Scott Brown was a pioneer of postmodernist thought and one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. Credit: Robert Venturi

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Denise Scott Brown, the hidden face of a pair of genius architects

Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win a Pritzker Prize, the world's highest architectural award, in 2004. But before her, there were other women whose work did not receive the same recognition. We look at the life and work of Denise Scott Brown, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

 

Although Denise Scott Brown is one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, she has been relegated to the background for decades. In the shadow of her husband, Robert Venturi, she saw only him receive awards for work they had both devised. "No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi's. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable,"Scott Brown herself said a few years ago. In this way, this emblematic female architect made her way in a male-dominated industry.

 

An era-defining legacy

 

Born in Zambia and based in Philadelphia, Scott Brown has devoted her entire life to architecture: "They ask why I don’t make room to smell the roses, and I say, the roses are right on my drawing board!" Her work is often associated with that of her husband, as they worked collaboratively from 1962, when they met at the University of Pennsylvania, until his death in 2018. Their joint firm, VSBA, defined the postmodern movement and brought avant-garde design to suburban areas and college campuses.

In erecting more than 200 buildings, Scott Brown sought inspiration in the everyday. Among their best-known works are the Sainsbury Wing of the British National Gallery in London, the Seattle Art Museum, Indiana Fire Station Number 4 and the Squirrel Hill House in Pittsburgh. Both Scott Brown and Venturi have gone down in history for turning modernism on its head. The architect believes that "urban design should not be confused with large-scale architectural design or the search for pretty vistas. Our ideas should arise from an understanding of urban processes and the patterns urban activities form," she says.

In their book Learning from Las Vegas, published in 1972, they map, photograph and describe casinos, car parks and fast food restaurants. In addition to investigating the influence of the modern architectural movement, they analysed the commercial language, lighting, patterns, styles and symbolism of Las Vegas. This book, which taught readers how to appreciate ugly and ordinary buildings, became one of the great architectural manifestos and marked the beginning of postmodern architecture in the United States.

 

Scott Brown sought inspiration for her buildings from the everyday. Credit: PLANE-SITE

 

An architect relegated to the background

 

Although Scott Brown and Venturi had spent decades working together, in 1991 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize. She, however, was excluded, sparking a debate about the obstacles women face in gaining recognition. "They owe me not a Pritzker prize, but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let's salute the notion of joint creativity," Brown said in 2013.

A petition launched by Harvard students on the change.org platform for Scott Brown to share her husband's Pritzker has more than 20,000 signatures. Among them are some of the world's most famous architects, including six previous Pritzker winners and even Venturi himself. The petition explains that Scott Brown's contributions were instrumental in Venturi winning the prize in 1991: "It was an unfortunate oversight by the Pritzker Architecture Prize committee to deny her of the recognition she undoubtedly had earned."

Arielle Assouline-Lichten, a Harvard design student who initiated the petition, told The New York Times that "Denise Scott Brown is sort of like architecture’s grandmother. Almost all architecture student have studied her in school. Everyone grew up with her as the female professional who’s always been around and never really gets the recognition," she explained. In 1975, Scott Brown wrote the essay Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture, in which she described her struggle to be recognised as an equal partner of the firm in a predominantly male industry. She didn’t publish it until 1989 for fear that it would damage her career. Since then, she has been a strong advocate for women in architecture.

 

Scott Brown's contributions were instrumental in Venturi winning the Pritzker Prize in 1991. Credit: Michael Blackwood Productions.

 

Although Scott Brown has been relegated to the background for decades, she has also won several accolades. Both she and Venturi were jointly awarded the 2016 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. It was the first time the award was given to multiple individuals. She has also been awarded the Jane Drew Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal and the Vilcek Prize in Architecture. When Scott Brown retired from design, she continued to teach and lecture. Even today, her legacy influences designers and thinkers around the world.

 

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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