An outpouring of joy rippled through the design community when the AIA announced last December that Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, and Robert Venturi, FAIA, would receive the 2016 Gold Medal. Everyone knew that Venturi and Scott Brown—Bob and Denise, to their legions of admirers—had produced more than enough work of historic importance over their decades-long partnership to merit the honor. But more than that, the award is significant in two respects: This is the first time a living woman has received the Gold Medal, and it’s the first time that two individuals have received it together, following a rules change by the Institute in 2013.
Many architects have found poetic justice in the decision. The Pritzker Architecture Prize won by Venturi in 1991 went to him alone, and a campaign a few years ago to retroactively acknowledge Scott Brown’s role did not succeed. Finally, it seems, Scott Brown is getting her due. The rules change also implies a growing recognition within architecture that great design is a collaborative enterprise rather than the product of a lone (almost invariably male) genius.
To capture the spirit of this singular partnership, ARCHITECT spent a day exploring the archives of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi at the University of Pennsylvania, uncovering intimate glimpses of how the partnership operated. A selection of the couple’s notes, doodles, and correspondence appears below. We also talked to colleagues, former students, and employees at Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (now VSBA). We asked designers and scholars how the pair influenced them and how, through their teaching, writing, and building—and their stubborn dedication—they changed the course of modern architecture.
Richard Weinstein, student of Scott Brown and Venturi at the University of Pennsylvania, professor emeritus and former dean of the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning
My first studio at Penn was with Denise. It was an airport for Dallas. I remember it; I can even draw it for you. Denise said, “We accept no precedents; we’re only interested in what an airport could be.” So you had to rethink transportation, food service, lobby areas, how you get from the highway to the airport. You had to think of everything at the most fundamental level. To the extent that you could, you were encouraged to continue. That’s the way they naturally taught. Bob was very gentle. Denise was much more challenging.
I visited Venturi’s office, sat in on his juries. I remember seeing one of his houses in model form, with the chimney being this central, formal gesture around which the house was draped. The chimney was about three or four times higher than it had any reason to be, to the point of looking a little awkward, but at the same time very powerful, because you instantly grasped what the parti was. It didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen out the train window. I knew something was up.
Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, outgoing dean of the Yale School of Architecture, founder and senior partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects
I remember being invited to the Las Vegas jury review at Yale, and I was completely floored, because the Bob I had known when I was a Yale student was a formalist in the extreme. I wasn’t ready for Las Vegas. In fact, I’m still not ready for it. That was an amazing moment.
In 1972, there was a show that I had a little something to do with about Venturi and John Rauch’s work, mounted at the Whitney Museum in that small gallery on the southeast corner. It was a brilliant show in the way it was installed, a lenticular-shaped island backlit with transparencies of photos and plans and signs and so forth. It was a shocker, especially in the Marcel Breuer building, especially at that moment.
My wife and I gave a party afterwards at our apartment. At a certain moment, Ricky Ulrich Franzen came up to me and said “Bob, you’d better get in the library”—a euphemistic name for the TV room—“Denise and Paul Rudolph are about to kill each other.” They were having an amazing argument about the treatment of the Crawford Manor apartment house in New Haven in Learning From Las Vegas, contrasted of course with Guild House. I had to separate them. My wife and I then vowed never to have parties with architects again. It’s too dangerous.
Jill Lerner, FAIA, principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox
When I was a student at Cornell in 1972, Denise Scott Brown was a visiting speaker—the first woman architect to be featured in the lecture series. She gave a talk on the groundbreaking Learning From Las Vegas to a skeptical audience, whose design orientation was at odds with her ideas. Despite the audience’s reaction, she was resolute. She gave a clear presentation and remained unflappable. Forty years later, her lecture remains a benchmark in my education and career.
Stephen Kieran, FAIA, former employee, partner at KieranTimberlake
Back in the 1970s, Franklin Court in Philadelphia was unbelievably captivating for almost every young U.S. architect. It’s a remarkable little piece of urbanism. Rather than reconstruct Benjamin Franklin’s house, which Bob and Denise had carefully excavated the foundations of, their idea was to leave them and reveal the foundations through portals. I remember taking family and friends there, and everybody seemed to get it. History is history, and if you try to replicate and rebuild it in its entirety, it’s something else anyway—it’s something new. Somehow the frame, to me, is a way to celebrate rather than be irreverent about that past. The dialogue between the two, I just find very poignant.
The project I cut my teeth on under Bob and Denise was a plaza in Washington, D.C., called Western Plaza [now known as Freedom Plaza]. James Timberlake and I did get to do a huge amount of incredible stone detailing on it, with Bob sweating the details down to a quarter-inch. Probably the last thing I worked on was Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton. To me, that remains the high point. It took the theories articulated in Complexity and Contradiction and Learning From Las Vegas and built them.
David Stirk, dean of Butler College at Princeton University
I’ve been working in Gordon Wu Hall since 2004, basically living in it every day. I’ve come to appreciate how much thought went into the design of this building. It has this shape like a ship; the two ends are rounded. There are big glass windows on the ends which let in a tremendous amount of light. Denise talked about the fact that those windows were meant to evoke the windows of Gothic churches. But there was also an expectation that there would be plantings of trees around those ends of the building, and that is in fact what happened. There are these beautiful maple and oak trees. In the fall, the windows let in the sight of all the trees changing colors.
Lee C. Bollinger, client, president of Columbia University
When you have the privilege of working with truly great architects and planners, many things happen. The process you undergo together is profoundly educational, in ways you never anticipate at the outset. There is an intimacy that creates a permanent bond.
