Denise Scott Brown — and the “Forgetting” of Women Architects

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In March, an online petition was started by two students from the Women in Design organization at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, making the case that Denise Scott Brown should receive co-credit, or what Scott Brown called “Pritzker inclusion,” with her husband and architectural partner Robert Venturi for the Pritzker Prize he received in 1991. The petition garnered thousands of signatures and public support from prominent architects including Rem Koolhaas, himself a Pritzker laureate.

Last week the present Pritzker jury announced it would not revisit the decision, writing, “Pritzker juries, over time, are made up of different individuals, each of whom does his or her best to find the most highly qualified candidate. A later jury cannot reopen or second guess the work of an earlier jury, and none has ever done so.” Others have argued that her husband Robert Venturi should have taken responsibility for the inequity, by rejecting the prize when he was initially offered it. Another argument has also been vaunted: Venturi did his best architectural work, including the Vanna Venturi House, before Scott Brown joined his firm as partner in charge of planning in 1969.

Guy Horton is an architecture writer who recently wrote an essay arguing in support of the Scott Brown’s “Pritzker inclusion.” Caroline James, one of the authors of the petition, contacted Guy to let him know that Denise thought it was a good piece and that they should meet when she came to L.A. to participate on a symposium at the Getty as part of “Pacific Standard Time.” They met for breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel. He talks about the experience.

Having breakfast with Denise Scott Brown is just one of those normal everyday things. It’s like sitting around the family table and talking before heading off to work or school. And what are you going to do today?

Denise SB takes a call close upEvery day is a busy day for Denise Scott Brown. She has a lot going on. She was visiting Los Angeles to be on a panel at the Getty as part of “Pacific Standard Time” as well as meeting with different institutions about an exhibition based on her slide collection spanning the late 1950s-70s. Moreover, this is all related to a book she has been finishing up. At a youthful 81 years-old, she’s hitting her stride (maybe even her second or third stride) in a career that has had its share of ups and downs but has steadily climbed upwards and onwards.

She ordered her coffee in a peculiar way. I can’t recall what it was exactly. Something to do with the filtering. It wasn’t the sort of thing I was going to record or take notes on. Though, in retrospect, I should have had the tape rolling because it revealed a lot about her as a human being. It was exotic. It was about the sensation, the aroma, the richness that brought back her African childhood. It was her way.

As she spoke about flowers and the way the light was striking the patio at the Bel Air Hotel I got the sense that Africa occupied the deepest parts of her being and forever would. It wasn’t that there was something to essentialize out of that. It just was. It’s who she is. I wasn’t talking to an architect from Philly. I was speaking with a citizen of the world, someone used to having her own universe with her wherever she goes. And while that universe is full of architecture, it is about architecture in the broadest, humanist sense.

I asked her if the role of being the traveler shaped her perception and work. “My perception of myself as a wandering Jew,” she interjects.“Very much so.”

I nodded in understanding but somehow felt like she was speaking of a different sort of traveling than the sort that requires a passport. This was the “learning from” part of Learning from Las Vegas. She is constantly “learning from”. “I was taught by my art teacher that you’ll be most creative if you paint what’s around you,” she said.

Before stepping through the lobby I had sat in my car for a good fifteen minutes going over my notes and all the questions I wanted to ask her. I had prepared them the night before. Two pages at nine-point font, Arial. But at the last moment I decided to leave them behind and just let her talk about what she wanted to talk about.

And the coffee took forever to come, like they were somehow struggling with it in the kitchen. “Would you like some papaya?” she asked. “It’s quite good. Where is that coffee?”

“So how did you get here?” she asked.

“That’s a long story.” I said.

“Straight up Sunset?”

Of course just beneath the surface of our talk about creativity, architecture, and wandering is the whole Pritzker fiasco.

At the time of writing, the current Priztker jury had decided against the petition, citing the sanctity of the 1991 jury’s judgment when it gave the prize to Scott Brown’s husband and partner, Robert Venturi. As Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse Five,“So it goes.”

But, then again, this may just be the beginning. So it goes.

Guy Horton is an architecture writer for Arch Daily, The Huffington Post and other publications. Reach him @GuyHorton. His interview with Denise Scott Brown will air next week on DnA.

Places magazine in an article called “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia.” Despina Stratigakos looks at the “forgetting” of women architects by historians and prize juries, and argues that it’s time to write women back into history. She opens her piece this way:

History is not a simple meritocracy: it is a narrative of the past written and revised —  or not written at all —  by people with agendas. This is nothing new; about 3500 years ago, Thutmose III tried to erase the memory of his dead wife, Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs and prolific builders, in the most literal of ways: by hacking and scratching off her name and image from her monuments. His motives were less passionate than political; he did it to protect his son, the future Amenhotep II, from rivals to the throne. Amenhotep II, in turn, seized the opportunity during his own reign to expand his legacy by claiming that he was the creator of Hatshepsut’s defaced works. Many centuries later, such acts of erasure would become known as damnatio memoriae, after the ancient Roman judgment passed on a person who was condemned not to be remembered. It was a dishonorable fate, which the Roman Senate reserved for traitors and tyrants. Today, in modern architectural history, it’s simply what we do to women architects. . . read more here.

DnA also aired this show on the topic; Frances Anderton wrote this article for Artbound about Esther McCoy and her influence on women architecture historians and critics, and this piece on an exhibit about architect Julia Morgan and what she means to contemporary women architects. Both articles include very interesting responses from women in the profession.