The night before our interview, Denise Scott Brown called. ‘Hello, Amelia’, she said, ‘This is Denise Scott Brown’. She hoped I didn’t mind her phoning so late, but was I driving from New York to Philadelphia? Which roads would I take? There’s a café she likes in town; could we break for lunch? And had I seen The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? It might help me envisage her garden.
Denise is, as they say, formidable. She is considered one of the most influential architects and planners in recent history, known for developing a theory and practice of postmodern architecture that emphasised pop vernacular and urbanist strategies as critical concerns. Her work permeated broader culture in a way such things rarely do; many who don’t know or care about design or city planning have learned from Learning from Las Vegas, the first survey of Las Vegas’ strip urbanism, co-authored by Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, in 1972.
Denise lives with Bob, Grant (their 20-year-old ‘handyperson’), and Aalto the dog in an art nouveau-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Inside, constellations of form and pattern cover every surface. Although Denise no longer formally practices architecture, she remains prolific. Her digital slideshows combine her own work with found images of CT scans and Paul Klee paintings in associative digital fields communicating complex arguments about activity and structure. ‘They used to say you can’t learn anything past age 30’, she said. ‘But I say the great lessons in life are in your old age. You have to learn or you won’t survive’.
Most of this interview took place as I trailed Denise around her garden, which stretches behind the house on a gentle slope. Like everything she creates, the garden is a nuanced yet intuitive construction of space, on which Denise is perennially and fervently at work.
How did you find this house?
Driving to Bob’s mother’s house, we saw this driveway. And down it and through layers of window, we spotted the ‘front’ yard behind. I say the garden side is the front—do you have this problem?
No, I’d call this the back of the house.
Well, English people call it the front lawn. Anyway, like everyone else in the world, we drove down to see how the house could be transparent. Near the end I said, ‘I can’t believe those two windows—art nouveau is not an American house style.’ In California, there’s mission style, but that’s really arts and crafts. An Australian—an itinerant carpenter, earning a living as he travelled—recognized our woodwork as a Venezuelan hardwood much used in Germany. You can’t believe how hard it is. In the early 20th century a German architect, Hermann Muthesius, wrote Das Englische Haus. Germans loved his descriptions of the English house and landscape. So ours is an American version of a German art nouveau house, in a German version of an 18th-century English romantic landscape. We maintain the garden as the first owners built and planted it; so before an old tree dies we plant a new one of the same species near it.
So that it will grow to replace the old one?
Yes, the new one’s already begun. We have two locations for each tree; this is part of stewardship. Everything here is to do with stewardship. But although the new one is there, it won’t provide shade for years, and new patterns form in the sunlight. These things here are ‘weeds’, but they’re showing us a new pattern. To fill in gaps, we interpret the changing patterns and follow the forces that condition them—natural, structural, and more. Working with them is fun and inspiring. During our last repainting of the house, my cataracts were removed and my lenses replaced. Before the operation, the sky looked greenish, autumn leaves technicoloured, and the rest shades of parchment. Then one eye was fixed and I had two visions: one Las Vegas, the other North Pole. Today, things have settled down and look merry enough, but at first I missed the warmth of my cataract eyes. While I still had them, I gave instructions for painting the house. That’s why it’s a chalky white. It was meant to be mushroom-coloured.
Your relationship to colour is so strong; did it trouble you when you had problems with your eyesight?
I see colour well now, and I love what I see—except for the white house. It wasn’t all bad. Given my links to all things visual, I tried to make the most of my temporary bicolour perception, and I returned to photography. Years ago I told myself, ‘Just shoot’, reasoning that if you pause to edit, it’s gone. And then you kick yourself when you work out later why you wanted it. Last year I looked out of my window and saw icicles hanging from the eaves. They were beautiful in the early dawn, and as the sun rose a pink blush moved across them. I caught it by iPhone. I had stopped photographing in 1968.
Why did you stop?
