In 1991, the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi was honored with the Pritzker Prize, the profession’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He was widely considered a deserving choice and, if anything, overdue for the honor. His firm, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, had played a central role in freeing American architecture from the grip of postwar modernism, which by 1970 had devolved from its bracing glory days to orthodoxy and tedious glass-and-steel copycats. Venturi, Scott Brown was known for a few famous works, like the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, on London’s Trafalgar Square, but even more for the foundations it had laid for the turn against modernism. Their books, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966) and “Learning from Las Vegas” (1972), argued for an embrace of the messy and the vernacular, a rejection of blandness, and an appreciation of ornament. Both volumes are mainstays in architecture programs. Venturi, the Pritzker jury citation read, “expanded and redefined the limits of the art of architecture in this century, as perhaps no other has.”
When Venturi got the Pritzker phone call, though, his surprised reaction was to ask: What about Denise? “Denise” is Denise Scott Brown, who had been Venturi’s intellectual collaborator since the early nineteen-sixties, and a partner in the firm since 1969, deeply involved in everything it had done. Scott Brown was the one who’d been drawn to Las Vegas, who set in motion the project that culminated in “Learning from Las Vegas,” who created the studio class, which led to the book that influenced a generation of architecture students. (“Learning” was co-authored by Scott Brown, Venturi, and Steven Izenour.) More importantly, the ideas at the heart of Venturi, Scott Brown—the notions that bucked modernism and reconnected American architecture with older traditions—were developed by the two as a team, or, as Scott Brown has put it, as “a joint creativity.” But Scott Brown was a woman and, worse still, married to Venturi. (When it came to the perception of outsiders, “architect’s wife” trumped “architect.”) Venturi asked that Scott Brown be included in the award and was told that would not be possible. The couple decided that he had to accept the honor, because their firm was struggling financially, and the hundred-thousand-dollar award and the recognition would help enormously. At the ceremony, held at a palace in Mexico City, Venturi ended his acceptance speech with a forceful acknowledgment of Scott Brown’s “crucial” contributions. Scott Brown didn’t attend.
A few weeks ago, students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (G.S.D.) decided to try to right the twenty-two-year-old wrong. Inspired by a recent interview with Scott Brown, they started a petition, demanding that she be “retroactively acknowledged for her work deserving of a joint Pritzker Prize.” The petition has now drawn more than eight thousand signatures, including Venturi, MOMA’s Paola Antonelli, Harvard Dean of the G.S.D. Mohsen Mostafavi, as well as Pritzker winners Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Wang Shu, and Zaha Hadid, the first woman to be given the award, more than two decades after its founding. The petition has drawn the Pritzker into a discussion of the profession’s well-earned reputation for sexism, but also raised questions about the way the field—and particularly the Pritzker—traffics in a dated notion of the architect as romantic hero, inspired in isolation with plans for a shining monument. “The fact that one of the most creative and productive partnerships we have ever seen in architecture was separated rather than celebrated by a prize has been an embarrassing injustice which it would be great to undo,” wrote Koolhaas when he signed the petition.
Even when Scott Brown was a teen-ager, growing up in South Africa, she felt society’s disapproval of her pursuits. She was one of just five women in an architecture class of sixty-five students. She made a point of signing her drawings with her full name, so that when they were selected for display, everyone in the school would know they’d been done by a woman. Later, in London, she recalled visiting a firm to seek an internship with several other students, all men. When the architect, Egon Riss, was done speaking with the men, he turned to Scott Brown and said, “I am very sorry but I can’t pay you as much as the men, because the secretaries in my office would object if I did.”
Scott Brown came to America in 1958, and in 1960 she met Venturi at a University of Pennsylvania faculty meeting. They shared many interests: social responsibility, maverick thought, Italian culture and architecture, especially mannerism. Two years later, they were teaching courses together. He told her about insights from Princeton’s Donald Drew Egbert; she encouraged him to go deep into Edwin Lutyens. They scanned each other’s reading lists, critiqued each other’s writing and drawing, argued with and inspired each other. Their work became the joint product. Scott Brown joined his firm in 1967, the year they were married, and became a partner in 1969.
In an essay titled “Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” Scott Brown describes how, from the very beginning, the couple struggled against a strong pressure to turn the husband into a guru, and the wife into a footnote. They took pains to describe their individual contributions to new work, only to watch critics refer to it as “Venturi’s.” Journalists, students, and others often insisted on talking to Venturi; the two would try to explain that they were equal partners, but the attitude seemed unshakable. “They cannot get that out of their heads,” she told me. “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!’ ”
Their colleagues could be just as boorish. Philip Johnson, the founder of the Department of Architecture and Design at the MOMA and for a long time architecture’s crown prince, used to hold regular black-tie dinners at the men-only Century Club for his favorite acolytes. Venturi was invited; “the wives” were decidedly not welcome. (The first Pritzker, awarded in 1979, went to Johnson.) About three years ago, Scott Brown started to think about the idea of an “inclusion ceremony,” some kind of official Pritzker function to acknowledge her role and, more importantly, signal that architecture now welcomes all worthy practitioners and understands that creativity can come in many forms and in groups larger than one. A few weeks ago, the British Architects’ Journal filmed an interview with Scott Brown, sitting in an armchair at home, in which she mentioned the idea. Arielle Assouline-Lichten, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, was moved to start the petition, and Caroline James, a fellow G.S.D. student who’d been inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto “Lean In” to restart a campus group for women in architecture, joined her in spreading the word on social media.
It’s not clear what the Pritzker jury will decide. The Pritzker is chosen every year by a panel of independent jurors, which Martha Thorne, the prize’s executive director, said, “presents us with an unusual situation” This year’s jury will discuss what to do when they meet in May, she said.
Scott Brown, who is now eighty-one, says that she has been quite moved by the petition, and particularly all the signatures that it’s garnered from her colleagues. “It’s a huge, huge reward for me in my old age,” she said. Yet she also emphasized that what she hopes for is not her name on a Pritzker but an “inclusion ceremony.” As she imagines it, the ceremony would not have the feel of the lavish annual affairs that celebrate the induction of a new laureate. I pushed her to tell me more, and she said that perhaps it could be something modest in one of the spaces she worked on, like the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Quad. She has allowed herself to imagine it many times, but prefers to keep the details to herself. It’s important, she said, to allow the Pritzker organization to come to its own answer. “I know enough about creativity to know that there is a level at which I should say it, and define the warm heart of it, and the unpretentiousness of it, but then after that,” she said, “I should let them be the designer.”