Denise Scott Brown On the Past, Present and Future of VSBA's Groundbreaking Theories

Denise Scott Brown On the Past, Present and Future of VSBA's Groundbreaking Theories

Through their books, theories and design projects, there's no doubt that Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi dramatically altered the course of architecture at the end of the Modernist period. In this interview conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2013, Shalmali Wagle and Alen Žunić talk with Scott Brown about the origins of the groundbreaking theories that underpinned the work of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, what she is working on now, and her hopes for the future of the profession.

When you decided to practice architecture, was there a second option? What could have been your alternate career?

Because my mother had studied architecture, I wanted as a child, to be an architect, and as she drew a great deal for us, I spent much of my preschool life drawing and painting. In grade school I loved my teachers and wanted to do what they did. And in middle school I wanted to write, study languages, travel, and perhaps be a librarian—a career I saw as appropriate to my interests and open to women. But on entering architecture school, I saw only men there (5:60 was the ratio everywhere, until almost 1980). But the architects I knew were women, so I had thought it was a female's profession. "What are all these men doing in the studio?" I asked myself. When I was 40 I looked back and realized I had had all the roles I hoped to have but within the framework of architecture.

Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1966. Image © Robert Venturi

What are you working on at the moment, what preoccupies you the most?

I talk to students and others and write articles and books. Though no longer designing buildings I did design my photography show in Venice. But it I am mainly reconsidering our ideas of the 1960s and before and showing how they matured. In the 1960s Bob and I urged that the brave tenets of the early moderns be upheld but updated for our time—that form followed forces before function, and that our definition of function needed greater sophistication. Thereafter we spent a career in designing, proposing and analyzing, and our work shows answers we found to some questions. Differences between our writing before and now are the result of our careers as architects.

People at your age usually choose to retire. What is your alternative to practicing architecture these days?

Some people who retire take cruises but we're not the type. But in our practice we had an equivalent luxury, a small research arm to support our teaching and project-related research. It was expensive but it brought us fun and made our architecture better. So in retirement I have taken our "cruise" by bringing our mini-university, home with me. Bob, when contemplating retirement, recalled the philosopher, George Santayana, who retired to a convent,where nuns took care of him. Every night he had dinner with the Mother Superior, who must have been a lively woman, or he would not have wanted to. Bob for his part watches "The Golden Girls," an old TV show about four lively elderly women. I say, he dines with four Mothers Superior, rather than one. We go on Sundays to our local coffee shop and we welcome friends and our son when they visit. This suits us and we enjoy these calmer seas after the rough waves of architectural practice. But I am busy—I'm trying, I think, to leave architecture well set and forging ahead, for a new generation of enthusiasts who are on our wavelength.

Why do you say that?

For the most part, our generation could not understand why we were breaking ranks. They felt we were unpatriotic to architecture, in looking at popular culture and tastes—Las Vegas and things like that. Even my AA friend John Winter, a talented architect said “Denise is my oldest friend, but the things she likes are crap.” I felt like saying, “John, you cant afford to see so much of the rest of the world as crap. That's just not going to work.” And certainly not from now on. That is my problem with my generation. Your generation is different. When I say that Learning from Las Vegas is in part a social tract, they don't say what my generation would have said, "you're kidding." They say "we know that" or, in the American way, "no kidding."

Best Products Showroom, Langhorne, Pennsylvania (1978). Image © Tom Bernard

Has anything changed in global architecture after 2000? The beginning of the 20th century gave us modernism? What has the beginning of the 21st century given us and where is its greatest potentials?

Modernism has to be updated. The modernist idea that function can break open your aesthetics and help you find new ones applicable to your time is wonderful. But last year's modernism cannot apply. It must be updated. Aalto and others updated it. So, to a certain extent did the New Humanists from Sweden. Then, the Smithsons. And we were yet another. Now it's time for one more. With updates, modernism is a relevant doctrine for what we face now. But not Neo-modernism. It's neither Modernist nor Post-modernist. It's PoMo with Modern decorations. It does not believe in function as I define it and it's bad for the city because it disdains the idea of context. Context for architects they say is a white page. Well, good luck. First, white pages scare architects. Second, it means designing without help from the generative power of the site and the city. I am happy indeed to see this generation reconsider what we did and wrote in the 1960s but, since then, we too have had to deal as architects with the challenges and opportunities of global change and the computer. This reconsideration is too wide a topic to cover here, but one aspect that I still handle today has to do with the growing and computer-related role of photography in all the processes of architecture. When I started photographing, I wanted record shots of buildings we saw while traveling and of our own work. As a student I added photography to illustrate ideas about architecture and design and objects of architectural relevance. As teachers, Bob and I used photography and photo essays to explain ideas and make points. And when computers came Photoshop and related programs vastly augmented our photographic tools. Over the length of our career photography has evolved from a tool to a discipline of architecture.

Should the focus of an architectural practice be more globally or locally oriented? Which new phenomena in architecture you find interesting for today’s context that the architectural studios are not using enough?

There are always going to be Locals and Globals or Cosmopolitans, as sociologists called them. They used these terms to consider how power (particularly political power) can derive from connections outward and inward. People like us have to travel to work, because few cities commission more than a couple of the kinds of buildings they would select us for, and for most of these they choose architects from outside. So to survive we must find employment in other localities and countries. But this brought wonderful work opportunities, fun, and adventure.