I dropped the camera and hurt the lens. But basically, with a child, a practice, and studios to teach, I was too busy. But I didn’t really give up, as we used photography in lecturing and in our practice. I’m writing now on how architectural photography has changed during our careers. It was something architects did for the record. Robert Scott Brown and I journeyed to see buildings in the round that we had studied in books; we photographed them while we could. During apartheid, South Africans feared losing their passports and travelled as soon as the opportunity arose. We spent some years abroad studying, working, travelling, and photographing as if we might not go again. Along the way our ideas grew, and we took shots to convey them as well as to record buildings. Later, I used them in lecturing, and eventually they and photographs by our students supported our Learning from Las Vegas study and ‘Signs of Life’ show at the Smithsonian Institution in 1976. In our practice, photography aided research, design, documenting, recording, and marketing. Its role grew over the years and, with computers, it spread throughout architecture. It can now be considered one of architecture’s disciplines, like history, theory, and structures. We worked with many photographers, but Henri Cartier-Bresson is my beacon. Although ‘just shoot’ did not come from him, catching the propitious moment did and seeing the camera as part of your hand. And to learn about urban patterns, I tell students to examine his pictures of people in public places.
Do you draw?
Architects in English schools learn to draw very well. I took life classes and several forms of architectural drawing and I drafted very well. Bob draws marvelously, but he thinks drafting is more important. And we both had to learn to work with people who use computers. Bob didn’t photograph, but he would sometimes ask me, ‘Can you please get that? Can you make sure you get that?’ We have a couple of pictures taken by his eye and my finger. We also photographed each other in the Las Vegas desert. The differences are telling. Mine of him plays with scale, makes mannerist digs and refers to René Magritte. His of me is a record shot, but in it I was playing—hamming.
How often did you go home to South Africa after you left?
Twice while I was in England, then in 1957 to 1958 we spent a year and a half working and travelling in South Africa before making for the US. In 1959, when Robert died, I went home, my life upended. But both families pushed me to return to Penn. I went again with Bob in 1970 to show him my childhood. That was the last time. I hesitate when saying ‘I went home’, because in South Africa to call England ‘home’ was to announce your social superiority. An article I wrote, called ‘Invention and Tradition in the Making of American Place’, started with my overhearing three women in a bus in Johannesburg. The first said to the second, ‘I can tell from your accent that you’re from home’. She replied, ‘Yes, I left home 30 years ago’, and the third said, ‘I’ve never been home but one day I hope to go’. They were not just being sociable, they were establishing themselves as members of a caste.
I read that your father’s family owned a boarding house and your mother grew up on a farm. Is that right?
We were from Eastern Europe. My father’s father was a businessman, but his parents took in lodgers from the old country. A picture shows my mother’s mother as an elegant 18 year old in Riga, with her hair swept up, wearing a white Edwardian lace shirt. She looks like a Gibson Girl. But when next you see her, she’s wearing an apron and cooking with a three-legged iron pot over an outdoor fire.
That was when they had moved to Africa, the family?
Yes, there are African huts in the background. My mother’s family went from Courland, in Latvia, to the Rhodesias, and my father’s from a shtetl in Lithuania to Johannesburg. I come at things as an African. Care for the environment— sustainability, we say now—was a necessity there. Robert’s family had a small farm and grew their food. Land erosion was an enormous problem that had involved them in soil conservation and organic farming. And we learned methods of sun protection and water retention in architecture school. But in America, when I said, ‘You’re facing the building the wrong way’, people in the office responded, ‘That’s why we have air conditioning’. Now they don’t say that. Here’s where the water runs down—you can see the lines over there, and the moss. Isn’t this moss lovely?
The smell is beautiful.
From that end, you see a symphony. Cherry blossoms and azaleas come out first, then dogwoods. Living things answer each other over time and make patterns in our garden through their relationships to sun, soil, and each other. In architecture, too, there are basic relationships. As beginners we learn simple ones: the size of a closet and where it should be in a bedroom, how bedrooms relate to bathrooms, and the living room to the dining room. We know these patterns—although for unconventional clients we might change them, combine rooms or leave the tub in the open, in general, clients want architects to maintain accepted patterns. It’s the same in cities. Forces of nature and society form patterns of settlement long before architects get there. Planners call the basic city-forming relationships ‘linkages’ or ‘city physics’. They’re functionalism for cities. Yet while we accept linkage relationships inside buildings and call ourselves functionalists, we run from them on the outside. Put the word ‘urban’ in the chapter title and architects go on to the next chapter. That’s where I think we lose our creativity, not to speak of our ability to satisfy people. And we have caused a lot of social harm. Urban renewal upsets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the admonitions of Jane Jacobs, and the reasoning of Herbert Gans derive from what architects would not let themselves learn. When we first moved in to this house we got cold feet—
What year was this?
It was in 1972. How could we have been so crazy as to buy this old white elephant? The developer who intended to build houses on unbuilt land in the front couldn’t proceed until the old house was sold, so eventually his price came down to one we could afford. But when the deal was done, Bob cried, ‘How can we support all this?’ I was frantic; we had a 15-month-old son and a monster of a house, and I had a husband saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing here’. ‘Who can help?’ I pondered, ‘Who might like to?’ Architecture students, of course! We could pay them grad student hourly rates for their work if we also put them up and fed them, and if they saw their summer with us as a seminar. We went ahead on faith. Architecture students painted and mended the house, and pruned and weeded the grounds. We never failed to find a ‘handyperson’. Our attic floor has two small rooms and a bathroom. They stay there. ‘If you want friends to visit’, we say, ‘that’s fine’. And some help to mulch or clean the fishpond. The companionship of these young architects was wonderful for Jim, our son, as he grew up. And Bob and I, having worked with them most of our lives, loved and needed the company, too. We still do, and their architectural training makes them especially useful. They think holistically. In architecture, if you misstep on even one item, the building may fail. So we must research and design in the overall, like it or not. But urbanists from the social sciences see architects as totally intuitive—‘Oh, those artists!’ they say. Yet they’re less holistic than architects. And in deciding what to research, they too can be irresponsible and egotistical. Peter and Alison Smithson were starting their careers in London when I studied there. Although I could not be their student, I turned to them for advice. Peter said, ‘Go to Louis Kahn’. Kahn taught that while an artist may sculpt a car with square wheels to symbolize something, we architects must design them with wheels that work. It’s an interesting difference—perhaps the interesting difference—and if you believe no art can come from it, I think you’re wrong. In the ‘50s, city rebuilding was the main task, and architects with intelligence and talent saw urbanism as a focus for good and for architectural art. Now architects think you turned to urban planning because you weren’t a good designer. Do you want to see our frogs?
Cheeky things—there’s a tonne of them. They don’t move when you go near. I’ve got too much algae in the pond, but if you take it out, it just grows back. We’ve got a vegetable garden over here, too; when I first came to this house, we got various tradespeople to come and work with us, and they’d always tell me about the old woman who lived here and how they always went off with a basket of tomatoes. She must have been overwhelmed with tomatoes. And, see, these are very old hedges that we’ve planted.
What sort of conditions do tomato plants like?
Lots of heat, lots of sun. We have done a little urban plan for this garden. It’s got a crossroads where you can take the wheelbarrow and turn it around. We have a whole lot of them down there and we’re going to make sure that they don’t fall on the floor.
They’re looking happy, those tomatoes. They’re looking nice and fat.
Yes, but we had other trees, which were really more climbing trees than these are. If you look down there, there’s a coach house, but these split-level ranchers were built later. This is a racially mixed suburb, integrated for idealistic reasons during Philadelphia’s post–World War II era of liberal Democrat government. That government had close ties with the University of Pennsylvania, where social planning originated. No one knows how good Penn’s planning school was! And it’s indirectly why Peter Smithson said, ‘Go there’. I was in both the planning and the architecture department. The planners were more interesting than the architects—Bob apart. He understood. His mother, Vanna, was a socialist and pacifist. She went to school hungry as a child and dropped out of school when her winter coat got too short. But before she left, a schoolteacher had noticed her brilliant young pupil. Vanna and Miss Caroll formed a lasting friendship and out-of-school teaching guided the young woman to become the poised beauty her husband-to-be saw at a ball at the Bellevue Hotel. Bob’s dad hoped to be an architect, but left school when his father died to help his mother run the family business, a retail fruit and produce market on South Street—the street we later helped to save. After World War I, Venturi Inc. became a purveyor to institutions and hotels, and it prospered. Bob went to private schools and Princeton and on to the American Academy in Rome. His was not too different a family story from mine, but their ascent was more vertical take-off than upward mobility. We met at my first Penn faculty meeting and, in the debate that day, found we were kindred spirits. To me, other Penn architects seemed aloof and rigid. I felt they were taking the worst, not the best, from ‘30s modernism, and I disliked the authoritarianism of their studios and juries. Planning school was different. In studio, we worked in teams and on one project, which contained many elements of design but also went beyond the physical to include social, economic, and environmental policy, research as well as design, and processes for bringing them all together. By spanning disciplines and working to link our analysis to our design, we hoped our plans would be functional and creative—even beautiful, but in their own way. My approach added a return to early modernism and concepts of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’ to planning doctrines and methods. And as we critiqued modern architecture, Bob and I took it up in a new way. Form, for us, emerges complexly from more than function, and so does beauty. Forces make form, too, and letting ‘volunteer’ vegetation grow and following its patterns is one way. Another is ‘city physics’. Both bring richness and fun to the far-from-simple search for functionality and beauty. Architects design public places that the public doesn’t use, and sociologists say you can’t name a place ‘public’; the public makes it so when you satisfy their needs. But mapped analyses of our projects’ campus movement systems and activity patterns, and planned sequences of steps to pull them into a design, result in people moving along routes and using places as we had hoped.
