Inside the Collection

Learning from Denise Scott Brown

Photograph of Denise outside Las Vegas, 1966
Denise Scott Brown outside Las Vegas, 1966. Copyright VenturiScottBrown.

You might have been following the controversy about Denise Scott Brown and the Pritzker Prize. In 1991 Scott Brown’s husband and professional partner Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize (often described as architecture’s Nobel Prize). Scott Brown was not, although it was widely recognised that she was Venturi’s equal creative partner.  She did not attend her husband’s award ceremony while Venturi appealed to the Pritzker jury to co-award his wife. No deal, on the grounds that Pritzkers are only awarded to individuals, not partnerships. That particular obstruction went out the window in 2001 when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron won the award; more recently the female/male duo Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa have also been joint winners.

Last year two Harvard architecture students initiated an on-line petition in support of a retrospective Pritzker award to Denise Scott Brown. The petition gained thousands of signatures and the support of many of architecture’s biggest names, including nine Pritzker winners. In June this year the Pritzker committee rejected the petition, claiming that it could not retrospectively ‘second-guess’ the 1991 jury, a poor argument given that Scott Brown and her supporters were asking for accurate attribution of Venturi and Scott Brown’s work, not a different choice of winner.

The Scott Brown controversy is the most prominent expression of renewed focus on women architects and their too-low profile in the past and present of architecture. One of many examples is the Parlour website, a winner at this year’s Bates Smart prizes for architecture in the media Apart from its high profile the Scott Brown controversy is significant in that it illustrates the many faces of architectural achievement and influence, something important to the women and architecture conundrum.

Only two women (Kazuyo Sejima and Zaha Hadid) have won the Pritzker, which as noted above is structured to reward architectural soloists. Or, as Denise Scott Brown has put it, ‘the lone male genius’. The reality of architecture as a collaborative enterprise gains short shrift here as it has in much writing and awarding. Yet although the profile of women architects is higher now there’s no doubt in the past it has often been most significant in a collaborative context. There are powerful histories of sexism and lack of opportunity at work here, of course, but there is also a history of strategies around these roadblocks.

Drawing of 'Inverness'
‘Inverness’, Marion Mahony Griffin, 1933. Powerhouse Museum collection.

In the Powerhouse collection we have artefacts from two pioneer women architects, Marion Mahony and Florence Taylor. The Scott Brown fracas seems to have reignited interest in Mahony, one of the first American women to graduate in architecture. Mahony surmounted all manner of prejudice and obstruction to establish an architectural career before forming an intense personal and professional relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright and his first wife, similar in some respects to her later marriage to Walter Burley Griffin. Publically she partly submerged her identity behind that of these two charismatic men, but in another sense became their public face through her brilliance as an architectural delineator. Marion Mahony reinvented architectural illustration, combining perspective views with plans and sections, using techniques and materials drawn from fine art. Her renderings were famously crucial in winning the Canberra design job, as well as creating a singular vision of the Australian landscape.

It’s ironic that Marion Mahony’s closest Australian equivalent was Florence Taylor given that these women and their husbands fell out bitterly during the Griffins’ productive but frustrating two decades in Australia. In 1905 Florence Taylor was the first Australian woman to graduate as an architect; however the Institute of Architects refused to admit her as a member. At this time Taylor was working for the prominent Sydney architect John Burcham Clamp; she was promoted to the position of chief draftsman in his office. Yet as a publisher and journalist Taylor achieved a public profile far beyond that of all but very few male architects. As editor of Building, published from 1907 to 1969, Taylor created an unusually broad record of Sydney architecture, more inclusive than that recorded in the journals of the architectural profession. She also created a fearsome reputation as a controversialist, and while many of her opinions do not withstand much examination (for example, apartment living reduces the birth rate) some of her many town planning proposals for Sydney eventually came to fruition, including the Cahill Expressway at Circular Quay. Taylor’s journalism highlights the social and political intricacy of architecture, a complex world that cannot be reduced to a roll call of solo geniuses. Unless you’re in the business of doing so, like the Pritzker Prize.

Drawing of 'View of beautification scheme for Woolloomooloo'
Florence Taylor, ‘View of beautification scheme for Woolloomooloo’, Building, August 1935. Powerhouse Museum Library.

In some ways this is also Denise Scott Brown’s achievement. Venturi and Scott Brown have an impressive oeuvre of buildings and town planning to their credit,  but as they formed the advance guard of Postmodernism during the 1970s and 1980s the reputation and significance of their architecture has already had its ups and downs. It’s no disrespect to say that their fame and influence is primarily attributable to their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas. Whatever you think about Postmodernism you can’t deny the originality and importance of this book. Based on an analysis of the design of the Las Vegas Strip, it extended the boundaries of architecture and architectural debate, restating the significance and logic of commercial and vernacular architecture and the role of buildings as expressive structures. With a similar interest in everyday architecture, I’ve long felt grateful for this book and its insights.

And by the way, you can sign the petition in support of Denise Scott Brown here.

Charles Pickett, curator

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *