A pair of firsts in architecture prize for Philly couple

 Denise Scott Brown (center), and Robert Venturi (second from right), are seated next to First lady Laura Bush, during a 2007 National Design Awards ceremony (Ron Edmonds/AP Photo)

Denise Scott Brown (center), and Robert Venturi (second from right), are seated next to First lady Laura Bush, during a 2007 National Design Awards ceremony (Ron Edmonds/AP Photo)

The American Institute of Architects has given it highest award to two of Philadelphia’s most prominent designers, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

This is the first time Gold Medal has been given to a living woman, and to an architectural team.

This week’s announcement comes amid a controversy that has been swirling for years. The first woman to receive the Gold Medal was Julia Morgan in 2014. Morgan had died 57 years earlier.

This is also the first time the award is given to more than one person. The joint recognition acknowledges great design can happen collaboratively, not just from a single genius.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“It’s a great move for architecture that they can accept that,” said Scott Brown. “I hope for all the other creative people that work with us, that they will accept that one of the ways of designing in architecture is by a ping-pong of ideas.”

Scott Brown and Venturi designed side-by-side for more than 40 years. They are responsible for iconic buildings like the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, and the Ben Franklin Ghost House in Philadelphia, as well as the seminal book on design, “Learning from Las Vegas.”

“Anything that is great in architecture today has been influenced in one way or another by their work,” said AIA president Elizabeth Chu Richter.

“We changed how people design,” said Scott Brown. “It used to be that you studied architecture history because you wanted to be a professor of history. Now, you do architectural research because you wan to be a better designer — the designer who does research, synthesis, and design. We introduced that through the studios we ran called ‘Learning from Las Vegas, and Learning from Levittown.'”

In 1991 Robert Venturi was awarded the highest honor in international architecture, the Pritzker Prize, but Scott Brown was not included. The snub angered her and many others in the design world. A petition asking the Pritzker board to reconsider the award was denied.

In the ensuing years, several people have asked Venturi if they could nominate him for the AIA Gold Medal, but he refused because his wife would not be recognized.

“Lots of people said to Bob, stop being Quixotic,” said Scott Brown. “Others said to me, stop being selfish.”

Architect Fred Schwartz campaigned to have both Venturi and Scott Brown recognized on equal footing. He lobbied AIA chapters around the country to press the national organization to change its rules to allow more than one person to be honored, which finally occurred in 2013.

Schwartz, a former employee of Venturi and Scott Brown in the 1970s and longtime friend, died in 2014 of cancer.

“We think of Fred up in heaven enjoying this, too,” said Scott Brown.

Robert Venturi has retired from architecture. Denise Scott Brown continues to write and lecture.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal