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 her office and, just before saying goodbye, leaned in to say, “It’s great you’re interviewing her. She doesn’t get the credit she deserves.”

“Oh?” I remember saying. I was surprised and a little puzzled. South Street was the full extent of my knowledge of Scott Brown’s work. I knew nothing about this lack of credit; I didn’t even know who this man was, showing me to her office and offering this mysterious compliment. I laughed anxiously, thanked him, refocused, and went into Denise’s office.

Since that morning, and partly because of it, I’ve spent years researching Scott Brown and Venturi, studying their books and buildings, reading critiques of their work, digging through their archives, deciphering their unusual partnership and marriage. I wouldn’t be flustered by Bob’s remark today; I might not even register it. After all, it was partly a statement of fact: Denise had not received the credit she deserved. It was also a somewhat awkward expression of gratitude. By then, Bob had made multiple disregarded pleas, all carefully crafted to avoid alienating the colleagues and critics to whom he appealed, asking them to recognize Denise when discussing their work. He was thankful for my attention to her. I know that now, but I’m still grateful for my first, uninformed impression, which was basically that Bob’s comment was a distraction, a bit like haze that needed to be cleared away. I just wanted to interview Denise.

Being introduced to Scott Brown separately from Venturi was an accident; I am indebted to that knowledgeable Penn librarian. But it was also a gift. I’ve never presumed Denise’s secondary status, even though I now know it was for a while, in their world, part of the natural order of things. My training as an anthropologist has also been helpful in this regard: I learned a long time ago that there’s no such thing as the natural order of things.

It goes almost without saying that most students coming up through design schools over the past forty or so years have learned first and principally about Bob. When he won the Pritzker in 1991, decades into his collaboration with Scott Brown, the Pritzker jury offered more than high praise; it wrote that he “has expanded and redefined the limits of the art of architecture in this century, as perhaps no other has, through his theories and built works.” These theories and works have formed the foundation of the profession and art form, shaping numerous university departments and individual careers, and they continue to be intensely studied, as does Bob himself, as well as his influences and methods. Denise’s fame, meanwhile, is squishier. It’s wrapped up, in part, in her exclusion from the Pritzker and her and others’ subsequent efforts to add her retroactively to the prize. The work that she led at their firm, like the South Street plan, is less well-known than the work Bob led.

This is beginning to change. There have been films, like Joseph Hillel’s 2018 City Dreamers, and articles, like the fall 2019 cover story that lifestyle magazine Cultured dedicated to Scott Brown. Most recently, a compelling new volume edited by Frida Grahn, Denise Scott Brown: In Other Eyes, targets this intellectual gap. Through essays from leading and junior scholars as well as shorter reflections from friends and former students, it fleshes out the story of Denise as a thinker and designer in her own right and documents her methods and influences—from her youth in South Africa; to her years in the UK and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where she started collaborating with Bob, and her work in L.A., where she developed her earliest ideas about Las Vegas and was one of three founding members of UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. It also flags Denise’s diminished standing in the academy relative to her husband’s. As Grahn puts it in her introduction, Scott Brown has “so far only sparingly been subject to scholarly attention.”

I admit I find this disparity fascinating. Scholars are by vocation curious people, and yet for a long time, they weren’t very curious about the creative and romantic partner of a man their field reveres, a man who even inserted into the architectural canon such popular phrases as “both/and” and “the complex whole.”

Reading Grahn’s new volume was exciting, validating, and illuminating. It was also at moments frustrating, reminding me of that sensation from twenty years ago of needing to clear away haze. Writing about Denise often requires a consideration of gender politics; sometimes such considerations distract from her work and sometimes they bring it further into focus, and the volume’s essays do both. There’s also the fact that the line between her work and relevant gender politics can be difficult to discern. It has often occurred to me that my atypical progression through the Scott Brown and Venturi oeuvre, starting with some of VSBA’s city planning and then going to Learning from Las Vegas, wherein the South Street plan was originally written up, and then turning to Complexity and Contradiction and the firm’s scores of buildings, is probably most legible as a sort of feminist take on their work simply because it begins with Denise. It’s a reasonable assumption, but in my case it’s incorrect. I didn’t know enough to make such a sophisticated analytic choice. Had Bob been the one who created the people-centered street plan, I would have arrived at their studio that Saturday morning to see him. But he wasn’t the one—a not-incidental point when it comes to the disparity in the way scholars have studied them. Why is it that my interest in such a plan could be easily conflated with a feminist approach?

