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An interview at Hagia Sophia and work for the American Embassy


Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] We have had a diminution in the amount of work we have, and some of the time we’ve spent lecturing and writing. We find that there’s a lot of demand for us.  For example, some very young architects at Harvard got in touch with me, and they say, ‘We’re very much interested in research’. And universities tell us that the kind of research we do is interesting to other fields because it’s much more free-floating. We have imaginative ways of doing research that could reverberate for other people, which I’d always felt and I feel studio is a very wonderful teaching tool that should be used by other people. But, so, they said, ‘We’ve based it all on your Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown studios.  Those have been our models for years. And we know that you’ve done other studios and would you please come and talk to a group of researchers about studio as a research tool?

Well, I had many to talk about and they let me be keynote speaker and give a talk rather longer than the rest of people, which was nice of them, but then I was also older than all the rest of them. And age has some perogatives, maybe, in the very, very end. So, I gave this talk showing many studios and talking about research in ways that they hadn’t heard of before, because the planning studios used design as a research tool – not only research as a design tool, as a design heuristic. You didn’t only go from research to design you did interim designs which were not going to be used, as such. But they were a way of marshalling thoughts to help you realise, it’s no use trying to build over here, because when we bring everything together we can’t develop this area, its flood plain, but we can develop this other area. You do a design to learn these things, then you go on and you know better where to put your research money.

So, they were fascinated: ‘Design as a research tool, we never thought of that, that’s different from what researchers tell us’. If you listen to a… a social scientist planner told me just the other day, ‘Why do you call what we do design – you’re being oppressive to us. You’re saying we don’t… you don’t accept our definitions. We don’t say we do design’. I said, ‘That’s part of the trouble.  You think design is only intuitive, you leave out a lot of stuff in your own field, because you won’t realise you are indeed synthesising and you won’t be responsible for doing that’. She said, Why do you oppress me by using that word design?’ I said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ ‘Well, its analysis, you see.’ ‘If it’s only analysis, if you’re only taking things apart you’re a menace, because when you bring them together you don’t notice. You don’t notice there’s a discipline needed in doing that.’ Anyway, I didn’t say that as strongly to her as she was a nice person. But the point is, that we have something to offer when we talk like that. And that’s what they spotted and I was thrilled. And I don’t think there’s many architects being asked to do that, or many of the famous signature architects now, in demand in places where people are really thinking about the future of architecture in that way.

And we’ve been asked to talk in Delft and in Vienna, in London, at Princeton – again there’s a research studio there, doctoral students there. And they wanted me to come and they said, ‘What would we have done without you?’ And I kept saying, ‘Where’s your rigour, no one’s teaching you how to be rigorous.  Yet all other fields’ research have ways in which to be rigorous and you learn the philosophy of that and you learn how to do statistics, and you may have a different form of rigour but at the moment you have no rigour’. And they really, you know, people like me need to tell them that.

Well, that’s what’s happening to us.  People are spotting that we have something to offer that is not, you know, where can we go next for the next Neo-Modernist building, that’s going to show how advanced we are? You see, that view of advancement now is being rejected by a younger generation and we’re very thrilled to be asked to do things like that. In the same way Bob was at Columbia last week, I think, or just two weeks ago, and they were wanting a new generation of people to talk to him about Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture – the book – and why he wrote it and how he came to write it and. etc. And what’s lovely now is that whole debate about Postmodernism, which hung up an older generation.  They haven’t even heard of it and it bores them anyway. And they’re not labelling us with something we’re not and then fighting us because we’re not that, because we are that thing when we’re not that thing. That whole thing is gone by and the next generation is just very interested in what we do and looking upon… everyone except Rem Koolhaas. Rem Koolhaas they admire, but apart from that they seem to think that they’re their grandparents and they’re not… probably their parents and they’re not interesting.

[RV] It was also another place we’ve lectured a lot, which you forgot to mention, was Istanbul.

[DSB] Yes, that was wonderful.

[RV] That was a wonderful one because it contains my favourite building, as I said, in all civilization – Hagia Sofia. It was wonderful also because there was just an enormous number of young people who were interested and familiar with what we’re saying. Interested in and familiar with what we were saying. There are a lot of Asian, young female architects who were wearing… everyone… they all were wearing American blue jeans.  On the other hand they were also wearing these things around their heads.

[DSB] Head scarves.

[RV] The head scarves, the combination of the head scarves and the blue jeans is complex and contradictory.

[DSB] People said don’t… don’t assume anything from seeing a head scarf on someone. And it’s true they were vibrant. We felt like grandparents to a family of thousands. All the young people there. And they were people we’d never have met anywhere else, because they got fellowships from obscure parts of Russia and Arab countries and a pile of Kenyan architects all put their arm around me. They… the whole lot of them, they see you, they approach you, they say, ‘Photograph please’.  And you have a photograph with their arms all around both of us.

Was this in China?

[DSB] No, this was in Istanbul. Yes, photograph, and then autograph, and then they don’t want to talk, they run off. But we really felt it was like a family… a family of thousands.

[RV] I think we were there…

[DSB] Those conferences are wonderful because of their atmosphere.

[RV] I think we were there six or seven days and every single day I drove out to Hagia Sofia.

[DSB] Yes.

[RV] To say hello.

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, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010