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SEGD Fellow Denise Scott Brown began shaking up the Modernist design establishment in the 1960s. Her explorations and discoveries paved the way for Learning from Las Vegas, the iconic publication regarded as an opening salvo in the Postmodern design movement. At 89, Denise continues to engage with the design world. She recently spoke with contributor Franck Mercurio about her career as an architect, urbanist, teacher and writer.
Learning from Las Vegas is familiar to most designers, especially architects. The text has been translated into 18 languages and is mandatory reading for most architecture students.
Denise Scott Brown wrote this influential book with her design partner and husband Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and then-graduate student Steven Izenour (1940-2001). When released in 1972, the publication sparked a major controversy in the design world. The text challenged the orthodoxy of late Modernism—the predominant design ideology of the mid-20th century—and led a new generation of designers into the uncharted territories of Postmodernism.
Vegas was seen by many as a rejection of high Modernism. But that’s not how Denise sees it.
“Coming out of Modernism, our Postmodernism didn’t reject Modernism, but updated it,” Denise told SEGD in a recent interview. “Early Modernists had to face strange problems as a result of a world war, and after which the world didn’t look the way it once had. And we (the Postmodernists) had to change, too! We had to move away from some of what the Modernists said in order to face new facts. But it's fundamentally the same outlook.”
SEGD honored Denise as a Fellow in 2003. And over the course of her extensive career she has designed a range of EGD projects—from university master plans to museum exhibitions—in collaboration with Venturi. In addition to writing Learning from Las Vegas, the couple also founded Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates of Philadelphia. Notable projects include the University of Michigan master plan and life sciences complex, the Haute-Garonne capitol building in Toulouse, France, and the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery.
On the other end of the spectrum, Denise also designs exhibItions. In 2016, she exhibited her photography in the Venice Biennale and designed the exhibition herself. More recently, she was the subject of a major museum show in Vienna. From October 2018 through March 2019, the Architekturzentrum Wien (Architecture Museum of Vienna) hosted Downtown Denise Scott Brown, billed as “the first extensive solo exhibition” about Denise, her work and her life.
“I primarily designed the Venice show,” explains Denise, “but my longtime staff member, then collaborator, Jeremy Tenenbaum assisted, especially with managing the installation.”
Tenenbaum is Director of Marketing and Graphics at VSBA Architects & Planners, the successor firm to Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.
“For Vienna, I advised on the early design direction, but this was really Jeremy’s creation,” continues Denise. “The exhibition filled a large vaulted room—the second show we’ve done where the hall simulates urban space. And it had Mannerist plays; it featured a fake coffeehouse serving real Vienna coffee!”
The exhibition’s design was inspired by Vienna’s urbanism. In the center of the hall, a “Downtown Fountain” anchored the surrounding display cases, just as a town square anchors its surrounding urban fabric. Tenenbaum also wrote the show’s comprehensive catalog, Your Guide to Downtown Denise Scott Brown, which he formatted as a travel guide to take readers on a tour of Denise’s world.
Denise’s current project is Wayward Eye, a new book featuring her early photography from 1954 through 1968, most of which has not been previously published.
“It shows photographs I took a long time ago, but which people recently discovered and find exciting,” says Denise. “But to me they weren't just photographs. They were ways to have ideas—creative sparks—about urbanism. These are photographs people have never seen that may rival ones by the Pop artists.”
And the origin of the book’s title, Wayward Eye?
“Bob (Venturi) and I both have wayward eyes—and wayward minds,” explains Denise, “Otherwise we wouldn’t have done what we did!”
Although still in the initial planning and design stages, Denise says the book will be in landscape orientation with her text formatted as image captions.
“Following the advice of magazine editors, my texts are directly under pictures so architects will read them,” says Denise. “That’s no joke! It’s my way of getting architects involved in reading the text.”
From Vegas to Vienna, Denise Scott Brown is still actively engaged in—and influencing—the design world. And on the occasion of Women’s History Month, SEGD salutes her and SEGD’s 11 other female Fellows and their contributions to design.