A modest proposal on behalf of Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown outside Las Vegas in 1966; photograph from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown outside Las Vegas in 1966; photograph from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

In 1991 the Pritzker Foundation awarded the Pritzker Prize in Architecture to Robert Venturi. The jury chose not to include Denise Scott Brown in the award, for reasons known only to themselves. Those of us on the outside have our own views of their decision.

The jury found Venturi’s combination of game-changing writings on architectural theory (“Less is a bore…Main Street is almost all right…When circumstances defy order, order should bend or break: anomalies and uncertainties give validity to architecture”) and architectural practice worthy of the award. They mention by name Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, his manifesto that changed the way we look at architecture and history, and his early house for his mother, the Vanna Venturi House, a masterpiece of architectural complexity and contradiction. This seems to be the rationale for limiting the award only to him. Plus, Pritzker juries had never recognized the collaborative nature of architectural practice. But they made the award in 1991, decades into their joint writing/architectural practice; each of the previous Laureates were honored for their entire body of work and lifetime achievement; and no previous Laureate’s body of work was so closely identified with a design partnership.

I admit my bias: the first time I was exposed to Venturi, it was at an architecture lecture at my undergraduate architecture program at Rice University. Bob and Denise taught a 3rd year studio in the spring of 1969 and were giving a lecture on their work. As they continued to do throughout their working partnership, the lecture was a tag-team affair. In my mind they were always Bob & Denise, the Venturis.

Women In Design is calling to correct this oversight. Comprised of Harvard Graduate School of Design students, the group recently crafted a petition on Change.org demanding that Denise Scott Brown be retroactively acknowledged for her work.

Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, has promised to “refer this important matter to the current jury at their next meeting”, pointing out that this presents an “unusual situation” since each Laureate is chosen by a panel of independent jurors who change over the years. But this gives the jury a perfect opportunity for a win-win since the current jury was not part of the 1991 decision; and the 1991 jury gave the current one a perfect way forward when they went on to describe Venturi’s later career:

His understanding of the urban context of architecture, complemented by his talented partner, Denise Scott Brown, with whom he has collaborated on both more writings and built works, has resulted in changing the course of architecture in this century, allowing architects and consumers the freedom to accept inconsistencies in form and pattern, to enjoy popular taste.

Pritzker juries had never mentioned any design partner of previous Laureates, nor  come so close to acknowledging a design partnership. But the 1991 jury, whether for caution, or misogyny, stopped short of including Denise in the award. There is now a movement afoot to rectify this situation. Sign the petition at Change.org asking the Pritzker Foundation to give Denise an inclusion ceremony, rectifying the mistake made in 1991 and recognizing the idea of joint creativity, which is a foundation for the practice of architecture, this most social and complicated art form.


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