Architect Denise Scott Brown Made Room at the Top

Anna Kats

Photography by Eva O'Leary

Denise Scott Brown
Denise Scott Brown in her home, 2019.

Denise Scott Brown had already been a member of architecture’s elite ranks for over a half-century when, into her ninth decade, controversy and media outcry launched her into the most publicly visible register of the notoriously male-dominated profession in 2013. That summer, two architecture students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design launched an online petition to have Scott Brown retroactively recognized by the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in the design field, which had been given in 1991 to Robert Venturi, her partner in life and work (who passed away in 2018). The students contested, as Scott Brown herself had always held, that the Prize jury unfairly overlooked her essential contributions to shared creative work for which Venturi had alone been celebrated. The petition went viral, receiving over 20,000 signatures and widespread support in the press in a matter of weeks. Signatories included many past Pritzker laureates, among them Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry, all of whom agreed that the Pritzker had unfairly shunted Scott Brown the first time around; she deserved to be recognized by the award for the duo’s joint body of work. When the Prize’s contemporary jury issued a dissenting statement, claiming that they could not revisit the decision of a prior jury, it was received as a testament to the enduring chauvinism of an architectural establishment that was out of touch with the times. Scott Brown, though denied credit on one front, became a symbol of the discipline’s long-overdue and still-incomplete feminist turn. By galvanizing the discussion around gender equity and visibility in the profession, nearly three decades after she first began speaking about the grating realities of being relegated to second-class status, Scott Brown created the room for reckoning, discussion, and change that she’d first decried in her 1989 polemic text, “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture.” She won in other ways: “The petition is my prize,” she remarked shortly after the jury’s decision, “and it’s better than the Pritzker.”

At 88, Scott Brown is a veritable icon. The South African-raised, Philadelphia-based architect, urban planner, and theorist has received a slew of major awards in the field since the Pritzker controversy: the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 2016 with Venturi, to explicitly celebrate their joint creativity; the Jane Drew Prize from the Architectural Review in 2017; the Soane Medal from Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in 2018; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lisbon Architecture Triennial just last month. “Downtown Denise Scott Brown,” her first-ever monographic solo show opened last year at the Architekturzentrum Wien to enthusiastic reviews, another long-overdue accolade for a figure who was among the first in architecture to celebrate the quotidian and the crosspollination of high culture and kitsch. It would be a disservice to the breadth and complexity of Scott Brown’s ideas and projects to credit her chiefly as an instigator of architecture’s gender debate — all along she’s been a prolific writer, designer, and pedagogue just as well.

Born in Zambia and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Scott Brown’s earliest ideas on architecture were formed by her mother, an architect. “I thought architecture was women’s work,” she reflects. As she tells it, her childhood was colored by contrasts—Johannesburg’s modernism adjacent to the vernacular architecture of Zululand, the city’s multiculturalism against a backdrop of racial segregation—that informed her keen attention and sympathy to the details of daily life in her later work. With palpable fondness, Scott Brown recalls her grandmother, a Jewish émigré from Latvia, who kept a grand piano at home—even as she lived in a rudimentary hut. Indeed, Scott Brown credits her Johannesburg upbringing with forming the preoccupations that later made her reputation as a leading urban designer and theorist of architectural postmodernism. (That term, Scott Brown contends, was coalesced by later critics and historians to encapsulate a rigid interest in historicism, something far removed from the plurality, pop, and penchant for jokes she and Venturi originally advocated for.)

