By Julia Donoho, AIA, Esq.
For two years in a row, women have made it into the top levels of competition for the highest honor of the American Institute of Architects. Last year a singular architect, Julia Morgan, FAIA, was the recipient of the AIA Gold Medal and this year as a part of a collaborative duo – Denise Scott Brown, FRIBA, with Robert Venturi, FAIA, was a Finalist for the Gold Medal. WOW! This is an outstanding and historic moment for all women in the profession, however they practice. And it is happening in a year when the third woman president of the AIA, Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, is passing the baton to the fourth woman president, Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA. The profession is becoming inclusive and diverse at the top levels.
How did we get here? There are at least three threads of activity that are contributing to this change in awareness and activity. There are the individual efforts of architects to promote and propel themselves forward, there are collective efforts like the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit, the Missing 32% Project, Women in Architecture, the Organization for Women in Architecture and then there is the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) igniting and instigating change at the upper levels. All of these efforts are necessary when the individual routes are not bearing fruit, but it is the individual efforts that are most telling. Let’s look at one.
Learning from Denise: In 1967, Denise Scott Brown was mid-career and a tenured faculty member at UCLA, Co-Chair of the Urban Planning program, when Robert Venturi asked her to be his partner in life and business. She joined the firm of Venturi and Rauch and was made partner by 1969. It was her bright, fresh, raw viewpoint coming from Johannesburg and London that embraced the American landscape as IS and led to Learning from Las Vegas. Melding her African, English and European training with urban planning and architectural academicism made her good and ready to ask students to look at the world differently. The studio at Yale came out of her vision and experience. She embraced the American west, for ALL that that includes. She shared her vision, included others in her studio, and put their names on the front of the book. She was a collaborator. The rest of the world, so blinded by the love of Starchitects, could only see the work as Venturi’s for many years.
It has taken us this long to be ready to see that the interweaving of design thinking from more than one viewpoint leads to a richer architectural expression. Venturi and Scott Brown understood that from their first meeting in 1960, and that is why they are best known for introducing ideas in architecture that were radical and for shifting the consciousness of the profession. The urban planning training from social scientists and activists at Penn affected Bob and Denise’s design work profoundly. More than that and more than architects realize, they hold the key to avoiding the urban architectural mistakes that Jane Jacobs described. Venturi and Scott Brown’s work shows how to bring a powerful sense of place to bear in resolving architectural programs.
As early as 1973, Scott Brown saw that her work and her contribution to the firm, even though she was a partner, was being disregarded in the quest of others to reach the “Architect.” That she was the “Architect” they could not believe, it was not in their realm of possibilities. She started to speak on the experience at the Alliance for Women in Architecture in New York, and in 1975 wrote an article, “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System.” At first she did not publish the article for concern about the reputation of her career and her firm. Their work is all about complexity and contradiction, Venturi more historicist and she more PopArt, and their work was created through a collaborative process that brought these two views together in making architecture. People wanted to see an ego architect, not a collaborative effort, so she lived with the contradiction. She hoped societal change would move things along. As time went on, the women’s movement took hold, but did not deliver the changes to her situation that she needed. In 1989, fourteen years later, she published her article in the book Architecture, A Place for Women. It created quite a stir. It made people mad, they argued, they debated, they denied it was true, and they changed their viewpoint only slightly.
In 1991, when the Pritzker organization decided to give her partner, Robert Venturi, their Prize in architecture, it became clear that the message was not being heard. Venturi tried to tell them the award should go to both together but their ears could not hear. They thought giving it to Venturi was enough. Scott Brown did not attend the ceremony. Her resolve to shift the viewpoint of the profession increased. Robert Venturi agreed and took the position that he would not allow anyone to put his name forward for the Gold Medal without Denise Scott Brown.
From then forward, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown began their campaign to shift the rules of the AIA to allow the Gold Medal to be awarded to two creative people working together. On numerous occasions, Venturi and Scott Brown were nominated to receive the AIA Gold Medal, and a portfolio was submitted to the American Institute of Architects. It was returned without review. The rules stated that only one individual could be nominated for the Gold Medal. In 2013, Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, working through his AIA Regional Directors in New York – Tony Schirrippa, FAIA, and Burt Roslyn, FAIA, were successful in shifting the rules to allow the portfolio to be accepted. 2014 is the first year that the portfolio was not returned. They made it into the Finalist round. Perfect!
Bob & Denise are titans in the field of Architecture and their most recent accomplishment, getting us to this point was a 47 year effort. Such courage and perseverance, creative geniuses leading the way for multiple generations! Now THAT is some lasting influence on the profession of architecture. In 2014, in their 80’s, these two have changed us and changed the course of architectural history, AGAIN.
This is a HISTORIC moment for the individuals stepping into these top level spots in leadership and in recognition, and for all women working in the field of architecture. Just to recap – in two short years we have had a woman that worked as a sole principal win the Gold Medal, a woman that worked as a partner and collaborator become a finalist for the Gold Medal with her partner, a woman that led a career of service to the profession serving as President of the Institute, and a woman who works as a CEO for her architectural firm, now in the top position of service to the profession refocusing us onto the business of architecture. WOW, these are changing times!