‘I love monumental buildings that laugh at themselves a little’
Denise Scott Brown and her husband Robert Venturi are among the most influential architects of the 20th century, both in theory and practice. Based on numerous personal encounters and an evolving transgenerational friendship, Colombian writer and curator Andres Ramirez reflects upon Denise’s legacy as architect and thinker.
At the time of our first meeting, Denise was 85 and I was 30. Denise showed me pictures she had taken on her iPhone while traveling by train from Philadelphia to New York, capturing the vestiges of industry along the way. Long before Las Vegas she learned how to use a camera, not merely to document building forms, but to explore and express ideas about architecture. Photography helped her understand the radically different environments she stepped into as a young architect. ‘I was passionately taking photographs of things I liked that had to do with ideas,’ she told me. It soon occurred to me that photography—not architecture—was the genesis of ideas that made her one of the most influential architects of the last century.
It’s fascinating to look at the photographs Denise took in the 50s and 60s in South Africa, Venice and Philadelphia—a time when architects rarely travelled or used cameras. Most of these images preceded her time spent collaborating with Robert Venturi, and exposed her intuitive fascination with popular culture, vernacular forms, and the communication of architectural information. Denise explained to me, as she has done to hundreds of students before me, how photography allowed her to develop ideas, illustrate research findings, and redirect them back towards design.
Coming to architecture from the social sciences, I’ve never cared for the buildings themselves as much as for architecture’s symbolic functions. My work excludes design and construction, and instead investigates architecture and urban practices as a source of contemporary culture. Although we are from different margins of the profession, Denise and I share the conviction that architecture can be a cultural asset and a public good. Her life’s work is testament to the fact that architecture need not materialize into three-dimensional spaces to exert influence. Few virtues can be attributed to bricks and mortar alone, which is why architects should aspire to affect more than the built environment alone.
In order to serve, architecture should venture beyond its traditional domains, accessing other fields of knowledge and helping shape the social, cultural and political dimensions of everyday life. Successful architecture is powered by ideas that effectively cross-pollinate other disciplines and inspire collective action. To endure the test of time, architects need to be ready to produce more than just buildings. This leap of faith takes curiosity, wit, and more importantly, it demands a special kind of courage for a lifetime’s worth of perseverance.
I have always mixed writing, drawing, architecture and speculation
According to Denise, the first function of a building should not be the only program that concerns architects. Therefore, if architecture can have more than one function beyond the material world, shouldn’t architects do more than design? Denise encourages architects, planners and scholar to open a wider window onto the world, to learn from practitioners in different contexts. It’s not enough to just look to oneself—multi-disciplinary processes result in better design because they are more responsive.
Denise was never afraid to branch out and learn about complementary subject matters. She delved deep into social planning and regional economics, which allowed her to understand economic behaviour and social payoffs, such as self-respect and creativity. These are skills no architect should shy away from, and she maintains their continuity. ‘In my work,’ she said, ‘it all goes together. I couldn’t do the one without the other. I’m just like that.’ Denise has paid the price for her interdisciplinary approach to architecture and some architects don’t consider her as one of their own. Her varied interests, including planning, business management, interior design or preservation have been used to unflatteringly characterize her. She is described by some as a great teacher or as having a way with words. She feels an architect at heart, but her unusual skillset makes her an easy target for those worried by the thought that design can originate in two heads, as opposed to just one.
Denise’s early photography offers a template for research, theory and design, a refreshing approach in a time of digital media overload. They are testament to the idea that communication will always be an essential function of architecture. Photography, however, is only one of many conduits for this practice. She’s also a passionate writer, using her words to speak her mind and raise awareness about critical issues across various professional circles. ‘I am a person who uses words in architecture’ she said. ‘As a small child I was very proud of my early language skills.’ The spectrum of these words includes books, lectures and speeches, research manuscripts and planning guidelines, exhibitions and the much-celebrated cartoon drawings of buildings with speech bubbles.
Learning from Las Vegas, which Denise co-authored, remains a refreshing and influential book across a number of disciplines. Using her photography ‘to express an idea,’ as she put it, the book pulled together vernacular architecture of all types—from neon casino signage to duck-shaped, decorated sheds; this varied vernacular initiated a broader cultural discussion that continues in universities around the world. Today, it is integral to architectural theory, and 46 years after it was originally published, the visual manifesto has been translated into 18 languages and is still in print.
Her bibliography spans six decades and exceeds her husband’s—not that anyone is counting. A pill-sized version of her life’s writing can be found in Having Words, a selection of Denise’s most powerful essays. Printed by her Alma Mater, the Architectural Association London, the eclectic collection of texts uses architecture as a springboard to discuss art, urban design, planning, pedagogy, sexism, as well as the star system that rules the profession. The book is evidence that, in fact, words, too, are building materials. At 12 GBP, the bright yellow, pocket-sized paperback is nothing short of a stand-alone curriculum. Denise’s influence on today’s architectural discourse is validated by the book’s popularity on Amazon.
Half a century after Las Vegas, photography has since established itself as a sub-discipline of architecture—a development that Denise can be partially credited with. Visual communication in architecture may result in building better buildings, but thankfully, it is not its sole purpose. Through photography, a growing number of doers and thinkers can also contribute to architectural practice, without having to lay down a single brick. Based on the interdisciplinary understanding that architecture is not limited to buildings per se, curators, critics, historians and writers are free to revel in the contemporary.
Another way I understand Denise is through the creative relationships she has had throughout her life. Speaking openly about influence (which, for her, is a two-way street), Denise prides herself on a lifetime of intellectual teamwork. Aside from her most far-reaching and frequently discussed collaboration with Bob Venturi, she also celebrates others, including her first husband Robert Scott Brown. Among them are also architect and planner David A. Crane, planner and educator Paul Davidoff, regional economist Walter Isard, ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, and (my personal favourite) sociologist Herbert J Gans—all of whom influenced Denise and vice-versa. Unfortunately, most are unknown to the average architect. The challenge for architects is to absorb knowledge from various fields and apply it to architecture, but not only to the design part.
The terminology we use to distinguish architecture from planning, communication and even political activism is extremely narrow and out-dated.
If architecture is to be an umbrella discipline, it needs to broaden its reach and disciplinary boundaries to include the extraordinary knowledge produced by unconventional thinkers. Denise held all the roles she ever hoped to hold. Looking back at a lifetime of achievements—not without setbacks and frustrations—she still questions what it means to have a career in architecture today. Since obtaining her degree in 1955, the job description for architects has changed enormously. Each generation inevitably brings new perspectives to the field, but the commitment to discovery and critical inquiry should remain central to architecture.
Denise said she is addicted to practice—by which she means making buildings—over everything else she’s ever done. Over their career, she and Bob Venturi designed over 180 buildings. Regardless of the size or program, she fought to make buildings ‘useful and beautiful, in that order.’ Successful design brings space to life, not necessarily because it is beautiful, but because it is functional. For Denise, true beauty in architecture exists when buildings confront local problems and employ a broad set of tools. Anything else is a farce. Denise and Bob carefully studied questions of scale (they had much to say about the inhumanity of the human scale in modern architecture) and designed with the community in mind. If architects observed their environment using various and varying skill sets, they might better understand the patterns around their projects and apply them to their architecture.
You really can’t afford to ignore the everyday environment
Few of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates’ (VSBA) buildings received as much attention as the Vanna Venturi House or the Guild House. The projects that followed these icons of early postmodernism are underrated, if not entirely misunderstood. Her fascination with popular culture was not shared by her generation; they may have found Las Vegas exciting, but didn’t necessarily trust her aesthetics. While a younger generation widely acknowledges the importance of popular taste, some are still not convinced by the buildings that resulted from it. For better or worse, it seems to me that the reach and resonance of Denise Scott Brown’s argument lies in her radical ideas and not in her building portfolio.
Denise’s work has been unusual and even scandalous at times. Some dislike VSBA buildings on the grounds that they are slightly weird, even shocking. Behind the style and aesthetics, however, is a great deal of integrity, independent thinking and a certain idiosyncratic, human quality.
The power of Denise Scott Brown lies in her convictions—as an architect and as a person. She has fought countless battles to introduce new ideas and values, against professional chauvinism, and to claim rightful authorship for her work. It was not easy to speak out and jeopardize her professional career. Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture was published in 1989, 10 years after it was written. The piece is still eye opening and alarming, especially to those of us who were not around when she wrote it. Despite her fight against gender discrimination, and her position as an outsider, Denise thinks of herself more as an architect than a feminist activist—not that the two are mutually exclusive. The profession has come a long way since the essay was first published, but not quite far enough. Things remain as male-dominated at the top as they always were.
Although her battles remain as relevant as ever, Denise has also undeniably changed the shape of architecture. She led the way for an architecture rooted in experimental research, interdisciplinary design, and activism. True influence in architecture defies the banality of form and the temporality of function. Ideas can be so much more powerful than any building. That’s why we don’t measure success in square meters or style. Legacy does not need to be built; it requires no space at all. Architectural legacy lies within the resonance of brave messages that effectively change our society and survive from generation to generation.
Like many of my peers, Denise Scott Brown finds it difficult to define what she does. Her work is broad and deep, and never confined by the conventions of her practice or time. Denise continually redraws disciplinary boundaries to show us that architecture can also function as a lens through which we understand our own culture and ourselves. Denise’s influence goes both through and beyond the buildings she built, and spills across disciplines and generations. The magnitude of her contribution to the field of architecture is only just beginning to surface. Denise Scott Brown is a role model and grandmother to a lot more people than just architects. Then again, architecture is not only for architects.
This piece was originally featured in Legacy. You can purchase a copy here.