Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown and Louis I. Kahn

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DSB: The buildings will be on the Mall in Washington, and in Suitland, Maryland, in their large storage archival system there, to be in both places. And I'm working with my project manager, Ann Trowbridge, and we have a project architect, Jamie Kolker, and a low level -- student level -- person. We're keeping all those people at work, and it's very fascinating work. But we won't be the architects. We made a very careful decision. We said we had very little chance to be the architects, but we have a good chance, because we can offer something in programming and in campus planning that planners can't and architects can't. So we have a kind of competitive edge in a field which is continuing now, even at a time when architecture is not being commissioned. I was saying that a project like Philadelphia Orchestra Hall, we have a great struggle, we get the project, and it goes on hold for funding. Meanwhile, there are institutions who are in another way, thinking of their future: universities and some art museums. We worked with Houston Museum of Fine Arts. It was donated several blocks of land around it in Houston. We helped them in a planning, urban design and programming study. And again, they interviewed other architects and planners, and they couldn't give them this combination. We could help them work out what buildings to put on which sites, when. And what activities to put in the buildings. Both things. And we could do that by working with the city, and working out where the loading should go, and their access, and the parking should go, and the people should come from. We got a kind of coherent urban design structure, which then led into the public -- civic parts of the galleries. Now the whole gallery is civic, but as Lou used to say, there is a street that goes through the building, and that's a kind of a civic street, and that's the circulation spaces. So that the outside spaces lead into the main circulation spaces in the building. And this is a development of philosophy that comes from our working with Lou Kahn, but also my working -- studying urban transportation. And if I were talking to you about our whole career, I'd show you how this notion of the street and the building being the common room space for the students, and the eddying and flow space, where you have notices and coffee machines, and that ties into outdoor space -- I could take you on a sequence of our institutional buildings which -- [end of side one, tape seven]

DSB: And the last thing that happened with me and Colin Rowe was when Urban Concepts came out, he called me and he said he thought it was very, very good. And I'll tell you a very funny story. Vince has never said anything about Urban Concepts or never admitted to reading anything that I had written. But he once said to someone, "If you want to hear the real story about Bob Venturi and Lou Kahn, read Denise Scott Brown's "Worm's Eye View." So he reads what I write, but he never admits to it. Funny. He once gave a lecture at Penn, and he produced this: that the Karl Marx Hof Housing is female symbols. It's got these great towers rising up like this. And he spotted me in the audience, and there must have been a look on my face. And he was meant to come and stay with us that night, and he said to Bob, "Denise doesn't agree with what I said. I can't come home to your house." [laughs] So I went and I put my arm around Vince and said, "I disagreed with you. Let's come home and argue." What else can I do? I like him, I'm fond of him. He shouldn't do this. And then he writes all about how Bob is such a great feminist. And in his latest version of his book about American architecture and urbanism -- and by the way, I think the title came from me. It's a very general title, but I was talking at Yale about not urban planning, but urbanism, and seeing it in that context. Anyway, he left me out of that book altogether. Well, maybe it was early and he didn't quite know what my role was. But in the later version, he stars [Elizabeth] Plater-Zyberk and [Lorinda] Spear, and he talks a lot about feminism, and still leaves me out. Again, it's a very strange situation.

DSB: Yes. And of course, architects don't get their -- Lou didn't get his main opportunity until he was fifty. We haven't until Bob was later than fifty. And even now --