After spending her undergraduate years at the local University of Wittswatersrand, she went to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London for graduate training, arriving in Philadelphia in the late-1950s to study architecture and urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania with, among others, Louis Kahn. Save for a stint in California, teaching at the University of California in Berkeley and in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s (she helped establish the urban planning program at the latter), Scott Brown has mostly called Philadelphia home since. It was during her tenure in Southern California that Scott Brown first visited Las Vegas, and in 1968, she went back, this time with Venturi, Steven Izenour, and a cadre of Yale students to survey the architecture and spatial planning of the Strip. Their collective research produced one of the most widely-referenced texts of 20th-century architectural theory, Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, which, upon publication in 1972, was credited first and foremost to Venturi. In her introduction to the 1977 second edition, Scott Brown expressed “personal pique at the cavalier handling of my contribution and at attributions in general by architects and journalists,” analyzing the “social structure of the profession, its domination by upper-middle class males, and the emphasis its members place upon” the solitary creative genius. Yet the mechanisms of disregard persisted, and occasionally turned into outright hostility. She recalls an emblematic instance at a cocktail party in New York: the famed architectural historian and theorist Colin Rowe reached out to hug her, dumped his drink down her back, and admonished her, “Denise, cara mia, fuck you bitch!” There were the dinners from which she was excluded, told that only architects and not wives were invited to attend; the clients who asked to speak to the architect after she presented a project; the fear that, if she spoke out against such treatment, the firm would lose work. Even now, with her place in the canon secured, Scott Brown’s distinct contributions to the practice are sometimes overlooked: her longstanding commitment to historic preservation and her work on textile design for the partnership’s furniture designs for Knoll, as well as her leadership on the firm’s urban design and campus planning projects.

Scott Brown still lives in the Art Nouveau mansion she and Venturi purchased in 1972 in the Philadelphia suburbs, and the home is testament to their inclination toward multiculturalism, contrast, and humor. “It’s lovely to see this house adapting itself, but of course its got very filled with stuff because we’ve no place to put everything,” she remarks. Far from precious, the house is a collection of vintage furniture, the couple’s eclectic art collection, all manner of ephemera: a miniature model of a Michigan University football field, Batman pillows Scott Brown designed herself, the Guimard vase Venturi absolutely had to have, a Lenin poster gingerly hung above the second-floor landing. A frieze circles the dining room with the names of architectural history’s most notable dramatis personae (Palladio, Le Corbusier, their ilk); Venturi and Scott Brown’s names are cut off on either end, gesturing at the couple’s discomfort among the architectural establishment or perhaps at their own sense of having snuck into its highest ranks. However you choose to read the gesture, you’re likely to laugh. Surveying the living room, Scott Brown, self-aware as ever, quips, “It also feels like an old person’s home.” Which is, of course, the best kind.

Though retired from practice at Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, the legendary Philadelphia office she and Venturi ran together (and with various partners) until 2012, she maintains a full workload: Scott Brown is currently working on two books, one devoted to photography, and exhibits her photos widely. (She also maintains the wry sense of humor that helped her get through the ordeals of being overlooked. When I first called her to begin discussing this piece, she asked me point-blank, “Can you tell me, since your magazine is full of beautiful young women — what do you want with me?”) A preview of sorts for her photography book, the traveling exhibition “Denise Scott Brown Photographs, 1956 – 1966” showcased more than sixty years of her image-making, touring to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, Carriage Trade in New York City, and Betts Project in London. For all the vast discrepancies in the geographies and contexts she takes as subject matter—her native Africa, Los Angeles in the 1960s, Philadelphia across the decades—Scott Brown has used photography to understand the surrounding world, rather than render it aestheticized anew. As her impulse to simply document architecture was supplanted by a desire to use images as interpretive tools, Scott Brown’s curiosity expanded beyond the single architectural object to contain expansive landscapes, both man-made and natural. By looking at the seemingly banal nuances—the signage, the billboards, the pedestrians, the peeling paint, a plant—she was able to grasp with empathy and precision the vitality of the greater whole. “The point is not to make something look pretty,” she says of her photographic practice, “the point is to make it readable and understandable.”

Though a lifelong rootless cosmopolitan, Scott Brown doesn’t travel anymore. In fact, she rarely leaves the house. “I’m healthy the way I am here, and at risk of falling,” she explains. Yet for all the precautions of age, Scott Brown’s commitment to her work has hardly changed: “If I fell, I’d have to stop doing this work. And I’ve got too much still do to.”