Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown and Louis I. Kahn

1   b   c   d

PR: When we left off last time, you were just arriving in Philadelphia. You went to the University of Pennsylvania, and you met with David Crane, and you were about to begin graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. You also mentioned you had a couple other stories you wanted to tell, perhaps, before you launched into your experiences in the United States, particularly the story about Egon Ries with the Scottish Coal Board. Shall we start there?
DSB: Yes. I have a feeling I did tell you the story of how a few of the people at the AA -- at the end of their course -- found illustrations of concrete coal mines, designed by Egon Ries for the Scottish Coal Board. They still had the mine head gear with the wheel on the top. I don't know if mines have these anymore. They certainly did all over South Africa. Rather, all over the gold reef outside Johannesburg. But those were structures made of timber members or maybe steel, and these were in concrete. Egon Ries was a Viennese refugee architect. And they looked Brutalist. In the same way as they discovered Lou Kahn, so they discovered Egon Ries. And he had a few wonderful sayings that people quoted, like, "I invented the circle. I invented it in 1923." That was one that amused them very much. [laughs] You could see he was an early Modernist, in other words. And then he said, "Yes, it does look boring. Boring is the way I want it to look."

PR: Let me ask you about two more people. Did Ed Bacon play into this at all? I've asked about him before, a little bit. I just wondered if his reputation in Philadelphia's urban renaissance --had that preceded your arrival in the United States? Were you aware of it?
DSB: Well, you see, when I got to Penn, I think Bob Mitchell had just stood down as chair of the Planning Commission. And Ed had rather recently been in there. And Bob Mitchell and Bill Wheaton, I think, rotated between head of the Institute of Urban Studies and the head of the City Planning Department at Penn. And when I was with Dave Crane, I began hearing these legends about Ed Bacon. Ed Bacon had demolished Dave in a talk somewhere in Philadelphia. Dave was sort of semi-admiring of him, but also thought he was awful. He said he was so handsome, and he could talk so well. Then the people at Penn -- the sort of hard edged social scientist people -- they thought -- they used to call Mumford, Lewis Mumbles. But they thought nothing whatsoever of Ed Bacon.
PR: This would be Davidoff?
DSB: And Gans. Brit[ton] Harris. Dyckman might be a little bit more open-minded. Also in the early 60s, they began to criticize Ed Bacon for not being sufficiently socially concerned. Then there was a rumor that he had been sent out of town -- from Flint, Michigan -- for being too socially concerned, and he'd learned his lesson. So Ed was in a kind of a position of antagonism in the school. Although he came in evenings or late afternoons, and he gave a one semester credit course -- now there is status in semester credits: the great Mitchell Wheaton ones, with three semester credits -- Ed got a one semester credit course, given primarily for the civic design students. And my feeling was that at Penn, I did not take the civic design course. In fact, I've left out a lot of stuff I should have told you about me and Lou Kahn.
PR: We can go back to that.

PR: You did take Lou Kahn's studio, your last semester.
DSB: Yes.
PR: What was your experience? I would love to hear about that. I would love to hear about how he talks.
DSB: I'll tell you what had happened. I had started out being an English architecture student. I'm not an English person, but I had been in an English school of architecture, and I behaved the way they did at the AA. You would go in and support a friend when they had their jury, and you'd argue for them, and help them argue. And juries became more general discussions, rather than the kind of individual's defense of a project with a lot of jury arguing at them, as it was in architecture. Planning juries were free-for-alls, where a Tomazinis would argue with a Davidoff, and the students would sort of try to make peace between the two. A group of students would defend themselves together. So I would find myself getting into places I didn't belong in people's juries in architecture, when I was still a student, not knowing they didn't do that in America. So I once did that with Lou Kahn, and he was absolutely amazed. Who was this person with an English accent, talking about the fact that the neighborhood unit is an elitist idea and it's soft in the head, to want to separate the car and the pedestrian? So Lou said, "What's this?" And then there was a very, very old man there, and he said, "Well, yes. We did want to separate the car and the pedestrian." And it was Clarence Stein. They had done a neighborhood unit, and they had had him to be on the jury.
PR: Terrific.
DSB: So it was sort of a little historic moment. But I already, from before I came to America, [had been] talking about why shouldn't you put the two together, particularly at certain speeds. It doesn't mean all speeds. Of course, you have to have grade separation or expressways. It wasn't the issue. So Lou knew about me for that reason. And then, also, Lou took a group of people on a visit to the Richards Medical Building while it was still being built. And then he came across me a second time, because I kept asking him questions. And they were questions which other people couldn't ask because they hadn't been with the Brutalists, but Lou had. And I don't quite know how it worked, but Lou had been in Otterlo, I think, with the CIAM Conference.
