Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Denise Denied

When the Penn Professor Robert Venturi was offered the Pritzker Prize in 1991, he did his darnedness trying to get his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown included in the award. Venturi decided to deny the award but his wife argued their financial situation was too critical to walk away from the hundred thousand dollars the award included. So he stood alone.

Unlike their cooperative revisionism. They did everything architectural together. They believed that modernism had sadly frozen into rectangular clich├ęs. They hungered for freshness and diversity, like Saintsbury Wing of the National on London’s Trafalgar Square. Their postmodernist classics, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966) and "Learning from Las Vegas”(1972), urged their students to break the boredom of classic, first generation modernism, and seek freshness. 

I loved the Saintsbury but blasted the Las Vegas celebration in a Welcomat review because I had such hateful experiences there. (I still despise its hysterically obsessive entertainment ethos!!) But my objectivity disappeared because my father ran off with his secretary to Las Vegas when I was three, condemning me to ten years of isolation in Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, MI! (Fifty years later, I was less angry, accepting $150 G’s when he died as a wealthy real estate czar! It funded my second career of thirty years as a global alternative journalist!)

Still, Denise definitively got the short end of her architectural career with Venturi. Her secondclassedness started early, long before she met him at a Penn faculty meeting. As a youth in South Africa, her family pooh poohed her architectural aspirations. Indeed she was one of just five women in an architecture class of sixty-five students. Indeed she signed all her architectural drawings with her full name so all viewers would the men realize they were looking at the work of a woman! 

Later in London she recalls accompanying five men to an internship interview. When the architect Egon Riss finished dealing with male applicants, he turned to her and explained,”I am very sorry but I can’t pay you as much as the men because then the secretaries in my office would object if I did.”
Denise came to America in 1958 where she met Robert at Penn where they both taught. They swapped reading lists and grew deeper together. 

She joined his firm in 1967, the year they tied the knot. Two years later she was a partner in Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Denise wrote an essay “Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” in which she described how her hubbie became a guru and she receded to a footnote. They tried hard to explain they were partners in the deepest sense, only to have their audience allude to Venturi’s “work”. 

She complained “They can’t get that out of their heads. Whatever you say to them, they say, 'Well, she must be something else. Maybe a planner, maybe a typist, maybe she takes photographs. It has to be something else.'” (Gareth Cook,”“What about Denise?” The New Yorker, April 22, 2013.)

Philip C. Johnson who founded the architecture department at MOMA and corrupted the entire twentieth century American professional conversation on architecture threw black-tie dinners for his acolytes at the men only Century Club. (He got the first Pritzker in 1979!) His intense gay convictions didn’t extend to female freedom! 

 The Pritzker executive secretary, Martha Thorne, is eager to support British students who have started a global petition to add to the sole female Pritzker, Zaha Hadid, an Iranian who grew up in Bahgdad. Denise is 81. So we hope Ms. Thorne gets busy!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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