Mielparque Nikko Kirifuri Resort, Nikko National Park (1997). Image © Kawasumi Architectural Photograph Office

How important is the theme of the city, public space and landscape to architects? What does urbanism represent in today’s practice? Urban planning or urban design—what similarities and differences do you see between these domains? Many schools separate the education of architects, urban planners and zoning planners—is that a good thing?

That is a nice big narrow question. Yes, architects highly value the idea of public space but, whatever you call it, a place doesn't become public until people find reasons to use it. And although architects design spaces they call public, people may not use them. Have you wondered why? And why do people flock to places like Las Vegas, no matter what we architects think of them? Our small amphitheater in the Quad at Penn can seat an audience for ceremonial functions, but most of the time it is just curved seating, where people sun themselves, study, eat lunch and meet friends. They do this because it's in the right place and offers what users are looking for. In designing it we used principles and forms of analysis derived from urban land-use and transportation planning, and we take these inside buildings as well. For instance, in a lab building the bench grids that subdivide space are almost like the grids of a city. But because coffee is not allowed near expensive machines, researchers require coffee-lounges directly outside them. We think of lab corridors as streets that run through the building. Vertical circulation provides cross streets, and lobbies where the two meet are market squares. Locating coffee lounges on these squares allows people from different floors or far ends of the same floor to meet serendipitously. Provide an Informal space off the grid, with arm chairs, a good view, coffee, and blackboards—and the chance is there for a meeting of minds. Then where will the next Nobel prize be generated, at the bench or in the coffee lounge? Serendipitous meeting can be encouraged at various levels from coffee lounge to campus center, as long as pedestrian circulation volumes are appropriate and the needed facilities can be provided. But architects do not learn how to do it.

Concerning the second half of your question: urban design and urban physical planning are not large scale architecture, and urban nonphysical planning is far more than the study of zoning. Their curricula overlap with those of architecture but each has its own extensions into wider territory, and some of these can be used to very good effect in architecture.

Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London (1991). Image © Timothy Soar

How do you see the link between architecture and humanities, i.e. the “theoretical” professions—art historians, philosophers, sociologists, writers, and others who often write about architecture? How can their analysis method contribute to the contemporary practice?

I have concentrated more on linking with the social sciences than the humanities. But a comparison of their methodologies could be instructive to architects, especially regarding their views on analysis, especially quantitative analysis, and more broadly how each define rigor. Then there are the differences between the professional, learning-by-doing education architecture equites and the academic, learning-to-teach most of the others call for. And architects must get what they need from other disciplines,as architects, not try to become them.

Architectural history is a special case. It is so close that it can have many roles. Giedion’s was bringing to the attention of Modernists, things from history that would interest them. It was a focused role, illuminating for architects but in a way, false, and not the only role history should have for us.

Bob had another in his theories course, He loved history but, as a designer, tried to learn from it, not imitate it—to be his own kind of modern architect. This was useful for architecture students who had had scholarly architecture history courses with Scully and the other greats from different schools. I think we need all those approaches.

What we don’t need is historians who look at what we do and accuse us of doing things 180 degrees opposite from what we have actually done. Or they invent reasons for what we did, and those reasons become for them a premise for competing with other historians to describe “Venturi.”

At a conference I listened to one describing our reasons for publishing the second edition of LLV—for as long as I could, till finally I intervened: “You invented these reasons. We did it simply to make the book cheaper so students could buy it." At that time a new edition would have sold at $75 a copy. Then I asked “Why, when we are still alive, did you not ask us?” He replied “You must admit, my version is much more interesting than yours.”

Who would you say is the most important/promising architect of the 20th century and why?

We are! I think we have had more to say than others. People tell us that Learning from Las Vegas turned around architectural research. Others have said that Franklin Court changed architects' outlook on preservation. And, Complexity and Contradiction was said to have turned around the culture of architecture and how we look at historical reference, and freed architects from having only the Bauhaus as a reference.

Episcopal Academy Chapel, Newtown Square (2008). Image © Matt Wargo

What is your opinion on the current status of architectural periodicals? What should they focus on in the present day? It seems like they often set a trend, and architects sometimes blindly follow them.

Louis Kahn felt that architects learned superficial lessons on design from journals. “Did you get the latest issue?" He would ask sarcastically. "Read only the ads to see what's available," Corbu urged. I understand their concern but feel too that Bob and I have been given a fair hearing by journals, perhaps because we came later into the developing saga of photo journalism. And today online journals continue the story, finding their way through rich welters of options.

Who had most influence on your work, your understanding of architecture and your visual taste?

It’s hard to name only one. Gropius as a child, named “Farben,” meaning multicolored as his favorite color. Bob might name Donald Drew Egbert as his chief mentor, and Hagia Sophia as his all-time favorite building, and Villa Savoye in modern times, I agree on both. The work of Alvar Aalto is surely important for us and the Italian and English Mannerists. An ethnomusicologist friend taught me my best lessons on describing nonverbal arts like music and architecture in words. Social planners and social scientists in planning school, those passionate tormentors of architects, were my favorite mentors. I learned important lessons from Africa—particularly on how folk art adapts to urban culture. And of course there's Las Vegas! So many lessons from so many sources.

About this author
Cite: Shalmali Wagle and Alen Žunić. "Denise Scott Brown On the Past, Present and Future of VSBA's Groundbreaking Theories" 07 Oct 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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