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Why are there no female gurus in architecture? (Part 1)


Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[RV] There’s this issue of kinds of mistakes we find we have made in our practice and I don’t know how Denise would answer that. I would answer it that it’s not exactly mistakes, it’s that we have been not cynical about compromising ourselves in order to get the job, or in order to do work that is likeable to the majority or to the public, or to the journalistic press. And that, in a way, is a mistake because it has diminished the extent of our… of our client…


[RV] Base. But on the other hand, I think, I would not have done it any differently – I think it is the right way to go. And I’m being, kind of, oppressively idealistic here, but, I think, is the right way to go and, I think, you do pay the price in art for being ahead of yourself or for being not within the main fashionable approach. And it’s true, that our approach has been one that is complex and contradictory, difficult to understand, not simple, not ideological but… and that has harmed us in terms of getting a lot of work and being a big practice. But I don’t think I would do it differently. On the other hand there is the problem that we’re maybe not as smooth and good at being salesman, but again that’s the way it is.

[DSB] We… we are well defended against our own mistakes, I suspect, because we do say, ‘We haven’t done something we’re not proud of’, and we show examples of where it would have been wrong to do the things people are saying. Like people said, ‘Move to New York, you get much more work if you move to New York’, and we haven’t. And, I think, we would have been very distracted in New York and… because there’s so much going on there. This has been a place for… we can reach places we need to go very easily but we can also do our work here. That’s the kind of situation where people would say, ‘You could have grown to be a much bigger firm if you had been in New York’. Not sure if that was our role. Now, I’m defending against the mistake when I say it, but I also believe that.

Not so long ago, we were designing a certain building and we were designing it in a certain way and they came back from a client meeting and they said, ‘If you go on this way you will be fired’. So, I stepped in very firmly and made us differentiate the façade of that building more and found good reasons that Bob could accept to do it. Because the only reasons he’ll accept are different activities going on in there, and I could show him there, indeed, were different activities. And it really would make sense to put more variety on that façade and we did it. And I felt, when we were doing it, this may be my lack of self confidence because I really pushed a certain idea – this isn’t the best building we could do, but it’s the one the clients wants and likes and we just have to do it. We’ve done many others of this type and so we will do that. So, we satisfied them, they liked the building and to my… and I gave up watching on that project, and to my amazement about nine months later, we were fired anyway. And we were fired because a community group didn’t like the bulk of the building, which had nothing to do with us. It was the clients’ decision on the bulk and the actual shape was made by the architect… the lab architect. But nevertheless, we were fired.  Why?  Because that would satisfy some activist community members who wanted Venturi out as the price. So, we’d… we’d already done something that I wasn’t quite sure we should have done and it didn’t help us anyway. So, you see what I’m saying, there’s a reason. Bob liked that building in the end well enough. I still had questions about whether it was the best we could do, but it was what they wanted.

Mostly we haven’t done what we call B buildings – ones we don’t show because we’re not proud of, but we made money out of. And we would have been proud of this one, I think, in the end, but I had these questions and then when the client fired us he said, ‘I'm very sorry, and we screwed up and you’re having to take the brunt of it’. So, it’s… there’s lots of ironies in this thing.

Then we did make a mistake and it’s a mistake I will admit to and justify. We discovered that there had been a defalcation, it’s called, and it means money had been stolen from us. And we should have checked things more carefully than we did. It was after our partner left and I was struggling to get a grasp on all the functions of this place, not only the management ones I’d done before. And to run everything and getting jobs and making sure projects were well run, was the important thing, and financial record keeping was something we were working on, but we hadn’t got the full grasp of it. And in that time, something happened and so it’s our fault, we should have been on top of that. And then, I say, ‘But how could I have done all that and also all the other?’ And eventually it was caught and it was caught through the actions that I instituted bringing in another… a new bookkeeper. But it took some time to be caught and that was a mistake.

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, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010