PR: Correct.
DSB: And he met the Smithsons there, and they talked. And I was talking that same language. So again, Lou wanted to know -- now, Lou also had a weakness, I think, for women with English accents, and apparently upper class backgrounds. And that was something that, as a woman, you could feel that. What you do with it is your own affair. I think it was something to do with that. So he was very interested in who I was. And then when I got through -- I got through almost all of my coursework in three semesters. I had about one more course to take. One or two. So, without talking to Holmes, I went to Lou and I said, "I would like to take your studio." And Lou said, "I would like you to." Then I went to Holmes, and I said, "Lou has said that I can do this." And Holmes was pretty mad at me.
PR: For having gone around him?
DSB: Yes. He said, "I suppose, this is one I have to say yes to. Is that what you say?" [laughs] And, you see, Holmes typecast people very quickly. So he typecast me as lively and verbal, but not really talented. Something like that.
PR: What was the studio?
DSB: It was a studio Lou always started with -- he gave people the problem that he really, really wanted to do, which was Independence Mall. And that was a kind of "get-acquainted." And so, I started out with that with everyone else. And they had a very quick first-go-round on that. And I already got into an argument with Lou about that. And then, at the end of two or three weeks, he said, "Now go on and choose another problem." I said, "I want to stick with this problem." He said, "Okay." He made students treat the mall as a nave of a church, starting up in the North. And close all streets. Close Market Street, Walnut Street, and Chestnut Street. And take a central spine down the middle, across all of those closed streets, to Independence Mall, and that that should be the way to treat the mall as a nave, and Independence Hall as the chapel. And I said, "That's the kind of decision about urbanism that gets architects to have such a bad reputation with planners." And he said, "Okay, then. Just put them under, in tunnels. Put them in tunnels." And I said, "You wouldn't put tunnels here when the worst accident intersection is the one at Eakins Oval," which wasn't Eakins Oval yet before they fixed Eakins Oval, it was the intersection in front of the art museum. So, I said, "If you're going to put any tunnel anywhere, that's where you put a tunnel or a bridge." So he said, "I give up. What is it with you?" So, I then said, "Let's, in fact, do the opposite. Let's make elliptical spaces of different widths -- of different sizes, where these roads go through the Mall. Let's widen the roads into ellipses. A big road, a bigger circle. And Market Street, the biggest one. And let's use these as ceremonial places. And we can even, like the Piazza del Popolo, put parking in them. It's not parking for the whole city, but it is parking for people who want to walk in the mall, and it has a ceremonial feel to it." And then I did other things, as well. I said, "The best thing you can do for pedestrians on this mall is not take them down the middle of it. Let them make a short cut, by making a diagonal between two streets." Before zoots were in, I was very keen on diagonals. I'd come, again, to America, thinking about the value of a diagonal. And plans for Chandigarh had diagonals in them. And I think Bob saw those, and was partly influenced by those. We used the diagonal as a way of going against the othogonal system of Modern architecture. Doing something that was impolite, like using dualities. And I got this from my friends in England. Dualities, which everyone said was bad, we thought were good. And the same thing with diagonals, which give you corners which are too obtuse for architecture -- [unclear] reasonings. So I was busy drawing diagonals this way in the summer school in Venice, and also in the New City Punjab Studio. And I put diagonals across here too as short cuts for people going from Chestnut Street to Walnut Street. And various other ways of disciplining, as well, apart from these circles. And built it up on the basis of a rationale of movement, of that sort, and still looked for something that had monumentality. I remember I brought a -- one of these squares had trees, to narrow the view, so when you did look down here, I had two, kind of, little hills at that point. And you looked down here and you saw the view narrowed by these trees. And there was water here. So you went across water with your diagonal, and you looked down that way. And this thing grew slowly -- and Lou and I debating about it -- grew it. And then it had gotten other kinds of uses around here, which suggested different kinds of intensities on either side. And Lou said, "It's coming into focus." I used pastels a lot, and I slowly developed what it was. And the final presentation was on yellow trace, which was a reaction to all the, kind of, velum that everyone was using. The little purist "Perkins weed," and the fine little drawings with no titles on them. Nothing like that. So Perkins said, "Why did you do your drawings on yellow trace?" and gave me a B. And Carles Enrique Vallhonrat got an A+ from Holmes. He produced not only white velum drawings, but a white card model with everything perfectly made in white card. It came with this huge model of a scheme which had a great nave down the middle, and it was very formalist. That set the difference between Carles and me forever. And I sometimes think to myself, "Well, he got an A+ and I got a B." And what's happened to both of us since, and what does that mean? It was about the only B I ever got at Penn. I got two B's. Maybe three. The rest I got A's. Maybe people were sorry for me because my husband died. But Bill Wheaton said I got the best grade average they ever had in the school in ten years or something. Which is funny, because since then, I have to justify the fact that I have any talent at all. People like the pharisees in the press don't want to notice me at all.

