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Denise Scott Brown; family history (Part 1)


Shared interests and histories
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] I left for Berkeley in 1965, January '65, and I went on my way, to Las Vegas. I knew it was something I should visit, and then when I started teaching at UCLA it was a new program and I was able to set up an inter-disciplinary faculty and teach studio the way I wanted, with transportation people and social scientists, and architects and lawyers and all of this around studio, and we also had a good budget for visitors.  So I had some of my colleagues to come out and talk to my students, and one of these was Bob Venturi, and he came and stayed in my cottage in Santa Monica.  And I had been all over, taking photographs of popular culture in… well in Las Vegas and in Los Angeles.  And I gave the students a four day sketch design and took Bob Venturi to Las Vegas, because I knew he’d want to see it.

[RV] We should mention of course that Pop Art existed in America at that time, in the early '60s, and I wasn’t… I didn’t particularly admire pop art, until later, when I was introduced to Denise, to the pop culture, and it was architectural, and then I went back loving Andy Warhol and those, those guys, and we have some of their work in our house now.

[DSB] It’s interesting…

[RV] Not the expensive work, the… the prints.

[DSB] When… when Bob and I first married we had a big argument, because I said, ‘The artists are at last catching up with the architects’, meaning the pop artists, and Bob said, ‘What do you mean?  They are leading the way’. And I said, ‘No they aren’t, they’re following what we had done’.

Well, I later realised, and he realised, that there was a whole phase of pop art going on in England, that Americans didn’t know about. Now they do, and now people talk to me about the Independent Group and my experience with the Brutalists, in 1953 or so in England.  But around that was a… a group of early pop artists, like Paolozzi and another one whose name I never remember, who were taking American popular culture and using it artistically in different ways, and then there were architects who followed, including the Archigram Group.  Although they didn’t use it the way any reputable social scientist would have liked, they did use its imagery in mega structures.  And so all of that was part of the culture I brought with me. You’ll find also my photographs of South Africa shows storefronts and neon and things like that, as well as photographs from Europe, before ever getting here. So, I was really prepared to look for and like popular culture in America, and Bob used to say about me, as we were driving around in Philadelphia, that I saw things that he who was born there, had never seen, had never noticed, had taken it as background. I, on the other hand, was very intrigued by what he knew about 19th century and early 20th century Philadelphia suburban residential architecture. I found that very fascinating. We had a lot to share, when we met, for reasons to do with my previous experience. I was contrarian in the same way he was about ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and about breaking the rules.

This wasn’t only teenage rebellion, it… I have other things that I’ll recount later in it. We also shared a great interest in Mannerism, which was a more organised interest in England and Europe. Bob discovered it for himself in Rome.  The architects and professors I had in England and then the people in… in Europe that I met, were very involved with Mannerism and were reading about it avidly.  And so we both likened Mannerism to breaking the rules in Modernism, and wanted to find ways to do it ourselves. And then we shared popular culture, and then we shared this other interesting fact that Bob brings out… that he is an Italian American who’s been made a Quaker by his upwardly mobile parents, and I say it wasn’t upward mobility, it was vertical take off with them, and he gets sent to prep schools and Princeton and all of that. I have a similar background for being Jewish in Africa, in… born in Zambia, but then I’m growing up in South Africa, and so we… I describe us both by the sociological term, marginal man, but I’m going to say marginal person because I’m also a feminist.  But a marginal person – the first one was Moses in the Bible – is born to one tribe, is adopted into another, is eventually turned down by the one he was adopted by, and goes back and leads his own people out of… through the exodus, out of Egypt and into a promised land. Well, the notion that the marginal person has a skew view of life, isn’t part of one culture or another, is part in each.  And this can be seen as an oppression, and I felt it as an oppression as a child, because of… basically persecution, one way or another. But I later got to realise that it’s a great advantage. I say, ‘If that conflict is in the sea of my being, if it’s the way I really, really am, how can I use it creatively?’ And that’s the leadership that we offer: the creative use of a conflict.  And I think Bob and I both have that thing.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010