An evening with Denise Scott Brown

Nov. 17

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

An architect who designs a building or space according to its functional purpose can also be a creative soul, Denise Scott Brown told those who gathered Monday night to hear about her new book of essays.

Scott Brown has been instrumental in a school of architectural thought that says good design should be achieved by studying the problems that the design needs to solve as well as  the surrounding environment.

“I don’t mean to say that when you go from analysis to synthesis to design that creativity is left out. Far from it,” she told the assembled at the Center for Architecture. “There’s creativity in the way you do the analysis, in the variables you chose to study. You wouldn’t say there’s no creativity in a house because you know the relationship that must exist between the front door, the entry hall, the kitchen and the dining room.”

Scott Brown called functionalism “one of the glories of architecture.”

To keep it that way, the definition of functionalism needs to be changed to suit each new era, she said. “The 1930s modernists updated the 1910s. The 1950s were very concerned with transferring the ideas of modernism after World War II. And I say, that’s what we need to do now. And one of my ideas as to transferring modernism and functionalism is to think of urban functions.”

Sometimes, a building that functions well will not be so aesthetically pleasing, Scott Brown said. Each problem is perfectly solved, but the result is “ugly as all get out,” she said. “We had that experience, particularly with our building at Oberlin. I think that everyone still thinks it looks ugly, but it really, really worked that way, and it didn’t work any other way.”

Scott Brown used work done at the University of Michigan to illustrate how she has used the theories of functionalism in design. A basic tenet, she said, is that where two roads cross, and lots of people pass each other, is where development should be the most dense. That remains true whether looking at an urban plan with streets, or a building with hallways, she said.

At the University of Michigan, Scott Brown’s firm studied the travel patterns of students from the various colleges on campus. They built both a new building and traveling paths and social gathering spots based on what they learned.

Similar studies were made before Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates tackled the Perelman Quadrangle at Penn.  “If you give a student a bench and say ‘sit on it,’ they’ll lie on it or dance on it,” she said. “You let them discover their own sitting spaces.”  The open areas of the Quadrangle are full of such perches, Scott Brown said, and she was delighted one day to see that students had found them.

“I went by one day awhile ago, and there were 30 kids sitting about … just the way I’d hoped them to sit,” she said. “So I just stood and smiled at them. And then they finally noticed me, and they started looking at me – this old lady standing and smiling at them. I didn’t say a word.”

Scott Brown, a renowned modern architect who was born in South Africa but has spent the bulk of her life in Philadelphia, shared some of her personal story and professional evolution with the group, including her transition from someone who mostly taught, did research and studied theory to someone who uses theory and research in practice.

She spoke with reverence of students in her native South Africa, voluntarily adding more money to their school fees to cover those of black students who had lost their scholarships during the apartheid there.  She left South Africa for England, where student protests were aligned with class struggles.  Then, in the 1950s, Scott Brown came to the United States, where she was stunned by the students’ behavior.

“I got to American and I thought, ‘How mild these students all are, with their bobby socks, their sloppy joes. What happened to protest?’ But I didn’t have to wait very long.”

At Penn, Scott Brown said, she learned how to take what she had already learned from both the universities and social struggles she had seen in South Africa and England and put them into practice.

Scott Brown said she also learned from social scientists, who were challenging architects to stop looking with disdain at places like Los Angeles at least long enough to see why people like them.

Many other architects – including Louis Kahn, upon whose advise Scott Brown studied at Penn – were unaffected by the social scientists’ criticisms. “Even Lou Kahn … said, ‘Sociologists talk about 2.5 people. How could you believe in them?’”

The only person who was open to what Scott Brown was exploring? Bob Venturi. They met when both were instructors at Penn. Later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Venturi and Scott Brown both taught at Yale.  In 1972, Scott Brown, Venturi and Steven Izenour stirred controversy in the architectural community with their book Learning from Las Vegas, in which they said that architects could take away a lot from even low-brow, common elements of the built environment, like neon signs.

Scott Brown became well known for showing students how they could solve problems using hard facts, such as usage patterns.

In the early-1970s, “We came reluctantly to the conclusion that we had better give up teaching and spend that time trying to grow our firm, because if we didn’t the firm would never grow. So we moved from teaching to practice, and then we became addicted to practice.”

They like tussling with an intellectual problem and then solving it with a physical structure, she said. And when Scott Brown isn’t designing something, she likes to write.

Scott Brown and Venturi continue to practice at their firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.  During the question and answer period, an audience member asked her what she has learned from Philadelphia, and what insight she might share with Philadelphia planners and architects.

Scott Brown’s answer made it clear that she’s far from done with her study of this city. She said she loves the buildings of the industrial period, which she said don’t get as much attention as the colonial elements of the city. The infrastructure is amazing, she said. She praised the ubiquitous Philadelphia row houses that show this was a city in which the workers could afford a home of their own.

She and Venturi frequently travel to New York, she said, and along the train tracks are small buildings that have been thoroughly decorated with graffiti artwork. “It would be nice to document those.”

Scott Brown said she would like to conduct studios on these things.

She is also enamored with the park system, and the way the parks and streets and other infrastructure come together in places.

Brown and her husband drove to the event, and she was taken by the autumn leaves, and the gray of the river, and the light from the setting sun, reflected in the buildings’ windows.

“I’m an African, and it’s not my landscape, any of it,” she said. “My landscape is this gray, brown veld. But I finally decided that I would make that route in along the river drive an honorary part of Africa.”

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