Interviews

Still Learning from Denise Scott Brown

45 Years of learning from Las Vegas

By Stephanie Salomon and Steve Kroeter, Designers & Books January 7, 2014
Denise Scott Brown, Architect, Urban Planner, Educator: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (Philadelphia)
View Denise Scott Brown’s Book List

Learning from Las Vegas—the book that taught architects, urban planners, and generations of students to look at the everyday landscape, “the ugly and the ordinary” as a springboard for authentic building in contemporary times—recently passed 40 years since its first appearance. Written by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (the team that would introduce what would come to be known as Postmodernism to American architecture) along with Steven Izenour, the book was published by The MIT Press, first in 1972 (designed by Muriel Cooper); then in a revised, less expensive edition in 1977 (designed by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi) with the subtitle “The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form.” It has gone through 25 printings and appeared in 12 different languages, including Polish and Chinese, and its influence has been explored by historians and critics in several books.

The book was the outcome of a studio Venturi and Scott Brown taught at the Yale School of Architecture in 1968 called “Learning from Las Vegas, or Form Analysis as Design Research,” which took a group of students to Las Vegas to investigate and analyze the city’s structure. The studio left an indelible mark on participating students. Designers & Books spoke with several of them. Among their comments: “That studio was fundamental in the formation/justification of my architecture” (Daniel V. Scully); “Denise Scott Brown in particular really drove us to have the highest standards in our research and documentation” (Peter Hoyt); “My connection with Bob and Denise was easily the most significant teacher/student relationship that I ever had in the architectural realm” (Douglas Southworth).

Designers and Books spent an afternoon with Denise Scott Brown at the suburban Philadelphia home she shares with her husband, Robert Venturi, talking with her about what went into making Learning from Las Vegas, her thoughts about the book’s significance today, new writing, and what she’s working on next.

Examples of international editions of Learning from Las Vegas. Photo: Designers & Books

Designers & Books: When did you first visit Las Vegas? And did it occur to you at that time that Las Vegas was a city that offered lessons to be learned?
Denise Scott Brown: It was April 1965. I’d seen pictures of Las Vegas and heard debate in planning school on the emerging automobile cities of the Southwest. I went west to see them and for five or six other reasons including, in the case of Las Vegas, an early love affair with neon.

At four years old I was taken out at night for the first time to see Johannesburg’s 50-year jubilee celebration. To me the neon was fairyland. That same year, my grandparents returned from a trip to the New York World’s Fair and the tinsel toys they brought us from Coney Island sealed it.

A family visit to London at year’s end brought fairy-tale scenes, more beautiful than beautiful, in store windows on Oxford Street and a huge moving Santa in Selfridges. My father’s passion for parks and family fun places was shared by us kids as we grew, but by the early 1950s when they finally got to Las Vegas, I had left home for London. However, I saw their movies of The Strip.

The Books

Learning from Las Vegas Robert Venturi
Denise Scott Brown
Steven Izenour
Having Words Denise Scott Brown

D&B: It sounds as if it were part of your destiny.
DSB: Perhaps, but there were other influences. I was told as a child by a loved art teacher that you could not be creative unless you learned from what was around you. This was long before architecture school but my mother, who had studied architecture, loved to “look around.” We would go with her on walks of discovery in the veld and on car rides to see houses in the surrounding suburbs. Sepia photos of her childhood and youth in the wilderness of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) were in our house. One marked “Mother in the ‘kitchen’” showed my grandmother cooking outdoors on an open fire in a three-legged iron pot of the type used by Africans countrywide.

These family patterns from Europe and Africa accompanied my childhood, and the cultural clashes they embodied (unlike the country’s dreadful political clashes) were galvanizing for our sensibilities. Following my teacher, I questioned why English landscapes should be our model. Why did Africa have to look like Surrey to be beautiful? To me the veld and the kraals of rural Africans were deeply beautiful, but I became interested too in how migrants to the city adapted their crafts to their lives in Johannesburg—how beadwork, for example, which traditionally decorated bodies and covered gourds, was applied to soda pop bottles. Of course this was frowned upon by purists.

These concerns were easily transferred to Las Vegas. I first saw The Strip against a very clear blue sky. People who hate it show pictures of it at night, but I love to look at it by day. And on that day its pure, bright colors and crisply etched outlines brought to my mind the Acropolis as it might have looked when they painted its marble. (Ironically, both Athens and Las Vegas are now dulled by pollution.) I felt a shiver. Was it hate or love? I didn't know. It didn’t matter. Something said, “This is key—it will be important to you.”

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Photo by Robert Venturi, courtesy of VSBA

I visited as well because social scientists in urban planning at Penn—William Wheaton, Herbert Gans, and others—scolded us architects for our aesthetic arrogance. “How many architect-designed spaces did you ever see full of people?” they asked, adding, “Why don’t you visit places where people go and try to understand the reasons?”

In January 1965, I left the University of Pennsylvania to teach at UC Berkeley. I visited cities across the country on my way and in April journeyed to Las Vegas. A chic new Strip hotel, The Dunes, gave me faculty rates—eight dollars a night. Reporting this in a letter to colleagues, I joked, “Could Las Vegas be educational?”

Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

D&B: What did you do when you got to Las Vegas the first time?
DSB: I looked and photographed. I documented the “view from the road” on foot and by car, and shot The Strip from a raised eye level through the front window of the early morning bus that took workers to the casinos. In August 1965 I moved to Los Angeles to help start a new school of architecture at UCLA and to set up its initial program, in urban design.

During my first year in California I photographed assiduously, particularly in Los Angeles, but by November 1966 when I invited Bob to visit, I had, if memory serves, been in Las Vegas four times. I asked him to lecture at UCLA, be on a jury for my students, and see LA and Las Vegas with me. I felt that he was the only one at Penn who would be excited by what I was discovering.

Robert Venturi, Las Vegas, NV, November 1966. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

D&B: Did you have any idea how you would be using any of these photographs?
DSB: By the time Bob arrived I’d decided to teach my second studio at UCLA on Las Vegas. My first had been on the Santa Monica coastline where Muscle Beach is. For the urban design program we had chosen an unusual way of teaching, designed to open students’ eyes to the city as well as engage them in urban sociology, economics, transportation, land use planning, and other disciplines of urbanism. All coursework was given within studio, faculty members from various UCLA schools had joint appointments in studio, and the main vehicle of teaching was discussion of issues brought up by the studio problem. We hoped this method would help students grasp the types of knowledge and collaboration skills they would need in practice, yet encourage them to remain designers.

I learned my teaching methods in planning school. Unlike architecture studios then, planning studios called for work in teams and small groups, usually on one shared project. Studio was a journey of discovery where the teacher was a player-coach, the students eager researchers and designers, and the topic one that fascinated them all. “Learning from Las Vegas” was run as such a studio. Its long popularity shows that architects find its methods help them think and learn about design. But architectural researchers tell us that it has changed the structure and substance of their work too. Traditionally the architecture PhD trained researchers in structures and architectural historians, but Learning from Las Vegas turned around the culture of research, in the same way as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture overturned that of architecture. Both have remained in print since they were published.

Centerfold spread from Learning from Las Vegas (2nd edition, 1977). Courtesy of The MIT Press

D&B: It’s over 40 years since the publication of Learning from Las Vegas, and close to 100,000 copies have sold. So we were astonished to see at the University of Pennsylvania Archives how much work you had to do to get the book published. 
DSB: Yale University Press turned it down.

D&B: How did that happen?
DSB: Who knows? But MIT Press said yes.

First page of marked-up manuscript of Learning from Las Vegas. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

 

The Books

Relearning from Las Vegas Aron Vinegar
Michael J. Golec
I AM A MONUMENT Aron Vinegar

D&B: What about the process of putting the book together and its challenges, especially the design of the first edition?
DSB: We disapproved of its graphic design. Learning from Las Vegas originated in an impassioned critique of late Modern architecture—not the robust Modernism of the 1930s, but the thin, stale 1960s version. In choosing Swiss graphics, the designer, Muriel Cooper, had selected the very formula we were fighting. She challenged our basic premise.

She had rightly wanted big pages for some maps and pictures, and she managed to fit a few across generous double pages. But that was the only advantage drawn from the 10 ½ x 14 inch size. In general, content was manhandled by the modish but inappropriate template for the sake of graphic design. Our Strip photos are as detailed as Canaletto paintings and could have been laid out well on the big pages, but a tyranny of white paper reduced many to postage stamp size. And the book’s photo essay format, based on our need to explain our thesis through both words and pictures, challenged the template even further. As the explanations were too brief to align with the illustrations, Muriel stretched and spaced their lines too widely, offering a thin gruel difficult for eyes to span. This and the size and weight of the book make it hard to read anywhere other than at a desk or table. You can’t read it in bed, or on the bus, and you can’t put it in your pocket.

Covers of first (1972, with glassine wrapper) and second (1977) editions of Learning from Las Vegas. Courtesy of Powell’s Books, Kirsten Berg

Other publications following this model increased the problem by printing on matte paper. Though the results look scholarly, they are undecipherable. Large illustrations and coated stock are indeed provided in architectural magazines—for the ads, or they wouldn’t sell. But if you can't read the blurry, miniaturized pictures of the art pages, what's the use of having them?

We were allowed to design, or un-design, the second edition after MIT Press decided that the high cost of republishing the first would limit its affordability to students. Here we could put subject matter, not graphics, first. In any case, who could upstage Las Vegas? And despite the smaller page size, some diagrams were bigger in the second edition than the first, and connected ideas related more logically—all because we weren’t answering to the beauties of white paper. We worked hard to keep the second edition affordable, fearing the demise of our idea if its vehicle could not be distributed. And MIT produced a cheap “ugly and ordinary” edition according to our design. Sadly, its page margins were more skimpy than I had expected but the changes have allowed the revised Learning from Las Vegas to remain on sale for over 35 years.

For some reason, a mythology arose around the origins of the book’s design. Although they were as I have described them, I have read that we were coaxed into accepting the design of the first edition by promises of control of the second. Not true, and those who moot it were not at the meetings. It’s interesting to witness wrong history in the making. When I first heard this explanation I asked why my informer had not, as a historian, checked it with us before repeating it. Since we were still alive and he had the opportunity to do so, why had he not discussed our objectives with us before adding arabesques on those he thought we had? I gathered that this was not an opportunity he wanted, as it would have obstructed the offering of his own creative interpretation. “You must admit,” he replied, “that yours is not a very interesting reason.”

But this historiographical aside may be irrelevant. Lou Kahn once said, “I love to look at books. I like to page through them and I'm very happy they're beside me as I work. But I want them closed.” I think many architects have books but don’t open them.

Spread from first edition of Learning from Las Vegas, designed by Muriel Cooper (1972). Courtesy of William Stout Architectural Books

D&B: Why is the preface to the second edition of Learning from Las Vegas signed with only your name, when both of you signed the one in the first edition?
DSB: Because Bob and I wrote the first and I wrote the second. Although we share joint responsibility for the ideas as they developed (and Steve Izenour for creatively helping to interpret them in planning and leading the production of graphics, photographs, and films), we established that whoever wrote the first draft of a manuscript would put their name first. Bob wrote the first draft of the two essays, hence his name is first on the book. I conceived the studio, designed its framework, wrote most of its work programs, and edited all handouts. I also “un-designed” the graphics and laid out the illustrations of the revised edition. We shared the studio teaching hours, with Steve taking the charrette shift.

“Tanya” billboard used as cover image on both editions of Learning from Las Vegas. Photo by Denise Scott Brown

Although our roles were different, we felt that creativity and effort were equally allocated among us. That’s why our three names are listed. However, I soon found that the whole effort was called Bob’s anyway. Sorrowfully, I made the decision to avoid joint writing in the future. But this hardly solved the problem. No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable. So was the prospect that ideas could initiate and grow in a ping-pong of creativity between several minds—even though architects have experienced this way of designing in their offices.

To keep such possibilities at a distance, architects would call me “that planner” (and planners, for other reasons, “that architect”). I am both and more. I had approached the decision to study planning from a European viewpoint. Europeans believe that to be an “urbanist architect” is to be exceptionally good at design. Le Corbusier is their model. But Americans think architects become planners because they are “no good at design.”

Spread from Learning from Las Vegas (2nd edition, 1977). Courtesy of The MIT Press

I brought all my bents to Learning from Las Vegas, starting with the jubilee lights in Johannesburg, plus skills and disciplines learned on three continents from two professions, and eight years of teaching in architecture and planningoften teaching where the two disciplines meet. Before Learning from Las Vegas, I had planned and conducted perhaps a dozen courses and studios, particularly interdisciplinary ones. At Penn, where my teaching began and where Bob and I met, I taught studios on urban design, and planning in the planning department and a theories course on architecture, planning and landscape in the architecture department. I taught the Fall semester of that course and Bob the Spring.

When Holmes Perkins, the dean, introduced these courses, he aimed to connect theory to design via seminars and work topics that followed the sequences of studio, linking its design topics to the concepts of theory lectures and the buildings of Modern masters. The lectures in my half of the course were given by faculty from the school’s three departments and intended to introduce incoming students to various approaches. Therefore I devoted most of my time to running the links to studio—giving the seminars, inventing and critiquing the work topics, devising reading lists, and correcting term papers and exams.

Bob’s course was on theories of architecture. He gave the lectures. Challenged by the dean to invent a course that discussed theories not just one theory, he worked an 80-hour week on it the first year and not much less the next. We met in 1960 when I joined the faculty and we soon found how much we had in common—including the need to ensure continuity between our courses. And when the student assistant who helped Bob left I offered to run his work topics and seminars, thereby performing the linkage functions for both our courses. Meanwhile, I worked on my own theory through my seminars and studios and sought and did not receive funding to write it. But I wrote it anyway in a series of articles over the years.

Bob’s lectures provided him a concentrated opportunity to continue thinking as he had done in Rome. In them, he showed how architects of different eras approached the components of architecture in their designs. He defined these as the Vitruvian elements augmented by later concerns, such as mechanical equipment and lighting, and he dealt with one component per week. Both of us found it necessary to drop the dean’s restriction of the work topic examples to Modernism alone. Neither we nor the students could accept it philosophically, and drawing only the steel and glass buildings that Holmes felt were the future for modern building practice bored the students. These were perhaps the first theories courses in Modern architecture, and their comparative, non-chronological approach—divergent from academic history of architecture courses—was planned to relate to design tasks. At the end of each lecture Bob described how he would approach that particular element as a designer. These last points and the course’s methods of intermeshing ideas and eras were the origins of Complexity and Contradiction.

So, I was doing work topics to get the students to think about the things he was saying in his lectures. And he was listening to the ways in which I was turning students toward urbanism from the lectures that he was writing about architecture. It was a real intermeshing and Complexity and Contradiction came out of that.

People who say, “He got the Pritzker Prize for the book and he wasn’t married to her when he wrote it” probably didn’t read it. For in its preface Bob thanks me for my help. And near the end he says “Is not Main Street almost all right?” This was the results of our discussions and the work I was doing on everyday architecture at that time. That approach informed my teaching at Penn and was to be the thrust of Learning from Las Vegas.

Minor commercial buildings and signs on The Strip, Las Vegas, NV, 1965. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

A major message of Learning from Las Vegas had to do with communication. We claimed that Las Vegas of the 1960s, a city that put “symbols in space before form in space,” could teach us about communication in architecture, and in the second edition we added a subtitle, “the forgotten symbolism of architectural form.” Our studies of Las Vegas neon and the formulations Duck and Decorated Shed initiated a re-acknowledgement of communication as a function and element of architecture. But a second focus of the studio was on Las Vegas as an archetype of the auto city. We sought ways of documenting its evolving forms and patterns and understanding the forces that produced them. Our findings influenced how we plan in architecture and changed our concept of function.

Spread from Learning from Las Vegas (2nd edition, 1977). Courtesy of The MIT Press

There was also the social city. Social planners at Penn were my ardent challengers and best friends, bar Bob. In the early 1960s, I joined in the debate as they evolved their thinking. I was an impassioned sit-in and kibitzer at Paul Davidoff’s “Theory of Planning” course, as he discussed it with the planning faculty and during the first year he gave it. This was the real first theories course at Penn. I suspect that Perkins commissioned our courses after seeing how Davidoff’s fared. Paul’s methods of “advocacy planning” became mine for our firm’s planning work, and for architecture whenever I could use them. So when social planning faculty members invited us to join them as advocates for a low income community threatened by an expressway, we jumped at the opportunity. This was in 1968 and for the next four years we worked in parallel on South Street in Philadelphia and The Strip in Las Vegas.

Paul had another message for architects: learn more about values. He and Herb Gans, sociologist of Levittown, in effect said, “Architects build for clients they can talk with across a table but planners must meet theirs statistically—after all, many aren’t there yet. But it’s wrong to assume that clients who can’t speak with you will want the things you want. Try to grasp the ranges of values in society and understand your options and duties in different urban situations. Architects whose work spans buildings and cities should change hats when they change roles.”

Social planners focused their interest for good reason on poverty and the inner city, but Bob’s and mine extended as well to popular culture and folk art. Could Pop Art be far behind? Its sense of fun, its impure vision, commercial origins and beautiful graphics influenced how we saw and documented Las Vegas and what we did thereafter.

Stardust Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

To the question, “What did you learn from Las Vegas?” we gave different answers over the years. Now I’d say all of the above and more, and young architects today seem to realize this. An answer at another level is that what we stand for, what designing means for us, combines grasping intellectual challenge, looking and learning, facing hard realities social and otherwise, and drawing from them beautiful things—including the “ugly” beauty of Las Vegas, for example. Our first love is putting it all together in building; our second is thinking, planning, teaching, and writing about it.

D&B: Did you hear from students? Now people can email you, but what about when the book came out in the revised edition?
DSB: We heard a lot. Our own generation said, “You are the Antichrist. You are letting the side down.” But architects, though they hated Las Vegas, felt inside that our ideas might be telling. Sometimes their spouses were more vociferous. They saw us as threatening their mates’ jobs. My spousal problem was different: when our work finally achieved some fame and respect, this went solely to Bob. The hero worshippers asked, “What's Denise doing horning in?”

As a result, I wrote “Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” an essay that discussed the psychology of the guru and what architects want from them. I asked, why do we need them? But also why are the prima donnas in architecture all male? And why are there no mom-and-pop gurus? This fight has recently resurfaced.

D&B: Do you think things are really changing?
DSB: Perhaps, at last. After his Pritzker Prize (1991), Bob very rarely accepted awards without me. In the 1980s friends offered to sponsor him for the AIA Gold Medal, and in the next 30 years we submitted joint nominations several times, but these were returned unopened. AIA members could not accept that great design could emerge from a joint creativity. Some would-be sponsors suggested we were quixotic to insist on it, but feminists encouraged us. In 2013, in response to their questions, I proposed that, as my work had already been awarded in Bob’s award, they merely design an “inclusion ceremony” for me. Under growing pressure from women, the Priztker Committee countered, as the AIA had, that I should submit separately. But by then young men and women were telling them this was not the point.

Today, while the Pritzker holds fast, the AIA has changed its rules to admit the possibility of creativity emerging from two persons. Frederic Schwartz, once our employee, now principal of an international practice, canvassed AIA state chapters and found the required majority. The amendment was crafted to award the same creativity in design it has always saluted. This was desirable—design needs support in the profession and at the office, and another form of collaboration has its own prize. The limitation to two caused disappointment among young architects, but the acceptance of plurality in creativity has opened the door.

Report on the 1968 “Learning from Las Vegas” studio at Yale University following completion of the course, authored by Denise Scott Brown, July 1969. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

D&B: How have students reacted to the book since the 1970s? 
DSB: Many see it as basic to their education. And some older architects use it for re-education, “I'm not a young architect,” they write, “but this book was misinterpreted by my teachers in the 1970s. Now I grasp what you were getting at.” When I tell people of my generation that Learning from Las Vegas is in part a social tract, they say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Today’s students say, “We know that.”

