Editorial Feature

The Era-Defining Work of Denise Scott Brown

Discover the work of one of the most influential architects in the 20th Century 

Denise Scott Brown is an American architect, planner, writer and educator, and is principal of her firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) in Philadelphia, USA. Along with her husband Robert Venturi, she is regarded as among the most influential architects of the 20th century, both through her architecture and planning, and her theoretical writing.

Scott Brown’s work is often associated with that of her husband’s, Robert Venturi, as the couple have been working together teaching, collaborating and designing since they met at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Scott Brown joined Venturi’s firm in 1967 and their work there, and later at their joint firm VSBA, defined the postmodern movement and brought cutting edge design to suburban areas and college campuses.

In 1972, Scott Brown with Venturi published Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form with co-author Steven Izenour, which rejected the minimalist elements of modernism. The book published studies of the Las Vegas Strip, undertaken with students in an architectural research studio course which Scott Brown taught with Venturi in 1970 at Yale's School of Architecture and Planning. Ultimately the book accepted and celebrated the sprawl of American architecture.

Venturi won the Pritzker Prize in 1991, and there was later a campaign to recognize Scott Brown as a winner as well, although the Pritzker committee declined to alter its original decision. They were jointly awarded the 2016 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the first time the award was given to multiple people.

In 1989, Scott Brown published the famous essay titled Room at the top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture. Although Scott Brown already wrote the essay in 1975, she decided not to publish it at the time, out of fear of damaging her career. In the essay she describes her struggle to be recognized as an equal partner of the firm, in an architecture world that was predominantly male. She has since been an advocate for Women in Architecture and has spoken out about discrimination within the profession on several accounts.

While Scott Brown has retired from designing, she continues to teach and write actively. Using Street View, here we explore some of Scott Brown’s most well known buildings, some of which she designed with Venturi and others she took on as solo projects.

Fire Station #4, Columbus, Indiana, USA

One of Scott Brown’s earliest projects with Venturi was Fire Station #4 in Columbus, Indiana, which they completed in 1968. The building committee had requested an “ordinary building” that was easy to maintain and the pair of architects devised a simple concept. The plan was to give almost equal space to the apparatus room on the right and living quarters on the left. By placing the required hose tower in the front and making it semi-circular, it was “absorbed into the facade” and provided a symmetrical aesthetic. Scott Brown felt this gave the building an almost monument-like quality to an otherwise small, unassuming building. The building is sheathed in red and white-glazed brick with gold lettering at the top of the tower to identifying the station.

Franklin Court, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

During the early 1970s, the National Park Service asked the firm Venturi and Rauch (where Scott Brown was working, and before it became Venturi Scott Brown Associates) to undertake the design and construction of a complex that would honor one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Ben Franklin. The site was along Independence Mall on the historic location of Ben Franklin’s home (constructed in 1765 and razed in 1812) and adjacent print shop.

Completed in 1976, Scott Brown helped design a 30,000- square-foot underground museum, which was topped by two "ghost houses" approximating full-scale representations of Franklin’s house and adjacent print shop. These outline structures made out of square tubular steel are the most striking of the complex and were the result of the architects having inadequate historical information to properly reconstruct the structures. This concept has since been emulated at other historic sites. Changes in the pavement denote the arrangement of rooms and concrete hoods allow visitors to look down to the archaeological remains beneath.

Allen Memorial Art Museum, Ohio, USA

Founded in 1917, the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) is run by Oberlin College and has a collection of over 14,000 works of art, rivalling that of Harvard and Yale. In 1977, Scott Brown and Venturi were asked to design an addition to the existing building (designed by Cass Gilbert) and it now represents one the earliest and finest examples of postmodern architecture in the USA.

The large extension aimed to harmonize with the original symmetrical Renaissance pavilion. This was accomplished through the careful matching of materials such as buff colored brick, red sandstone and pink granite. These materials were combined to produce a pattern and create a dialogue with the existing structure.

Seattle Art Museum, Washington, USA

In 1991 Scott Brown and Venturi completed a new downtown home for the Seattle Art Museum. The 150,000-square-foot structure features a limestone façade accented with lively terra-cotta, pink granite, red sandstone, and painted decoration. The idea behind the design was not to conform to the current trend of museum as “articulated pavilions” but to an older tradition of museums as generic loft spaces, for instance the adapted palaces and grand museums of the 19th century and New York’s original Museum of Modern Art.

A grand staircase displays sculptures and connects the exhibition spaces, which were specifically designed to accommodate a variety of periods and types of art. The building was expanded in 2007 by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture.

Children’s Museum of Houston, Texas, USA

Completed in 1992, the Children’s Museum of Houston is one of 190 children’s museums dotted around the United States. Scott Brown and Venturi’s design for the museum is playful yet considered, offering flexible exhibition space but creating nooks with character. A colorful “classical” facade greets visitors, which is a nod to the aesthetic of more traditional institutions but is contrasted with pastel colors and large letters emblazoned above the door. Inside there’s a ‘Kid’s Hall’, which has rainbow-colored arches and an arcade, which provides a counterpoint to more generic exhibition spaces.

Provincial Capitol Building, Toulouse, France

Scott Brown and Venturi, in association with Anderson/Schwartz Architects and Hermet-Blanc-Lagausie-Mommens/Atelier A4, won a 1992 international competition to design the capitol building for the southern province Haute-Garonne, in Toulouse, France. The building was to be an administrative and legislative complex including offices, an assembly chamber and various public and government spaces.

In order to squeeze the building into a relatively residential quarter, Scott Brown and Venturi designed a space that saw offices arranged in two slender six-story wings of flexible loft space linked by two glass-clad bridges. As well as a monumental entrance, at the center of the site, one wing bows outward to create a crescent-shaped public space along the civic street. This not only serves as the focus of the departmental offices but also the public entrance court to the services as well as the legislative chamber. The brick facades evoke “the glory, the rosy aura”, of the historic part of Toulouse, one of France’s very few “brick” cities.

Congregation Beth El, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, USA

In 2007, Scott Brown designed a new synagogue in Sunbury, Pennsylvania for Congregation Beth El. It was to be built on the site of the original building which was a former church and had been haphazardly adapted through the years. The structure featured a double-height, light-filled, 106-seat sanctuary, a social hall for 138 people, three classrooms, a library, office, and kitchen – all surrounding an exterior courtyard.

Red brick with masonry accents was used on the exterior and a circular ornament represents the dome which was often a part of American synagogues in the recent past. Overall the idea was for the building to align with other civic and public buildings in the town but have a little something extra. Scott Brown once described it as “very square… a bit like a supermarket”.

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