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Taking the city planning course at the University of Pennsylvania


From South Africa through Europe to America
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] At this point I then knew the Smithsons very well and also Robert Scott Brown had arrived in England. And we were both of us having finished…my finished the AA and he finished at Wits University. We were taking a course in tropical architecture with the snow falling all around us in London, and thinking how naïve these English are about hot climates. I think we were right. But we did that little course together and then Peter Smithson said to me – you see, we all of us were going to study Urbanism next. If you were in England at that time and it was a time of social investment because of the cities having been bombed, and a great rebuilding. And government was the place that was doing all the building. Unlike America where the ex-servicemen went into Levittown or Levittown-like places and their interest rate was subsidised so the private sector could build. In England you got council housing. And it wasn’t the poorest who went into council housing, but the deserving poor as Shaw would have called them.

And so, if you were an architect you were going to work in the public sector and you were going to be very tied into Urbanism. And if you were a good architect all the more you were going to study town planning. And you didn’t want to study that in England because it was very pedestrian there. Not pedestrian in planning for pedestrians but pedestrian in the sense of conservative. So Peter Smithson said the only place to go to study in America is the University of Pennsylvania, because that is where Lou Kahn is.

Now it’s very interesting that Lou Kahn and Team 10 had met at that point. And the penny only dropped recently to me as how that happened. How Lou Kahn came to be able to do that and want to do that. But… so we decided we were going to go to America but that first we were going to go back to South Africa and see our parents and work there a while. And then go to America by the time Robert turned 26 when he wouldn’t be subject to the draft because we understood the draft was totally capricious. If we went as would-be citizens, as immigrants he could be subject to the draft. So we decided to spend that time in South Africa, which is what we did and it’s a blessing we did because otherwise his parents would never have seen him again. Shortly after we started at Penn, Robert was killed in a car accident. But meanwhile, in South Africa we both worked. We travelled and saw our parents. We travelled a lot, we looked around. We were full of questions.

I should have said something else. Before we went to South Africa, we also spent a year in Europe and that was a very formative year for us. We had a very small three-wheeler Morgan, we camped and travelled. And camped in farmer’s fields, not in camping grounds. And travelled through France and Germany. And no… through France to Italy and then to Venice and to a summer school in Venice. And spent two months in Venice and then went to Rome. And then worked for an architect called Giuseppe Vaccaro in Rome for six weeks. Travelled some more and then went to South Africa. So we had most of the year in Europe and almost six months in Italy. Also saw Germany and Holland at the same time. And I have my photographs from then. And I should also have said that we had our honeymoon in… I almost said Las Vegas. No, it wasn’t Las Vegas, it was in Yugoslavia. And it had just come out from behind the Iron Curtain and we hitchhiked through Yugoslavia, taking boats and mule or donkey wagons. And the cars of communists and the cars of French tourists. And getting in a large loop through places that I have since seen on the television, bombed and destroyed in the saddest of ways. So now, there we are in South Africa taking photographs of popular culture and early modern architecture like crazy as we had been doing all through Europe. And Mannerist architecture in Europe but of course not in South Africa. And eventually got to America in 1958.

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: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010