And I’m seeing the trends that originally led us to Las Vegas affect students once again. This applies societally, and from my experience of the 1960s I can foresee hazards that Obama must face. For example, if he mentions “the poor” he will lose the middle class. I watch as he navigates poverty without naming it and I hear him say, “the middle classes and all those who want to be middle class.” That’s wise! But as the middle classes themselves experience poverty, will people be more or less open to his ideas?

D&B: In the afterword of Having Words  you write, “With each passing decade we have reconsidered what we ourselves learned in Las Vegas.” 
DSB: It’s a touchstone that we go back to.

Caesars Palace centurion, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

D&B: Do the intervening experiences over the years lead you to different conclusions? 
DSB: Not necessarily. We tend to see more, not differently. Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time (2004) shows how we interpreted our ideas of the 1960s and ‘70s in practice—what resulted from taking research to design, conception to execution. One conclusion was that we must define function in a different way today. The Neomodernists say they don’t believe in it. I say functionalism is one of the glories of Modernism and it’s central to how we design. But we must think about it differently.

D&B: Have you ever thought about doing another revised edition of the book to amplify its points—to continue what you started? 
DSB: “Architecture as Patterns and Systems,” my part of Architecture as Signs and Systems, does that to some extent. Bob wrote on communication and imagery in Part l. I carried the ideas in Learning from Las Vegas further but under different categories—the ones I said we had omitted. And I show how we have acted on them as architects. Nevertheless architects have found my chapters difficult, and if its title didn’t scare them, its subtitle, “Learning from Planning,” sent them running. Yet they need the urban information. I’ve come across architects’ recommendations that include, “Put the high-rise buildings at the tops of hills because they’ll look good there.” Or “Set all buildings on this street fifteen feet back to maintain a wide vista.” You don’t know where to start with such ideas. Perhaps the best place is to ask, “Have you considered that narrow vistas can sometimes be beautiful? Or that some buildings, usually public ones, could well sit within the vista? Or, returning to function, “Would you plan a house without understanding the relationships of bedrooms, bathroom, living room, and kitchen to each other?” These may be simple, lowly patterns, only part of the many-layered activity of designing, but you need to know them.

The Books

Urban Concepts Denise Scott Brown

Urban design should not be confused with the design of large scale architecture or the search for pretty vistas. Our ideas should arise from an understanding of urban processes and the patterns urban activities form. But architects need this knowledge too. Economic forces and how they settle on the land is the subject of one of my chapters, and I find that, although “regional science” studies are highly computerized, architects can develop a feeling for them without the computer, as they do with other types of structure.

Think of two heavily traveled streets that cross. Here, where most people pass, is the marketplace—in cities of all eras and areas. Nearby are religious and civic buildings, and as near as possible to the market, given their ability to pay (or political strength), will be other uses that depend on the center for profit or convenience. And so you get the skyline of New York, but also, at a different scale, the geography of Auto City. There are many other factors—topography, flood plains, locations of raw material—but “central place” relationships, dubbed “city physics” because they recall the gravity and potential models of science, are default patterns that work their way around the others. We should try to go with them, but if we intend to stand against them we should know them even better, be even cannier engineers. And remember, there’s only one Central Park in New York.

City physics is, for me, an aspect of functionalism. At the scale of site planning it helps relate activities in our building to those in surrounding buildings and spaces. But it pertains within buildings too. I apply land use and transportation planning principles indoors. Consider a lab building where corridors run its length, passing through and beside the labs. Where these cross the vertical circulation—at the stairs and elevators on each floor—there’s an opportunity for interdisciplinary meeting of minds.

Planning can’t make people meet but it can remove the barriers and ease the way. Locate an attractive lounge on the cross roads, supply comfortable chairs, a board and chalk, and good coffee, and where will the next Nobel Prize be gestated, at the lab bench or in the coffee lounge? Encouraging meeting among disciplines is a major academic theme, but it demands cross-roads planning, yet these ideas have little appeal in the profession. However they are gaining currency with students and have avid readers among young teachers.