ONE OF THE RELEVATIONS of Denise Scott Brown: In Other Eyes is the primary material it features, much of which has an almost ephemeral quality. There are unfinished drafts of book chapters that never appeared in a book; letters to editors that journals never ran; course syllabi that only a handful of students saw. It’s a trove of curiously contingent, nearly invisible stuff. In her own contribution to the volume, Grahn tracked down media accounts and still-alive audience members of a talk Scott Brown delivered, partly to prove the talk had happened at all. It had, in fact, been given in 1978 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of CIAM at a conference in Switzerland, but while it was listed in the event’s program, it was oddly excluded from organizers’ notes and announcements. Grahn reconstructs Scott Brown’s lecture, drawing in part from a forty-five-year-old newspaper write-up that admires Scott Brown’s “conviction” and describes both her and Venturi’s work as being “not in the service of clients or city officials, but in the service of people and communities.”

The liminality in the historical record that Grahn writes against—Scott Brown’s presence in the program and absence in the notes—probably stems from a variety of factors, from simple carelessness to the era’s garden-variety sexism. But I suspect it also has roots in Scott Brown’s particular transgressions within the world of architecture, where she challenged her colleagues to forgo their exclusivity and high status. The volume shows Denise crossing boundaries, angering her peers, and triggering their misogyny—sometimes all at once, like in her advocacy for Co-op City and the ensuing uproar, examined by scholar and historian Joan Ockman, currently the Vincent Scully Visiting Professor in Architectural History at Yale.

The Co-op City kerfuffle was a master class in how the establishment can marshal sexism to undermine a progressive critique. The ruckus began when, in 1970, Denise and Bob coauthored an impassioned article in Progressive Architecture defending the brand-new Co-op City for providing good, affordable housing to people who needed it. Co-op City was the largest cooperative housing complex in the world, set to house upwards of 60,000 mostly middle-income residents in scores of brick towers across 300 acres in the Bronx. But it was immediately unloved by most architects and critics, who saw it as an example of megasized, state-funded “urban renewal” projects that had failed across the country—even though, crucially, as Ockman notes, no one was displaced to build it. “Sterile,” “uninspired,” and “fairly hideous” were among the insults sent its way. In their article, Denise and Bob scolded their colleagues for their misdirected priorities and a snobby sense of what counted as good design. “If government has more money it should go for more housing and we architects and planners are going to have to learn, as painters and sculptors have learned before us, to accept the ordinary on its own terms and do it well,” they wrote. “If ‘good design’ costs twice as much, then good design is out of step and needs redefinition.”

Such revision and crediting matters, to both Denise and her champions. It’s a question of representation, of image. And, among other things, Denise and Bob taught us that images matter.

Outrage followed, voiced most cruelly in two letters to the editor published in the same journal a couple of months later. Written by architects, one addressed their displeasure solely to Venturi, the other to Venturi “and his wife.” The article’s byline had read “By Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.” In response, Scott Brown wrote her own letter to the editor, a six-page barn burner that the journal did not publish.

Her whole letter is worth reading; it’s sharp and entertaining and consists mostly of Denise’s take on her profession’s failed approach to housing, going beyond the original article’s argument. “Don’t the 800,000 people living in substandard housing in New York make one fear for ‘the future of cities, architecture, and personal integrity’ more than does Co-op City?” she wrote. On her letter’s final page, Scott Brown outs her authorship. “I wrote the article,” she clarified, noting that Bob made some edits and endorsed its argument; then she admonished her detractors for what she calls their “chauvinism.” Ockman includes multiple excerpts from Denise’s letter. My only wish is that she had reversed her chosen emphasis: she includes Denise’s entire response to her critics’ sexism while quoting more sparingly from the letter’s main body, which contains Scott Brown’s housing critique. Thanks in part to the sexism Denise faced, the pair’s housing advocacy is not as well-known as their other work. As Ockman herself puts it, in relation to the work for which Venturi and Scott Brown are most famous, “Co-op City seems like an outlier.” The pushback against their advocacy at the time also espoused this reasoning; one letter writer argued that their defense of Co-op City was silly and wrong because it conflicted with Bob’s call four years earlier, in Complexity and Contradiction, for smaller rather than bigger changes in cityscapes. It’s often said that attempting to disentangle Denise’s and Bob’s voices and visions from one another’s is a practically impossible task—which is true, and one of the cooler things about them. In a profession that still mythologizes singular artistic geniuses, they muddied distinctions and presented themselves as a team. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences between them worth recognizing. For example: Bob sketched, and Denise photographed. Scott Brown was also more attuned to relationships between a city’s social life and its physical forms, an attunement which manifested itself in, among other places, her views on housing.

