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Movements in architecture


Work and social life at the Architectural Association
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] Well, in the middle of all this I was trying be an architecture student and worried about my talents… and did I have any talents?  And a few things happened: I went into a blue fit for my first design, which was for a… it was landscape design for Primrose Hill, a very beautiful park north of Regent’s Park. And people liked what I did and that helped a great deal. They thought it was imaginative. And I found the history lectures very interesting and useful from that point of view. And I started attending all the lectures of John Summerson who was… I attended his lectures at the AA twice. Again that gave Bob and me a lot in common when we met. And then, I did not too badly on some other designs.  And I was one girl to 12 men. Every school I had been in to date… until the very end at Penn, after I’d already left Penn… that the, the ratio started to change. But otherwise it was one in 12. One woman to every 12 men. And that ratio got me a lot of attention. I liked it. I used to say, ‘I don’t like the company of women, I prefer the company of men’. ‘I won’t share a room unless I can share one with a man’, I used to say. And then, I discovered that there were a lot of… there was a group of tomboy girls like me. And I liked them plenty. And one thing I found coming from South Africa to England, there were people in England who were really like me. I’d been really a… a sore thumb. I’d been a blue stocking in South Africa. How could she be sexy? Look how she doesn’t wear make-up or… in fact I did wear make-up – some – there, because everyone else did… and look how she dresses. And I got to England, lots of people were like that and in America even more. So it took me successive stages to find I, in fact, have spheres where I’m not weird. Well we're rather weird still, but not that much. And so that was nice about the AA… I could find some of that.  But meanwhile I began again worrying and feeling homesick. And I remember hearing one of my professors saying, ‘As a professor you have to watch carefully, you might spot a good person slipping’. And I thought that’s what I am, a good person slipping. And then I started slipping even more. And then Arthur Korn found me.

Now Arthur Korn was a German Jewish Communist refugee from Berlin. And he was a much-loved teacher but also… now he was old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy. And the youngest, brightest felt he was, sort of, out of date. But he kind of semi-adopted me and we used to have coffee together once a week at a little restaurant called Debry. And I would talk about a need for structure and framework in my life, and he would talk about the November Group. And we had parallel conversations where he more or less told me what it was like to be young in Berlin, and he was trying to reassure me and give me confidence and help me with my work. He was my student advisor at the time. And I remember once he… he told me to do something. ‘Do this, do that and do the other.’ I said, ‘No, no. I don’t want to do that’. I was getting more confidence. ‘I think I want to do this and this.’ He said, ‘Stick to your guns, madam. Stick to your guns’. And he went to the next desk and there was a guy he’d been helping, a student he’d been trying to coach into doing something. And he’d done it and he put his arm around him, ‘God bless you, my boy’. Well that was the nurturing that I needed at that point. But then I was noticed by a group of people, amongst that group of bright scholarship people. And one of them left a message: Would you like to work on a thesis project with me? So he and I began working together. And that was a real education for me. His background, and his knowledge and his interests. And he said to me, ‘The trouble with you is you’re so uneducated’. Well, I’d come from another country and I didn’t know English things in certain respects and other respects, Edwardian English I knew rather well. It was alive and well in South Africa. But I learned a lot from him and we worked very hard together. And we got our thesis done. And it was in a kind of a New Brutalist vein. It was a Welsh mining village, and adding, I think, about 750 housing units to this hilly… hillside, outside the town itself where the mine tip was and where the mine head was and where the main buildings were. And we added to that. And we added to it something, which I later realised looked a whole lot like the plans of Hilberseimer, the German Urbanist.

And I hadn’t known that at the time, although I should have because I had a relative in Israel where I’d visited, who was a great fan of Hilberseimer. And he’d given me a book on him and he’d more or less built the city of Gedera or the town of Gedera as it then was. And his name was Ari Ben Geffen. I mention that because I think he’s well known in Israel.

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: 6 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010