“The Birth of Avis,” Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Photo by Denise Scott Brown, courtesy of VSBA

And I’m working on another book. When I lived in California I spent my free time “looking around” with my camera in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, adding to my slide collection. Robert Scott Brown and I started it in the 1950s while travelling in Africa and Europe and it was extended by me on the U.S. East Coast. Architects’ photographs go back to the Grand Tour sketches of their forebears. They provided personal enjoyment and a record, but for those from far away the record was especially important as return trips would be infrequent.

Among my roughly 20,000 slides, those of Southwestern cities of the 1960s were the most unusual, because they showed the “everyday landscape” of sprawl that people tried not to see. Now they are records of a disappearing landscape, one that’s engulfed in latter-day reconsiderations. Yet they seem new, and indeed most of my slides were untouched for 35 years. An essay will trace the roles of slides in our lives as they extended from record shots, to support for teaching, to making a case for ideas, and as we transitioned from teaching to practice. It will end as computers help to integrate photography even further into architecture. I see photography now as a contributory discipline to architecture in the way art, architectural history, theory and structures are, and social sciences should be.

Another article, written but not published, on “Studio: Architecture's Gift to Academe,” is based on ideas I learned and evolved while inventing and running studios in architecture and planning. I discuss learning-by-doing, by making things and by proposing policy, and I suggest how studio problems can be designed to challenge or seduce architects into reading. It’s the introduction to “Teaching Creative People,” a book I hope to write where I describe studios I have run and some I wish I could run including one on Shanghai. Articles on architectural pedagogy and scholarship dot the pages of my bibliography, and some others I would like to write are, “Where’s the Rigor in the Architecture PhD?” and “On Architectural History, Historiography and Me.” Published and unpublished, they suggest a small manual of pedagogical notes for young teachers.

D&B: In “Words About Architecture,” an essay in your 2009 book Having Words, you say that you and Bob “write mainly to clarify our ideas” and that the two of you have evolved a troika of looking/learning, writing/theorizing, and designing/building. Do you see that approach at work today?
DSB: Yes, but it's most fun when building comes out of it. And I’ve also learned to pause on my soapbox to consider the opposite of what I’m recommending, because design is a many-layered thing. Consider the growing debate on group creativity. As we protagonists try to learn more about it, we should not rush to propose that prizes now go only to teams. But there’s a spectrum of forms of association. Let’s think of it all, and not flee rigidly to the opposite end. The same is true for the famous Zaha statement “Context for an architect is a sheet of white paper.” I’m tempted to say that's terrible—it is terrible, but sometimes in designing, when you’ve read and thought yourself full you have to get a good night’s sleep and start again next morning as a newborn. The influences and contexts will return through your unconscious; and later you can vet the results of inspiration. You have to do both things. But I would use yellow paper. White is too scary. And so, according to many architects, is doing it all alone.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the “sign graveyard”—the Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum, Las Vegas, NV, 2009. Courtesy of VSBA

D&B: Do you see anyone else taking up the mantle of your approach?
DSB: All architects look around where they are to some extent, but to my mind many cultivate too selective a vision. Traveling from our house to our office I like to watch a sequence of views no architect could have designed. None could achieve that variegated vitality and to try would force it. But many won’t look at it because they’re sure it’s ugly.

D&B: In the Afterword to Having Words, you conclude by saying your aim is to help architecture be well set for the future. Is it? 
DSB: I say I’m tucking it up. A letter arrived from a South African architect who had visited us recently. It ended with ngiyabonga gogo n’architecture. He said that, “loosely translated from Tshwane,” it meant, “Thank you, grandmother of architecture.”

This interview originated in a conversation on June 28, 2013, between Denise Scott Brown and Designers & Books editors Stephanie Salomon and Steve Kroeter and has been condensed and edited. We are deeply grateful to Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi and to the following for their gracious assistance: Susan Scanlon and Katherine Herzog (Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. [VSBA]); Nancy Thorne (University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives); Jean Sielaff (Senior Administrative Assistant to the Dean, Yale University School of Architecture) and students from the 1968 Yale studio course who shared their reflections with us: Charles Korn, Ronald Filson, Peter Hoyt, Daniel V. Scully, and Douglas Southworth;  Katie Hope and James Lynch (The MIT Press); and Randall Ross (Modernism 101). 

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