Colin Lenton

Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, has been a writer, planner, activist, and educator throughout her long and prestigious career. Together with her late husband Robert Venturi, FAIA, Scott Brown designed some of the boldest and most distinctive buildings of the last century. In 2018, the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London was listed by Historic England as a prime example of postmodern architecture, and this year it received the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award. Through their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas (MIT Press), Venturi and Scott Brown also shaped critical thought around modern architecture. Scott Brown reflects on the intersections of her life as a designer.

We were surprised to hear people say “Learning from Las Vegas turned around architectural research.” I could imagine they were right, because—though most of the ideas came out of my planning education—they lead to design-related research of the kind architects preferred.

I started out by saying that I was a circus horse rider and I rode two horses, architecture and planning, which were moving away from each other. My job was to bring them back together, but in the end my views were mostly heard by architects and the effect was to make them rethink their assumptions.

But as the window of architecture was opening onto new worlds, women saw the troubles that existed there and began to flee the field. Because of delays in my own life— primarily the death of my first husband—by the time Bob and I married we could afford childcare, and I could go on working. But a great worry for him was that the childcare would leave, and I wouldn’t be able to go on helping him in the office.

Our experience of collaboration proved to us that two people’s creativity makes things so much more intense. But it’s a hard thing to realize if you haven’t tried it. I say to women, “You didn’t come into architecture saying, ‘I’m going to study architecture to win a Pritzker Prize.’ What did you, in fact, think you would be doing in architecture that would make you happy?” Whatever it is, get to be awfully good at it, so you will be happy in your work. Then a few years of experience will give you the ability to lead the profession in directions you find good.

There’s a phrase that African resistance fighters used to use: “Seek ye the political kingdom, and all else shall be given unto you.” In other words, go into politics and then you’ll get what you want. I say, “Become good at doing your work, love doing your work, and you’ll be better at being political when you’re in your middle age, and more powerful.” And it is lovely for me now to see the younger architects who have worked with me say, “We look at that office, and we see where so many of the good ideas come from. They come from Denise.” —As told to Katherine Flynn