One of the themes cutting across the essays is Denise’s attention to social hierarchies and the people navigating them. For her work on South Street, chronicled by Sarah Moses, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Denise interviewed residents as well as photographed their blocks and homes. Moses writes that Denise used “her camera [as] an instrument to dismantle fictions of the former Seventh Ward as ‘Hell’s Acre.’” South Street was the main commercial strip of one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods, which the proposed highway was set to destroy—but not before wreaking havoc, as stores fled in advance of its arrival. Still, there was much worth saving. “Scott Brown’s appreciation of what was rather than what ought to be saturates the minimum intervention strategies” of her counterplan to the highway, Moses writes. Scott Brown’s plan for the neighborhood prioritized housing and transit, as well as museums to preserve residents’ stories. It called for a “Museum of Slavery,” a “Museum of Immigrant Culture,” and a “Promenade of Negro Culture and History.” The plan worked in that it helped defeat the highway, but it wasn’t built for lack of funds; in Moses’s words, “its development from 1968 to 1972 bespeaks collaboration, communion, and, more than appreciation, celebration.”

Architect and Columbia professor Hilary Sample writes one of the shortest but also most expansive essays in the book. The subject of her piece is a 1989 syllabus from Scott Brown’s studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design titled “The Architecture of Well-Being.” Sample is drawn to its relevance for our pandemic era and to the way that Scott Brown sought “a distinction between individual and institutional care, reimagining how institutions house people and groups.” She writes, “To me, Scott Brown’s writings reflect an empathy for how society works collectively…. It illuminates the spaces for what is yet to come.”

THIS SENSE OF unrealized possibility infuses many of the essays in the volume. There’s something tantalizing and promising to the collection. Such forward-looking-ness is not something usually associated with Scott Brown and Venturi, given their critiques of their modernist peers’ utopias and their attention to everyday life. But there’s another way to look at it: that paying attention to what exists is in fact an essential ingredient of creating a better future. I suspect that the praise lavished on Scott Brown is, in part, a product of the potential read into her work.

In her article on a graduate course Denise taught for many years and sharpened during her time in L.A, Princeton professor Sylvia Lavin dissects Scott Brown’s vision as it manifested in her teaching. The course, called “Form, Function, and Forces,” asked students to connect architecture, city planning, and political economy. Lavin writes at length about the way Scott Brown drew from sociology, demography, photography, and law to develop her syllabus, which was more than a hundred pages long. Denise went so far as to ask colleagues in different fields not merely to read the syllabus but to extensively annotate it. She then printed the notes in the margins of the syllabi. The result, Lavin writes, was a document that was “participatory and horizontal in its authorship, informal in its modes of production, self-critical, and polysemous in its engagement with different social groups and cultural forms.”

It’s a thrilling characterization, commensurate with the city Scott Brown also thought was possible. That she wasn’t able to achieve her ambition is part of Lavin’s story, too. Scott Brown was, Lavin writes, “a woman with much to say and none of the institutional forms of support through which to say it.” She notes that Bob fit more easily into established hierarchies. “Venturi’s work was part of a long lineage of famously heroic architects and attends almost exclusively to high culture, despite his later interest in popular tastes.”

Scott Brown’s partnership with Venturi crisscrosses architecture and city planning, but also art and the social sciences, aesthetics and sociality. Indeed, the best answer to the question of who did what is to ask why does it matter—and to note that the more interesting question is how did they design and write and create together?

