Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown

Sister Mary Scullion, RSM
The Honorable Walter H. Annenberg

The 1992 winners of the Philadelphia Award, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, are architects and city planners of international renown. At the award ceremony, Scott Brown remarked, “Bob and I are delighted and honored to receive this recognition in our hometown. Artists, like children, need encouragement and thrive on it as they develop.”

I mproving the area around Penn would make that community a more desirable place for Penn faculty and students to live, enabling the continued growth of the university, while (hopefully) making it a better place for the community’s non-academic residents as well.

Born in Philadelphia, Robert Venturi was raised in nearby Upper Darby. He attended Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1947 and an M.F.A. in 1950 from Princeton University. He worked briefly for the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and for Philadelphia’s own Louis Kahn. From 1954 to 1965, Venturi held a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met fellow faculty member, architect and planner Denise Scott Brown. The two were married in 1967 and Scott Brown joined Venturi’s architectural firm, Venturi and Rauch, which was renamed Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown in 1980--and ultimately Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates in 1989.

Denise Scott Brown, who is considered by some critics to be the world’s foremost female architect, was born Denise Lakofski in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). She studied at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and then continued her education at the Architectural Association School in London, from which she received a degree in architecture in 1955.

After traveling and studying in Europe for three years, Scott Brown came to Philadelphia in 1958 to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s planning department. She received her master’s degree in city planning in 1960 and became a faculty member at the university. In 1960, Scott Brown met Robert Venturi at a meeting to oppose the planned demolition of the Furness Library at Penn. She and Venturi eventually collaborated and taught courses together. The library was later restored by their firm.

Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) established his reputation as a theorist and designer with radical ideas. He summed up his view of modernism in his widely quoted adage “less is a bore.” As opposed to the functionalism and simplicity of rigid modernism, Venturi argued that complexity and contradiction in architecture is far more interesting, the richness of symbolism and embellishment. This work was very influential in the profession, eventually translated and published in 18 languages.

Architecture historian Vincent Scully said of the impact of Venturi’s critique of modernism: “Venturi saved modern architecture from itself, and has been hated by almost all modern architects. His buildings were prepared to get along with other buildings in the city, to take up their roles in a gentle comedy of citizenship rather than in a melodrama of pseudo-heroic aggression.”

In the mid-1960s Scott Brown and Venturi, with Steven Izenour, led a group of Yale architecture students to study the buildings of the Las Vegas Strip. This resulted in A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (1972), by Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, which was revised and published as Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (1977). Like other writings by Venturi and Scott Brown, Learning from Las Vegas was critical of modernism and promoted acceptance of American vernacular architecture. This view was pioneered by Scott Brown, who had often intrigued her husband with her observations about everyday buildings, prodding him to view such buildings as a source of architectural ideas.

Scott Brown is widely known as an urban planner, designer, and theorist. In 1969 she became head of planning and a partner at Venturi and Rauch. Scott Brown has led many major civic planning studies including for the Jim Thorpe Historic District, the Denver Civic Center, entertainment and transit in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and for Main Street and South Street in Philadelphia. She also conducted numerous college planning studies, including for the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Her writings include Having Words (2009), a collection of essays which includes her advice to New Orleans on its rebuilding. Venturi and Scott Brown have often been visiting lecturers at universities.

Venturi’s first important design was a house for his mother, Vanna Venturi, in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. His works draw inspiration from past architectural styles, often presenting familiar forms in new and inventive ways. His many landmark buildings include the Guild House apartments on Spring Garden Street, the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia’s Franklin Court, the Nikko Kirifuri spa and resort in Japan, and the tree house and primate pavilion at the Philadelphia Zoo. Scott Brown has served as principle-in-charge (overseer) of the firm’s larger projects, such as the aforementioned Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery and Nikko Kirifuri resort in Japan. From 1997-1999, their firm oversaw the renovations of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s historic, 1910 building, including its main reading room.

Ann S. Nista

Sources: The following articles are from the Philadelphia Inquirer: Thomas Hine, “Venturi Wins Architecture Prize,” April 8, 1991; Hine, “Architects get Philadelphia Award; Venturi and Scott Brown Designed Franklin Court and Proposed Orchestra Hall,” April 8, 1993; Steven Salisbury, “Why the Venturi-Scott Brown Hall Won’t be Built,” April 27, 1997; Mike Capuzzo, “Plight of the Designing Woman; The Scott Brown Half of the Award-Winning Architectural firm of Venturi Scott Brown Just Wants Credit Where Credit is Due,” Dec. 10, 1992; Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline,” Nov. 28, 2008; Saffron, “Beach House Now Amphibious,” March 13, 2009; Saffron, “House on a Boat Now a New Yorker,“ March 14, 2009; Saffron, “For Two Radicals, Perhaps Too Much Respect,” June 10, 2001. Robert Venturi”, Wikipedia, Denise Scott Brown, RIBA, Int. FRIBA, Principal (curriculum vitae); “Denise Scott Brown”, Wikipedia,