gold Medal to Frank Lloyd Wright very late. It is not good for its reputation when it does something like that. The prize needs to think about whether it is maintaining its standards.

How do you stand up for yourself without being dubbed a feminist or a whining woman?

I was dubbed all those things. I felt bad and I didn’t like the nasty person I became, but sometimes you have to step forward and say some rather harsh things.

Are things getting easier for women in architecture?

Yes – it is getting easier but it is still not easy. There are all the questions about why we pay young architects so little and set them up on such a treadmill of work, work, work.

What can be done to tackle the glass ceiling in architecture?

I’ve always said ‘judge me by my work’. What I would say to a young woman is as a principal if there are six problems on a project, I want you to make sure there isn’t a seventh. I want you to be thorough. I want to be able to trust that when you tell me something, you have done enough thinking to get it right. Once I have that sense that I can rely on you I can give you more responsibility. Also if you love architecture and you are here not to get a prize but because you love drawing, you now have to prove to your boss that you can offer reliability. Show how damn good you can be at doing the very thing you want to do and you are likely to get it. You will also be happy and nice to be around.

Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

Source: Frank Hanswijk

Denise Scott Brown with husband and business partner Robert Venturi

What legacy has your work created?

When we first started saying all of these things most of our generation thought we were dreadful. But in about the year 2000 young architects started to discover our work. They began to look into all of the things we had been doing.

It’s very hard for architects because if you really want to understand the social and community aspects, then you have to branch out of architecture in ways I cannot get architects to do. When architects want to know about urban design they look to Le Corbusier and now Zaha. They do what I call navel gazing. They don’t learn what the basics are.

Did you expect Learning from Las Vegas to have the impact that it has?

No we didn’t. People have learnt from Las Vegas but they haven’t learnt the half of it yet.

Is there still a place for Postmodernism in this day and age?

For us there is Pomo – which is Philip Johnson’s thing and is a forced use of style – this is different from what we have. We have Postmodernism which started in philosophical and religious thought, and then spread to literature, art and social sciences. I see us as modernists. Postmodernism is a reformulation of some very wonderful principles that evolved from Modernism. Those were the principles of facing a new world which was conditioned by industry, destruction and war, and saying that these things called for a new outlook on the world and therefore for new architecture. That is still a very good set of principles. As loyal modernists we have to update Modernism for today.

I think we have had three or four revivals of Modernism from the new brutalists, Team 10 in Europe, the neo-modernists – they are PoMo but using a modern style. I’m not sure what is coming now. We are between all sorts of eddies and flurries. Everyone has their own little ways of doing things.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Rewriting history because Lord P. Palumbo wasn't chairman of prize when Ms. Scott Brown wanted prize. Therefore it would in fact be rewriting history since the then chairman presided over the jury's deliberations.

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