DSB: Stanley Tigerman. He would produce a series of upturned bottoms there, and that kind of play of symbolism people don't like. And things that look as if you're caricaturing them, people don't like. Take the National Gallery for an example. The Classicists are outraged because we have played with Classicism. But they would have been outraged with all the earlier plays with Classicism, too, from the first person who stuck a column on a wall and made a pilaster. That's not structural, you see. So all of those plays -- Bob has written about that in an article talking about the sources of the National Gallery. So we outrage the purists who believe we're breaking the idols. And then we outrage the Modernists because not everything we do is functional. So again, we seem to be playing on Modernism. That big hole that's there to let people in, seems to be in a way -- it goes back to the beginning of blow-you-over Modernism, looking at factories, when you're meant to be looking at classical porticos. We're going right back to "eyes which will not see" and Le Corbusier looking at the tops of ships, and saying grain elevators are beautiful -- in that funny shape that we do in the Modern part of the facade, where you've got a real 'L' shape in the opening, crossed by columns. So that is old fashioned shock-your-socks-off Modernism, as done by the early Modernists. Well, the Modernists don't like that either. They didn't like early Modernism. They found something politer rather soon. But the worst of it is that people think that you are not serious if you play. Now, if you say, "God played when he built the world," then you make them absolutely furious. So I'll take that back because it sounds as if you mean that you are God. So there's a mixture of "You're not taking us seriously, you're light-hearted about what you shouldn't be," and "You're also playing God, and you're hiring a public relations person, which only God would do." So all these jealousies come out. And there's this funny tone. There used to be this funny tone in the criticism of us. And I think I've written about this, but the fact is that if you listen to that tone -- to me, it sounded familiar. And it's the tone that the silent white majority (when they used to exist), used to use about pornography. Which has to mean that architects think that we allow ourselves slightly scandalous liberties, which they wouldn't allow themselves -- wouldn't dare to allow themselves -- and envy very highly. And it's again their misconception, because we allow ourselves no liberties. We subject ourselves to a draconian discipline, and we cry and weep and pull our hair out when we design buildings. We don't sit there saying, "How shall I blow the mind of the public once more?" And we feel great joy, as well. And it's at a saga scale. But it's much easier to see the saga in the early primitivist, like Lou Kahn, than in the latter day agonised, mannerist, like Bob Venturi. And it may be forever that that happens to us, although Michelangelo is looked upon as a very great architect, even when he's a mannerist. People don't say, "Well, the Laurentian Library is really not his best building." So maybe there is a chance that eventually mannerism is recognized. And mannerism is very far from being perverse. And none of our buildings are perverse. They're all life-affirming. But today, to be life-affirming, you have to engulf life's tragedies. You can't turn your eye from them: and life's scale. And we say the highway's been through our buildings, and it ain't going to come out again. It's been through all our lives, and you can play at being in a medieval village, but it's going to come back and bite you. Some "human scale" can be very inhuman. So that's, I think, the story of our acceptance. Now, the development of our ideas through the time that I've been in America, say, we've been through social movements, and movements of aesthetics and movements of naturalism, if you like. Intellectual movements. And they've touched on architecture all the way. And in a way, they've touched on us a great deal, too. And I think these movements effect sensibility in everyone. I think sensibilities change when times change. And I think I've described that in one of those articles -- maybe the pluralistic one. Or maybe the one on social concern -- "Discourse on Social Concern for Radical Chic Architects . . ." But the 1960s, I think I've described to you before, certainly affected me. But I came with a set of intellectual preoccupations which were to do with being an African, and coming to feel -- before ever I came to America, that aesthetic concepts could tie you down, aesthetic rules could become ruts, and that something was needed to break them. And that functionalism was a very good way of breaking aesthetic ruts, and of course you get that in Vers une architecture. "Eyes which will not see" is his way of saying the same thing. And through the brutalists in England, I very strongly imbibed that. But I was ready to hear that coming from South Africa, where the rules imposed were from England, on an alien landscape which was mine. So I was ready to hear that kind of thing. And then in the 1960s, just as . . . I had left England, beginning to be interested in commercial architecture, as the same thing as industrial architecture -- a breaker of systems. We come to America, and on the one hand, there's the social movements, on the other hand, the intellectual movements at Penn, which say, "Break architecture systems, for the sake of social reasons." And I put the two together and make a very good shotgun marriage. And I've always realized it's a shotgun marriage that is between aesthetics which are open to social concern, and social concern itself. It's been a good marriage for me. But you don't necessarily have to be socially concerned to have open eyes. You can be a dictator, and you could still have an open aesthetic. It may be very hard to do those two things because the frame of mind, but the two don't have to go together. But they were a very yeasty brew for us. Then into the social movements, and out again the other side, and bang -- what hits you -- the backlash. And Nixonism and Reaganism. And together with that, history. And then suddenly the whole kind of preservation movement begins. And in the beginning, I make a good case that you preserve South Street. The buildings are beautiful. I use the role of the expert in reverse. I say, "I'm an expert, and I say these buildings are beautiful." Whereas Paul Davidoff said, "You architects -- you're experts. You're always telling people, 'Listen to me because I'm an expert.'" Well, working for a citizen's group, I said, "I'm an expert. I know these buildings are beautiful. You listen to me." What I meant was, "Don't move people out of there." Also, I meant, "They are very beautiful." Well that marriage between history and social concern blew apart straight after the expressway was stopped. And the poor people there, in the very worst way in the world, wanted to live in new buildings. And I, weeping, couldn't stop them from wanting that. I mean, why should I want to stop them? But people said to me, "It's been said of you that you're doing a historical survey. If that isn't true, I wouldn't want it said of me." That's what happened on South Street. And the historical people said -- Margaret Tinkum said -- "Someone," meaning me, "has been telling the communities the wrong thing." So I was in the middle in that one again. But obviously we, too, reverberated to [an] interest in history that we had long before the preservation movement. And Bob and I had met trying to support the Furness Building at Penn. Can you believe they wanted to demolish it? And Bob and I were the two at the faculty meeting who first pled for keeping it. In fact, he didn't say anything. I told you that story.

