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Do women do architecture differently from men?


Life as a woman in architecture (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] When Bob and I married, it was a cruel shock what happened to me, because I had been a professor. I had my own following of people who thought I did very well. I was rather well known for my age, that is, which was in my early 30s, in California where I had been teaching the last few years. And there was no shred of suspicion. Well, one day the Dean had said to me, ‘Denise, Henry’s problem is he’s Chinese and your problem is that you’re a woman’.  But I nearly added under my breath, ‘Your problem is you have an alcohol addiction’. So, I didn’t take that with more than a pinch of salt. And, so… but I suddenly found I was looked upon as Bob’s typist, Bob’s secretary. I was pushed out of the way: ‘Let’s just move so we can take a photograph of the architects.  Would you mind moving?’  I said, ‘I’m an architect – would you mind moving?’  Things like that. I began to realise there’s a higher order of prejudice for women architects as you get high up in the field.  And at that time it was still one woman to 12 – one to five in planning school, one to 12 in almost every architecture school. But when you were there, you didn’t… some women said, ‘He has a problem with women, that man’.  And I felt many of my professors had a problem… not my professors, my colleagues – when I was teaching. When I was teaching at Penn there were two women in a faculty of about 50, I think, and I felt that there were… I said, ‘I can deal with the students’ mother problems, but God save me from the professors’ mother problems’.  And so, at the end I did have problems of that kind, but nothing compared with when I got into practice.

Now, look around you and the Pritzker Prize was awarded in the late ‘60s, I think.  It was started and Bob was given his Pritzker Prize too late, compared with his colleagues who got them at a certain point. They put it off until they couldn’t any longer and, sort of, reluctantly awarded it to him. He said, ‘I want it to be given to Denise Scott Brown too’, and they said ‘No’. Just like that, no. And it took them 23 years before they gave a woman the prize in architecture and that was Zaha Hadid. The nearest thing they could find in 23 years to their definition of what an architect does.  And of course their definition is the problem. Their view of what architecture consists of makes a… makes it a man, it’s just as simple as that. And they…

[RV] One reason I’m not… don’t have a gold medal AIA is that I will not receive it without including Denise and they say ‘No, we only give it to one person’.

[DSB] Yes.

I understand at MIT now, that about 50% of the undergraduates student body was women.

[DSB] That’s true in architecture too, now.

I was wondering about architecture.

[DSB] Yes it is now true there, but… and those young women they paraphrase Freud. Freud said, ‘What do women want?’ Feminists have been on his case for that for years. Now these young women in architecture say, ‘What do older women architects want?  We’ve had no discrimination’. And the problem with that is when they do reach it, they reach a glass ceiling – and it’s not too far in architecture – they blame themselves. They don’t have a feminist awareness and they don’t have a protective system for dealing with it, for that reason. They think, I’m a lousy architect and in actual fact architecture is very much an upper class profession. It’s less so, but it still is. You’ll do better in architecture if you belong to the right clubs and you either have money or a rich wife, and you just need that. It’s a very difficult profession. Upper class people have retained those prejudices.


So, in many respects, in many different ways, in which… which in England and I believe in America, and I believe in England too, you’ll find that there is discrimination in the top ranges of the profession. And the Pritzker Prize will die. Now, the present… they’ll die before they’ll give it to me. I’ll die before they ever consider it, although the present head of the staff, I believe, is rethinking or has rethought, and thinks it was a mistake what theyAnd then, I must tell you one thing, the National President’s Medal for Design was given to both of us, under George Bush the elder but mainly under the nice and thoughtful woman head of the NEA. And so, we both got the National President’s Medal. And the… the identity crisis I felt while I was there is indicative to the psychological stress this causes in my life. All the time, I kept telling myself at that thing, ‘No, they wanted you here.  No, they did give it to you both’.  I kept on having to say, ‘I’m here because… I’m here because’. And so, there’s enormous stress in siding with them, thinking I must be no good, because they’re saying it.

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, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010