My one frustration with Lavin’s essay concerns its end, which turns obliquely to the present and singles out “those with the very best intention of giving credit where credit is due,” noting that they “risk pressing Scott Brown’s work into molds of authorship and artistic value that were simultaneously unavailable to her and that she worked hard to resist.” Lavin doesn’t specify whom she’s referring to; perhaps it’s those who led the campaign to include Denise in the Pritzker or some of Lavin’s fellow contributors to Grahn’s volume. Mostly, I was disappointed that she turned her attention away from the molds themselves, which are destructive to relationships and new ideas and have had great staying power, including in the academy—but not because too many people are mythologizing Scott Brown.

Such molds are powerful and persuasive. In her article on Scott Brown’s unique conceptualization of functionalism and her unsuccessful efforts to write her own book in the mid-’60s, Denise Costanzo also compares Scott Brown’s status in architecture with Venturi’s and questions her decision to pair with him. “The choice to redirect her intellectual energy away from a solo book project to invest in a partnership with Venturi had far-reaching implications intensified by gender,” Costanzo writes. “What if she had spent 1967–68 completing Determinants of Urban Form instead of practicing and teaching with Venturi? Whether or not this book could have been her Complexity and Contradiction, it would certainly have solidified her individual disciplinary voice.”

I bristled when I read, partly because of its seeming faith that an unequal, often prejudiced system would have given Scott Brown her due had she published a book at that point in her career. It’s very possible she would have written an excellent book and published it solely under her name and that that book would not have established or solidified her voice at all, that only a few architects and planners would have paid attention to it, then or even fifty years later. The academy wasn’t and isn’t a meritocracy. Costanzo’s judgement feels misplaced, a naivete masquerading as a feminist critique. As Denise struggled to write her book, she got married? To an older and more famous colleague? And then began to coauthor work with him? It’s certainly possible that marrying Bob was a terrible career move. But it’s also possible, and this seems the more damning possibility, that it was a very good one.

ONE OF THE RESULTS of the growing scholarship and analysis devoted to Scott Brown is that work that not too long ago was referred to simply as “Venturi” is now more frequently called “Venturi Scott Brown.” Such revision and crediting matters, to both Denise and her champions. It’s a question of representation, of image. And, among other things, Denise and Bob taught us that images matter.

But image isn’t everything, as I think they’d also agree. The question I was left with after I read Denise Scott Brown: In Other Eyes is whether the new attention to Scott Brown will change how scholars interpret Denise and Bob’s shared vision and body of work. This seems like the next step. It’s not a coincidence that both Denise and their firm’s attention to social life have been diminished in the architectural canon, though it does help explain why my interest in her South Street plan could easily be misread as a feminist project. Misogyny distracted attention away from both her and her more people-centered work. When juxtaposed against capital-A architecture, paying serious attention to communities, to collectives, also carries gendered connotations and can be seen as more feminine and therefore less important.

Will scholars revisit earlier interpretations of the pair’s work? Will they create new overarching narratives into which the ideas and politics expressed in, say, Scott Brown and Venturi’s writing on Co-op City or Scott Brown’s plan for South Street do fit? Grahn’s volume couldn’t do all of this; no one book could. But it’s important. Continuing to exclude such projects from assessments of their work while adding Denise’s name to mentions and awards feels cynical; it’s an altering of the image, making it compatible with today’s politics of representation, without an altering of the substance, the interpretations themselves. Of course, if scholars don’t think projects like South Street warrant inclusion in what is called “Venturi Scott Brown,” well, that would be interesting to know, too.

Given the preeminence assigned to Venturi, and the many careers built upon readings that favor him, I think such revisiting would be disruptive, running up against architecture’s alliance with high status and luxury, as well as long-standing academic norms, like the importance of single authorship and the impulse to subspecialize within already narrow disciplines. Scott Brown’s partnership with Venturi crisscrosses architecture and city planning, but also art and the social sciences, aesthetics and sociality. Indeed, the best answer to the question of who did what is to ask why does it matter—and to note that the more interesting question is how did they design and write and create together?

To me, Denise and Bob’s relationship, with all of its ambiguity and instability and dynamism, is one of the things that distinguish them from their peers—one that narrative, with its attention to context and personal connections, may be better poised to handle than scholarship. Visiting Scott Brown at her home over the past five years, asking her questions, and taking in the curated clutter of pop art Batman pillows and stenciled walls has been a great reminder that alongside the compelling ideas and brilliant art are equally fascinating people.

Elizabeth Greenspan is writing a book about Scott Brown and Venturi and the remaking of cities in the 1970s, to be published by W. W. Norton.