PR: The critics.
DSB: The critics. And there are some very strange stories to tell about that. So I have to sometimes go back. I feel tempted to say -- when I was fighting to stop the expressway on South Street, and I proposed a certain transportation plan -- not without some advice from people like Bob Mitchell, who were in at the start of the transportation planning at Penn. And a certain transportation engineer said to me, "You mean, 'My mind is made up, don't bother me with the facts.' Is that what you're saying?" And I could have hit him. And he's saying it to me because I was a woman, and I felt like saying, "I got all A's on my transportation courses," but you can't exactly say that. [laughs]
PR: Right.
DSB: And it's difficult to show how you're adept, without having some measure like that. Ever since then, I've managed to organize transportation engineering disciplines, and get the engineers to really focus on the problems as they really are. Because I think I have a good knowledge of how these things go together. But it's difficult to show how, if you can't say something like, "I got A's on my coursework," but thirty years later it doesn't mean too much.
PR: Did your relationship with Kahn continue after that course? Did he ever come and speak to your classes?
DSB: Yes. Again, Lou used to call certain people and talk for hours on the phone to them. And one who I've mentioned in my article, Santo Lipari, is not well-known outside of Philadelphia, but Lou used to talk with him a great deal.
PR: Particularly about viaduct architecture, I think.
DSB: Yes. People should talk to Santo and find out what it was.
PR: I know he worked on the viaduct architecture -- the last series of urban designs Kahn did for Philadelphia.
DSB: Yes. There's also a taxi driver called Harry Gelb. And he used to take Lou home at night. And Lou used to talk to him at night. Lou used to talk to me. He used to phone me, and talk on the phone. And there was one evening when I had Lou for dinner with Arthur Goldreich. Now Arthur Goldreich was an architecture student when I was an architecture student in Johannesburg. Though he was older than we were because he had been in the Palmach in Israel. He's a South African who went to Israel. Palmach was the elite commandor force. He'd been a terrorist. But he came back and went to architecture school. He's a nice person. He was sent by a client that his firm had to America. He was also designing stage sets for a black group -- including Miriam Makeba, who you have heard of, probably -- for a play, I think, called "Wait a Minim." So he was there helping to sponsor this black musical, and visiting America for this client, and God knows what else. So I had Arthur to meet Lou at my apartment, and then we climbed through the window in this little apartment on 4022 Spruce Street, and sat out on the deck -- on the roof -- which was kind of like having a terrace, but it was really just the roof -- and looked out over the green of the backyards over there, and just talked. And that was very nice. And about two weeks later, Arthur Goldreich was headlines all over all of the world's papers. It was about a month later. He was also very much involved, apparently, with -- I think it was the same group that Nelson Mandela was with. The Rivonia Seven, they were called. And they were all arrested, and Arthur escaped. And it was "Where is Goldreich?" in all the papers of the world. And Goldreich, in fact, had escaped through to the Lesotho, or I forget which African Republic he escaped to, and made his way from there to Israel, and lived there. But Lou and Arthur were on my roof talking, so that Lou could meet this interesting South African architect, which was very nice. I was a young widow living in Philadelphia and living at Penn. And I seemed to have been an unwitting member of all sorts of situations, which I didn't know what was happening, but had some intuitive feelings of things happening. Which were men -- married men and unmarried men -- who were seeming -- it seems as if I had figured in their lives in some sort of way that I wasn't quite sure of, and I didn't want to know about. That is, I wasn't interested in the side of being a young, single woman, experienced -- I had been married already -- and of interest to a range of different people on the faculty and around. So within that sort of context, Lou was interested in me in that way, too. It's something a woman professional learns about. Men have other interests in her than as a professional. Oskar Stonorov was like that. I thought I was being invited to dinner to talk about Le Corbusier, and I discovered that that wasn't his agenda. But it had been my agenda. When I met Oskar Stonorov, I thought of him as the American version of Ernö Goldfinger, and Ernö Goldfinger was an English version of Oskar Stonorov. They were very similar people. And sure enough, Oskar Stonorov suggested -- he said, "Oh, yes. I remember Ernö Goldfinger. He was the one who couldn't draw." [laughs] Just the sort of thing Ernö would have said. Anyway, what I'm saying is nothing happened in any of these situations, because I was just not -- that wasn't my role in life. In other words, if I got invited for dinner by Stonorov, who had a wife, and I thought I was being invited to talk about Le Corbusier and architecture, and I found that that probably wasn't what he had in mind -- what he had in mind, I would not let become very explicit. And there was something like that with Lou, too. But what are you going to say? Later he took up with Harriet, and he had been with Ann [Tyng]. He didn't manage to have a relationship of any sort of sexual nature with me, though he would have liked to. And I was just the kind of person he was attracted to. Now, that's one of the sort of things I should probably restrict. It's pertinent, but it isn't. I never know quite whether those things --
PR: Right. Did that in any way color your discussions? I'm thinking of discussions of an architectural or urban nature. That is, he might view you -- he may have one agenda for talking with you. I think that's what you're saying. That they have a certain agenda.