DSB: In 1970, I think it was, in the Yale Mathematics Building Competition, we did our first alusions to history as such. Not Modernism giving you a kind of a suggestion of the Porta Pia, as Bob's mother's facade is. But specifically, we used a gothic quatrefoil pattern and plan, and we produced a little bit of a kind of a gothic pendentive at the back of the building. So most of it is kind of Modern with a kind of a complex and contradictory tinge to it. And at the back, it's got a little bit of actual allusion. And then, of course, we had the ironic ionic column in the Oberlin Building. But we have never just wholesale reproduced history, or taken it straight, or tried to be archeological. We said you never can be. We've used the examples of 1920s movies where the Egyptian slave has a 1920s haircut. So we said, "Why try when you really can't be?" In furniture, we find the furniture we're drawn to is the uncomfortable stuff called transitional that, sort of, is idiosyncratic and sticks out a bit too much, and its curves aren't quite polite. But very genuine and very strong. And our buildings are transitional in the same way. And they're carefully thought through. They have an argument with their environment. You can almost see them talking to their surroundings. "Well, if you do this, then I'll do that." I first had that thought when I was in Seattle, and I saw all those little houses that have to get so heroic, because they have to build into hills. You almost see the house saying, "Well, if I put my parking underground, and I lean out this way, hillside you'll let me do this, and I can do that." You can almost see it like a discussion, its elbows here; its arms there. Well, our buildings -- you can almost see the words of the discussion if you look at them, and look at their environment. As we're headed into the ecological movement, all we've done is tried to think more sophisticatedly about context than most. And we've also been very aware of social ecology. The other day at a conference -- "buildings are for users" was used as a put-down of us. The person who said it caused everyone there to clap their hands. And then I followed, and I said, "All you people who are clapping, listen to this." And I said, "You need to use all your architectural skills to serve a community. A person who brings a rhetoric to a community meeting is being coals to New Castle. So you have to get a lot more sophisticated about what you mean by 'buildings are for users.'" But what I didn't add is that piety is the last resort of scoundrels, and social concern is often the last resort of poor designers. It's a tragedy. It shouldn't be that way. And I don't believe it is with us. But obviously, there's a very careful user analysis in all our buildings, and I could have given them chapter and verse of how we do it. But all I did was I quoted Lou Kahn, and he said it about people who say, "The city is for people" -- the same thing as, "The buildings are for users" -- he said, "Sure the city is for people. But the guy who tells you it, you reckon he learned it yesterday."



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