An Unsolved Problem

On Denise Scott Brown’s inconvenient legacy

About twenty years ago, I knocked for the first time on the big red door of the architecture studio of Venturi Scott Brown & Associates (VSBA). Ten days earlier, I had been wandering the stacks of the Fine Arts library at the University of Pennsylvania, searching for sources for a paper on South Street, one of Philadelphia’s main thruways, when a librarian directed me to Denise Scott Brown’s 1968 plan for it. I knew little about architecture or city planning; I was a first-year graduate student in anthropology. But I was interested in cities, and her street plan grabbed my attention, mostly for the way it prioritized the needs of residents, like the construction of more and better housing. Scott Brown had created it with activists fighting a highway that the city was trying to build through their neighborhood. I emailed her. She replied a few days later, telling me to come see her at 9:30 a.m. the following Saturday, the only time she was free.

At the studio, a friendly gray-haired man wearing a button-down cardigan answered my knock. He guided me down a hallway to …

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