Interviewed in Philadelphia on 12 February 2016
In December 2015, it was announced that Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi would receive the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the highest honour that the architectural profession in the United States bestows on its members. The moment was universally perceived as the symbolic rectification of a long-standing injustice, dating back to 1991, when Scott Brown was overlooked for the Pritzker Prize, awarded only to her partner Venturi. Despite the fact that she critically contributed to the partnership’s most well-known projects and that it was largely through her initiative that architecture’s research turn occurred through books such as Learning from Las Vegas, the jury denied Scott Brown the prize, which was explained by the rule that only individuals, rather than partnerships, are eligible for it. (A decade later, the rule was broken to award Herzog & de Meuron, whose joint Pritzker was then followed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.) The snub was all the more problematic because it blatantly confirmed Scott Brown’s own previous writings about gender bias in architecture. In the meantime, the glass ceiling was shattered when Zaha Hadid received the Pritzker in 2004, but Scott Brown remained a cause célèbre emblematic of professional women’s struggle for recognition. The aia Gold Medal thus symbolizes a turning point in that struggle.
Denise Scott Brown welcomed us on a crisp, biting cold February morning in the house in Northwest Philadelphia that she and Robert Venturi have occupied for the last forty years. The large Jugendstil villa was bustling with life, figuratively and literally. Its interior, covered with colourful stencilled flowers and filled with an eclectic collection of objects, was busy with people, including several of Scott Brown’s collaborators and assistants. The dining room was converted into a workspace: books, papers, and equipment took over the large table, and we gathered in front of a computer screen to take a look at the recently digitized photos from Scott Brown’s personal collection to be published in a forthcoming book. The conversation began by browsing through a set of images selected especially for us: the photos that Denise Scott Brown and her first husband Robert Scott Brown took while backpacking through Yugoslavia in 1955. Intense and artful, in deeply saturated colours, they captured the moment of transition of a rural country into a modern industrialized society. Scenes ranging from the idyllic landscapes of Macedonia and the Adriatic coast, to the construction sites of today’s Vukovar Avenue in Zagreb appeared at the same time alien and vaguely familiar, directing the conversation in an unexpected, unscripted direction.
ORIS — You have welcomed us here today by showing us impressive photographs from post-war Yugoslavia. When did you take this trip and how did you decide on Yugoslavia?
Denise Scott Brown — I went to England to finish my studies, and my first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who was studying with me, joined me after finishing his in South Africa. After I graduated at the aa (Architectural Association School of Architecture, London), we married in England and set off on a hitchhiking honeymoon in Yugoslavia. I had been in Spain, and we had travelled together in England, France, Germany, and Israel, but we chose Yugoslavia for many reasons, one being Le Corbusier’s travels there in 1911, another, our South African background. We had a dictionary for tourists in Serbian, Czech and a few other languages and learned some words. Since Robert spoke pretty good German, we were able to use it sometimes. Passing through villages we would meet local families and sometimes ask them for a place to stay. Though living in very modest conditions, they moved their family out to the floor somewhere and put us up in their beds.