Through their pioneering theory and provocative built work, husband and wife duo Robert Venturi (born June 25, 1925) and Denise Scott Brown (born October 3, 1931) were at the forefront of the postmodern movement, leading the charge in one of the most significant shifts in architecture of the 20th century by publishing seminal books such as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (authored by Robert Venturi alone) and Learning from Las Vegas (co-authored by Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour).
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“We Learn From the Ordinary as Well as From the Extraordinary”: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
There are so many complexities and contradictions in life in general and architecture in particular. I am writing this intro to an interview I held in 2004 with Robert Venturi and his life-and-architecture partner Denise Scott Brown, while visiting Beijing’s Tsinghua University where I was invited to teach this fall. Was it simply a coincidence when, at the last moment before leaving my New York City apartment I would, almost by chance, grab a 2001 issue of Architecture magazine with Venturi on its cover and his contradictory quote, “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist.”
I learned of Venturi's passing last week on my first day of teaching at Tsinghua; the news arrived as I and the students discussed their proposals to improve their campus. In yet another strange coincidence, Venturi and Scott Brown had, just prior to our interview, been working on their own proposal for the very same campus. It was a pleasant and bittersweet surprise then to hear my students speak of freeing up the campus in much the same ways as Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture attacked then domineering architecture of minimalism and abstraction over 50 years ago.
His and Scott Brown’s ideas for this campus did not materialize but their analytical and often rebellious thinking greatly influenced how students here and architects all over the world approach architecture. It was Venturi who freed our discipline, it was him who set us all free and encouraged to ask our own questions, to get away from all kinds of dogmas and to provoke ideas of hybridization. What follows is an excerpt from my conversation with the architects at their office in Philadelphia 14 years ago.
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.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has announced Denise Scott Brown, hon. FAIA and Robert Venturi, FAIA, as joint winners of the 2016 AIA Gold Medal. The AIA cited the duo for their "built projects as well as literature that set the stage for Postmodernism and nearly every other formal evolution in architecture." Scott Brown and Venturi are the first ever pair to receive the Gold Medal, after the AIA approved a change to its bylaws in 2013 that allowed the award to be presented to up to two individuals working together.