This happened to me with Bob and Denise, and the large projects we worked on together at Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan. Bob and Denise are each originals; together they constitute a unique force in the world. Bob always wore shirts with button-down collars, but never buttoned. This little detail says everything. It is a concession to and love of the ordinary—nothing pretentious or bespoke—playful, and slightly rebellious, presented in such a way as to draw the viewer’s attention to the text and subtext.
Jim Venturi, son, founder of urban transportation studio Rethink NYC and director of the forthcoming documentary Learning From Bob and Denise
I think the Gold Medal is enormously helpful in terms of educating people about an architecture that is second-glance architecture. You have to look at it a second or third time, and then you say, “Oh my God, that’s fantastic.” To say that they won the Gold Medal, it raises the value of the work, and therefore protects it in a greater way against demolition.
A lot of the things I was learning in yoga teacher training overlapped with things in their architecture. I was at this ashram; they taught a concept of unity in diversity. That really struck me as something that was very similar to the ideas behind Complexity and Contradiction. The idea of both/and versus either/or.
It’s given me a different perspective on their work.
My dad always talked about pilgrimages to see architecture. The language he uses is the language of religion. Bob’s mother, Vanna, was very interested in Bertrand Russell and T.S. Eliot and William James and pragmatism. I see the “gentle manifesto” as a religious text. If you read it in that context, it has a kind of religiosity to it.
I’m as close to them as anyone, and I’ve studied their work, and I can’t tell you exactly how something is formed. It’s always different. Denise might throw out ideas, Bob might latch onto one. She’s considered more of the planner, but Bob came up with the circulation plan for the Sainsbury Wing. Denise is considered more pop culture, but Bob did a perspective for an ice-cream store when he was an undergrad at Princeton.
Denise’s role cannot be underestimated. She says there’s a special place in heaven for artists who believe in social consciousness, and it’s very small. She sees Learning From Las Vegas as a social-consciousness text.
Daniel McCoubrey, FAIA, president and principal of VSBA
It was a tremendous privilege to work with Bob and Denise for over 30 years. They worked together in very complementary ways; Bob with his intuitive design sense and embrace of architectural precedent, Denise with her intellectual rigor, objective eye, and embrace of social and cultural dimensions. Together, they articulated new ways of thinking about design that are inclusive, practical, non-prescriptive, and fundamentally humanistic.
While Bob typically directed architectural projects and Denise planning projects, each would contribute to the other’s work and, as time went on, the level of mutual engagement increased. They immersed themselves in the nature of the problem, embracing research, shedding preconceptions. Whether it was desk crits or conference room pin-ups, Bob and Denise encouraged staff to explore options and voice opinions.
Stanley Tigerman, FAIA
I didn’t understand their work in the beginning. Denise was not forthcoming and struck me as arrogant. Bob, on the other hand, was very gentle. Their Gold Medal will open the floodgate for the AIA to give it to more than one person. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are types that should get it. Ric Scofidio and Liz Diller. That’s a good thing.
God knows they’ve had a huge impact on architecture. I can’t think of an architect alive who wasn’t influenced by Complexity and Contradiction. It had a huge influence on me, there’s no question about it. Learning From Las Vegas, I was not thrilled by. I understand it now. It was a turnoff for me originally. I was wrong. It was a very important book.
Elly Ward, director of Ordinary Architecture, former studio manager of FAT
I will never forget the moment in my first year at university when our lecturer presented Learning From Las Vegas. It was a pivotal moment in my architectural studies that transformed what was essentially a career move into an all-consuming, passionate vocation. Suddenly, I understood that architecture could be about everything and everyone, that distinctions between high and low culture were not hierarchical barriers, but component parts of the same incredible landscape.
Charles Holland, director of Ordinary Architecture, former director of FAT
I admire Learning From Las Vegas for its brilliantly clear-sighted methodology and for teaching architects to look at the world around them rather than judge it. And I read Complexity and Contradiction again and again for the subtlety of its insights on architecture.
In the U.K., their one building—the Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery—was unfortunately swept up in a strange furor around Prince Charles’ intervention on the previous scheme. It’s only now really being seriously reappraised for its generous relationship to Trafalgar Square—Scott Brown describes it as part of the backdrop to events—the subtle radicalism of its façades, and the wit of its planning. I see it as a love letter to London, with its nods to Lutyens and Soane and the clubland classicism of Pall Mall.
Paul Goldberger, HON. AIA, architecture critic at Vanity Fair
I first learned about Bob and Denise when I was a student of Vincent Scully at Yale, and not long after that, I somehow managed to snare a freelance assignment to write about them for The New York Times Magazine. Over several days of conversations at their office and at the large borrowed house in Paoli in which they were then living as they tended to Jimmy Venturi, then in a cradle, we talked architecture. We talked about their work and we talked about Las Vegas and we talked about Philadelphia and we talked about Rome, and I began to see how all of these things fit together, and I began to understand things about the American landscape and American urbanism that I had never understood before. And it became instantly clear that these people are not theorists or writers, but architects, and that all of their ideas were ways of feeding meaning into their work.
They never fully understood why their populism was not, in fact, popular, and have never been comfortable admitting that they were really mannerists, brilliant architects and thinkers who made twists on Modernism that gave it new life. They hated, understandably enough, the notion that many of their ideas were contorted into Postmodernism, an approach they never signed on to. They would never win an award for flexibility.
But what of it. I cannot think of two architects who have meant more to the architectural discourse of our time, and who also embody the idea, and the ideal, of partnership.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.