More Coverage of Denise Scott Brown
Reconstruction and Symbiosis: Fixing Past Mistakes
In almost every regard, Wednesday evening’s Pritzker Architecture Prize ceremony in honor of Japanese architect and 2013 laureate Toyo Ito was charmed. Dreary morning rains in Boston gave way to clear skies by the afternoon, offering glowing views of the harbor from inside the I.M. Pei–designed John F. Kennedy Library, where the event was held. The speeches were short, gracious, and heartfelt. Ito made an eloquent case for a greater consideration of nature in design and construction, stating that he regularly visits the site of Japan’s tsunami, where he is reminded of the “powerlessness of technology.” In a nod to the profession’s collaborative nature, he asked that his current and former staff members stand and be recognized. A hearty round of applause ensued. The gesture also drew attention to everything the Pritzker committee hasn’t said about the case of architect Denise Scott Brown.
The day before the ceremony, The Boston Globe published an editorial calling for the Pritzker committee to belatedly recognize the work of Scott Brown, FAIA, who was snubbed in 1991, when the $100,000 prize was awarded solely to her husband and long-time design partner, Robert Venturi, FAIA. “In a field where talented women’s contributions have long been overlooked,” stated the Globe, “this snub continues to cut deep 22 years later and should be rectified.”
This follows a piece, published May 24, by architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen in The New Republic, which also calls for Scott Brown to be retroactively honored. “Venturi was awarded what’s come to be known as architecture’s Nobel Prize for work he did not do, could not have done, and would never have conceived without Scott Brown,” she wrote. “So, if the Pritzker Foundation is going to stand behind its having celebrated this kind of work, then for god’s sake, give the prize to what is literally in this case the firm’s better half.”
Whether and how the Pritzker committee will address the controversy remains to be seen. In late March, executive director Martha Thorne told ARCHITECT that the matter would be referred to the jury at its next meeting. That meeting—albeit an informal one—occurred this week, when the jury gathered in Boston for the ceremony in honor of Ito. Yet no announcement has been forthcoming. Approached at the event, Thorne said only that the issue would be addressed “in due course.” It is unclear whether the committee is waiting for the ceremonies surrounding Ito’s selection to conclude before issuing its verdict, or whether it intends to drop the matter entirely. The Pritzker jury will not reconvene again until January.
In the meantime, the hubbub surrounding Scott Brown shows no sign of subsiding. The matter has earned coverage in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, and Bloomberg. (ARCHITECT featured an extensive interview with Scott Brown back in April.) A Change.org petition started by Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James, a pair of students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, has garnered more than 12,500 signatures in support of Scott Brown since it was launched earlier this spring.
Read the Q&A with Denise Scott Brown
That petition has been signed by a number of prominent Pritzker Prize–winning architects, including Rem Koolhaas, Rafael Moneo, Richard Meier, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (who jointly received the 2001 award). Last year’s laureate, Wang Shu (whose wife and design partner Lu Wenyu was left off the award), also supported the petition—as did Zaha Hadid, a Pritzker Prize–winner who has also served as a juror. Even Venturi himself has signed on, with the short and sweet statement, “Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner.” At press time, the petition continues to garner signatures: in the vicinity of 100 in the 24 hours beginning Wednesday afternoon.
"I think we’ve already made an impact, by calling out the fact that the recognition of women is a problem,” petition co-founder James says. “Our Women in Design student group [at GSD] will have some very considered events this fall to discuss the issues of partnership and collaboration. What we’re doing is developing a long-term dialogue about collaboration and creativity."
The whole fracas continues to shine a somewhat glaring spotlight on the clubby male world of architecture. Only 17 percent of all AIA members are female, and no woman has ever won the organization’s Gold Medal award. Only two women—Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA—have won the Pritzker. And though the prize was launched in 1979, no woman served on the jury until 1987, when critic Ada Louise Huxtable joined the committee. Other women have been appointed to the jury since (including a record three in 2005.) But this year’s jury—the one that selected Ito as the 2013 laureate—was all male until curator and critic Kristin Feireiss was appointed this month.
Moreover, the controversy raises longstanding questions about the nature of the prize itself—on whether it makes sense to continue to bestow an award on individuals in a field that requires a high degree of creative collaboration. As the Globe editorial put it: “The myth of the architect as a singular male genius—the Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead—feels increasingly antiquated in a world where design has become less about skyscrapers and more a tool to address global issues, including climate change, water scarcity, and poverty.”
Scott Brown, for one, says this is an opportunity for the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the Pritzker, to reconsider the nature of the award. “I think they need to think about what it means to be creative,” she says. “They have a right to say that the award is about creativity in design. But there is also creativity in analysis, in engineering, in planning, in all sorts of other things.” Ultimately, all of these factors go into producing good architecture, she says.
Scott Brown has not heard from the Pritzker committee and has no idea whether her case will be publicly addressed. In March, when she casually told the Architects’ Journal, in videotaped comments, that she was owed a Pritzker inclusion ceremony, she had no idea that it would lead to media coverage and a petition. “A ceremony is a public event that affirms community values,” Scott Brown says. “I called for a ceremony of inclusion. The truth is that, minus the Pritzkers, the petition has given me that.”