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Hôtel du Département Haute-Garonne, Toulouse


Why are there no female gurus in architecture? (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] Where is the… what’s the word I want, the… the reputation for the architect in choosing a woman? First of all, we know that in all fields the top training is given by people sitting next to the top performers. The best surgeon has the best student sitting there in the operation and it’s not very often a woman, because there’s no prestige in training a woman if you’re a man. And his wife would probably object anyway. So, this is hard for women to get that, kind of, hand to hand, eye to eye top training in any field, particularly hard in architecture. That’s another reason it’s hard for women to rise to the very top. And affirmative action doesn’t really help because it mandates very small firms and I’ve integrated one of the great firms of architecture in the world. Most women who practice want to practice with their own, very small firms and get the affirmative action projects that come their way if they are like that, but it removes their opportunity to head toward greatness. You won’t get a Pritzker Prize out of being a woman firm, in those terms, because you’d be too small to have the oeuvre that they look for. I’ve joined a large firm but then my identity gets submerged within that firm, but I do get to do the work that I’m trained for and able to do. It’s a big problem that. So, in the end then, the lack of women gurus is no accident. And the mom and pop guru is something that brings no prestige to the person conferring the title.

Do you remember that famous tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King? And she won. Well, the story goes that he realised that winning would make him look even more ridiculous than losing. You don’t… winning… beating a woman is a ridiculous, makes you look ridiculous, it doesn’t make you look good. He did give out that he bet heavily against himself and therefore made a lot of money in the deal. And I don’t know if that’s a true story or apocryphal but there would’ve been his reward, you see – you say, ‘I, in fact, was clever. I won the system anyway’. But, the same thing crowning a mom and pop guru would make the crowner look nothing more than ridiculous. So, that’s the long sorry story about room at the top in architecture and about architectural discrimination in relation to the star system.

[RV] Maybe we should divorce or one of us should have a sex change?

[DSB] Neither of which would be particularly good for our work, which is the most important thing. So, sexism and the star system is a sore subject. But, you see I’m smiling and one of the reasons is, I think of the opportunity I have had and would I have had that with a firm of my own? As I say, you have to be very rich, very well tied in, very well organised and to lead a pretty tough life, and coming to this country when I did and not being connected, I think that would’ve not really opened me.

[RV] There are other difficulties on being a man, but having an approach or a philosophy that is not currently in fashion.

[DSB] That’s a great difficulty too, yes.

[RV] And the combination of the two in our case has made it not easy. But we’ve struggled along and because of some wonderful clients – not a lot of them, but some – we’ve had wonderful opportunities, starting with my mother and going beyond that.

[DSB] Yes and when you look at the work that we’ve done, no one can say – not even Bob who tries to say it all the time – that we haven’t had opportunity. I have to keep reminding him that we’ve really done a lot of buildings and…

[RV] True.

[DSB] It’s really kind of miraculous, if you think of all these problems that we talk about.

[RV] That’s true. And we love our work and I… we love looking at it.

[DSB] And we love doing it.

[RV] Yeah and most, most… very much most of it, we love.

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, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010