I suppose architects are often accused of thinking they’re making independent objects—the structure as this sovereign entity, without even necessarily a relationship to the structures that surround it.
Absolutely, but I bang them on the head. I think lessons on where vegetation grows help. As small children, my mother took us walking in patches of veld remaining near us on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She showed us, as her governess showed her in Rhodesia, what lived in grass and sand. And like Miss Tobin, her governess, she coaxed musical notes from grasses and leaves and was always making things—with a walnut shell, a scrap of paper, glue, a pin, and a flag, she made a boat to float under a bridge and down a stream. As a beginning architecture student, I excavated for fossils in the wilderness during our July vacations. We camped, and our work was hard, but when I could I lay under a tree, looked up at foliage patterns and listened to veld sounds. My mother kept a pet monkey on a roof near her studio at Wits University. She had three brothers and no sisters and thought playing with girls was not what you did. You played with boys.
She thought playing with the girls was boring?
Yes, and so, of course, did I. As a student I would say, ‘I’d like to share my apartment with someone, but it’d have to be a man’. Then I found some women I liked, and they too wanted to play with the boys. Later we learned we were wrong: women must move up together or not at all. This group formed women’s lib. When Bob and I married, we each had years of experience— the last seven we’d spent in close collaboration, even teaching together. So when I joined the still-new office of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, we adapted our patterns of working together to fit professional routines and practices and to include the creativity of others. Design ideas were generated in many ways, mostly under our leadership, but also under that of others—and often, though not always, via ping-pong with a team. Many offices know the excitement of this unrecognized creative process. But critics in the profession said, ‘Well, she must be Bob’s business manager’ or, ‘She moved up by marrying the boss’. They couldn’t, and many still can’t, conceive that we were colleagues from the start; that I was inspiration to him and he to me, and that our practice was a joint work where design ideas came from both of us, and others.
I read your piece, ‘Sexism and the Star System’, about the way people have tended to assume your practice was peripheral to Bob’s. This has come up again recently, with the campaign out of Harvard to have your work recognised with a Pritzker. Do you think this has had an impact on your design? Do you think it made you tougher, or fiercer in your convictions somehow?
No, I think it made me feel inadequate. It said, ‘You must be no good, they all say you’re no good’. It was debilitating. But as long as I was working with Bob and others, and our ideas were flowing, I felt happy. At Penn, I listened to Bob’s weekly theory lectures and loved his take on things that I loved, too. Feeling incredibly energised, I wanted to run out and do things. So did he. And through our collaboration, our themes crept into each other’s work. When I joined the practice, my abilities expanded Bob’s and broadened our scope. I remember his happiness at discovering I’m good at patterns— I’m an urbanist after all, and I photograph—because they’re necessary, but not quite his thing. And I can say, ‘On the other hand—’ which makes me a pain, but useful. For example, the opposite of collaboration is individual work, and a studio or office must have both. At certain points, people need to go away from the group, think on their own, and come back with something. Each one must offer something. And a project leader’s skills must include sensing when each is needed. All this makes for a full life. I adore practice; I adore teaching. I used to think, how could practice ever be as interesting? Yet I got to love it even more, and now it’s not open to me—no one is going to give us jobs. But everyone wants to do what you’re doing—come and talk with me. This is nice; I love it. And I love making collages of my slides to illustrate my points when I lecture. I call it curating, and I can talk to one slide for 20 minutes. I put together things that are evocative, heuristic, and interesting—but they must also be beautiful or no one will watch them. Sometimes I see two images together that look absolutely wonderful but make no point at all, but I can’t resist showing them, so I do. Then, suddenly, the reason they go together becomes apparent. This is my locus today for creativity, my venue for ‘making things’ as my mother taught me, and for finding beauty. It and writing are what I do now.