DSB: Yes.
PR: Did that frustrate your --
DSB: Well, I feel I had a good relationship with him, and I learned a lot, and he learned a lot by talking in this way. But I remember once I said something like, "Looking at this building is like looking into a fire." He said, "I'd like to look into a fire with you, Denise." And I didn't hear that. But that's all. That's the only sort of thing that happened. But what it meant was eventually, he kind of dropped me because I wasn't going to be a part of that agenda. And then he found other people. He found Harriet after that. I had a very good semester with him. And then, he dropped me, in that sense, but he still was a friend. So, when I began teaching civic design -- which I didn't do immediately. I first of all taught introduction to urban design, and New City Studio. And then I taught civic design when Dave Crane left, and there was no one else teaching civic design. [Interrupted by Phone Call -- Tape Off/On] When I saw the Richards Medical Building, to me it looked spectacularly like the Duiker Open Air School, which I had been to see and photographed. And that was really my clue that he had been with the Brutalists, because the brutalists were very taken with that building. It was one of a, kind of, prime icons -- the Van Nelle factory, and the Open Air School. And the Sonnerstraal sanatorium, which also had that kind of Constructivist de Stijl use of the ends of cantilevers in the way that the medical school building does. So, it seemed that that was a very important influence at that time. Now, by the time I met Lou, he was already diverging from that. And the English were mumbling that his Beaux-Arts training was catching up with him. Bob Venturi would say that Lou was listening to him. And Lou had been in Rome, and he'd done other things, as well, so there was a mixture of things that could be influencing him at that point. When I taught the civic design students at Penn, they had this nasty shock. They, too, as I had done, had come expecting to study with Lou Kahn. And here they found that not only were they not studying with Lou Kahn that first semester, they were getting this Denise. Who is this woman? Many of them were foreign students. And I looked younger than many of them, as I indeed was. But even the ones that I wasn't, I looked as if I was. This was the time when I would go out for a drink with a group of students. Even my young students in the introduction to urban design, and they'd ask to see my age -- I.D. -- not theirs. They'd say, "But she's our teacher! She's older than us!" That went on, even when I was at Berkeley, that happened. I think sometimes that happens because people want to flatter you. In fact, that happened all the time when I was around at Penn, and I was sort of adopted by the students in that way. But I looked extremely young. Sometimes when I'd start my theories seminar -- the first lecture -- I'd sit myself at the head of the table, but they'd start looking around for where is the professor? So, in that context, these civic design students were horrified that they had me, not Lou. So I'd have them come to the first two or three of Lou's classes. And they and I would go and sit there. By the end of the second class, they would be saying to themselves, "We think we're lucky to be waiting for this. Let's get ourselves acclimatized first." And that would be because Lou would do something that was kind of mean or destructive with some students, and this frightened them. And I don't know why that particular tiger rode on Lou's back, but I remember a Canadian student asking a respectful question, but with an implied criticism of Lou. "Well, Mr. Kahn. If you have said this, then why did you do that, which is contrary to what you said here?" And Lou more or less -- there was a pause, and you could see Lou getting crosser and crosser, and then he said something like, "Well, I don't have to teach you if you're like that. I just don't have to put up with this." And then he said, "I have given you gold plates, and you've asked for a knife and fork." Lou had these wonderful similes, but this was not a wonderful simile. And there was this hushed, horrid, silence, and then Lou saw me staring at him. And Lou used to look to me to nod my head and agree with him. And I sat there and I stared at him, like this. I did not nod my head in agreement. And he kept talking, but he kept faltering. And fifteen minutes later, he made an apology. But not for having been mean and destructive with a student, but for having chosen a terrible simile. [laughs]



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