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The Women Behind the Denise Scott Brown Petition

Two Harvard design students are rallying to correct a conspicuous omission from the list of Pritzker Prize winners.

By Laura Mirviss
April 9, 2013
Images courtesy Caroline James/Arielle Assouline-Lichten
Harvard Graduate School of Design students Caroline James (left) and Arielle Assouline-Lichten (right) launched a petition in late March asking the Pritzker committee to recognize Denise Scott Brown as part of the 1991 Pritzker Prize, which was awarded to her husband Robert Venturi.

Denise Scott Brown has never been shy about voicing her displeasure at being left off the 1991 Pritzker Prize, which went to her husband and collaborator Robert Venturi. She famously boycotted her husband’s ceremony, and when history threatened to repeat itself some years later, Venturi refused to accept the AIA Gold Medal because Scott Brown was not included—again.

Photo (c) Frank Hanswijk
Denise Scott Brown
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Last month, Scott Brown sat down for a videotaped interview that was broadcast in London at an Architects’ Journal lunch honoring women in architecture. She took the opportunity to restate her case—that she deserves retrospective recognition from the Pritzker committee. Her remarks led to a flurry of widely-circulated articles and blog posts in the design press.

In the last two weeks, Harvard Graduate School of Design students launched an online petition calling for the Pritzker committee to recognize Scott Brown as part of the 1991 award to Venturi. The petition now has more than 5,000 signatures, from some of the biggest names in the business. To date, five Pritzker winners have signed, with Pierre de Meuron adding his comments yesterday morning.

The Pritzker committee has yet to formally respond. But with Robert Venturi’s personal signature and comment, “Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner,” it’s a strong message. The petition has renewed longstanding debates about credit in architecture, and that prizes honoring individuals overlook the fact that the profession is inherently collaborative. The debate over Denise Scott Brown and the Pritzker has also cast a light on the controversial omission of Wang Shu’s wife and collaborator, Lu Wenyu, from the 2012 Pritzker.

RECORD spoke with two of the Harvard design students about the petition and their plans to re-start a club on women in architecture.

Why did you decide to relaunch the women’s group?

Caroline James: I was having a discussion with one of my classmates, Mia Scharphie. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In had just come out. We were casually discussing how women in our school tend to speak up less in class. And when women are confronted with issues in the profession such as salary negotiation or reaching leadership positions, there still seems to be a massive gap.

Around the same time—completely coincidentally—Billie Tsien and Tod Williams were coming to the GSD as senior Loeb Fellows. The Loeb Fellows director approached me and said, ‘Could you get together a group of women to have a breakfast with Billie?’ We decided to brand that as the Women in Design relaunch to pick up this student group that had been dormant for a year or two.

What insights did Billie Tsien have at the breakfast about women in the profession?

Caroline James: When she gets asked to this kind of event, she says she’s far more interested in the personal narrative than highlighting herself as a leader in design. She talked about the challenges of balancing running an office while having a family. She also explained how their office functions like a family. Their firm is structured to promote collaboration.

How did the petition come about?

Arielle Assouline-Lichten: A few days after the breakfast, I was reading a blog post about Denise Scott Brown and the lunch for the Architects’ Journal in London. I felt strongly that somebody needed to do something to create a platform for support. In the profession at large, people believe that she is equal to Venturi. I realized there needed to be an outlet for the design community to voice that to the Pritzker committee.  

I emailed Caroline, I drafted the petition, and it was live within three hours. And we just started emailing everybody that we could find. Women in Design acts as a platform for getting the petition to a broader audience because it comes from Harvard. Many of our professors have circulated the petition as well.

Did you get Denise Scott Brown’s blessing to do this? Or you did you do it, and then talk to her after?

Assouline-Lichten: It was very impulsive. I just launched it. I didn’t even think that it’d maybe be a problem. [Laughs.] We actually had a bit of trouble getting in touch with Denise. It took us five days or so.

It was launched on a Wednesday, and then, finally, on Monday I spoke to her on the phone. She was delighted. At that point, there were about 500 signatures. She had been up until 2 a.m. the night before reading the comments on the petition. She was sweet and just so happy to have some recognition. Even if it’s not the Pritzker, it’s a sign that that the public loves you and appreciates your work. That’s very touching for her. She’s super happy about this whole thing.

How did the petition gain momentum so quickly?

James: The first day the petition was launched, Farshid Moussavi just happened to be in the Chauhaus, our cafeteria. She’s on sabbatical now and was visiting Harvard for an award. I asked her what she thought of the petition. She said, pretty much verbatim, ‘You know, I’m approached all the time by organizations wanting to give me an award for being a woman architect. I’m not a female architect—I’m an architect—and we want to play in the same field as everyone else.’ She was on board. Within 24 hours, she had signed the petition.

Also, early on, Rem Koolhaas made such a definitive comment: “I totally support this action.” It’s just one of the reasons and one of the stories, but I think it helps when people like Rem make such statements of confidence.

Who else has signed?

Assouline-Lichten: Yesterday, we had Herzog & de Meuron sign. So, right now, there are five Pritzker winners who have signed—Robert Venturi, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron. We’re also in contact with other Pritzker winners who are still alive. I think the momentum is still building. We’re hoping to get 10,000 signatures by the end of the week.

Is this the first petition? It’s certainly been the one that’s gained the most steam, but have there been earlier efforts?

Assouline-Lichten: I don’t think there’s been a petition before. But Denise has spoken to Martha Thorne and the Pritzkers about it in the past. Denise has been very vocal over the years about being marginalized. But now, it’s at the point where the Pritzker committee can’t ignore it. They’ve gotten over 5,000 emails in their inbox.

What feedback are you getting about the petition?

James: It’s funny how people respond to this. One head curator said he thinks that Denise Scott Brown would be very embarrassed about this petition. But she’s the one who asked for recognition. And we’ve been in conversation with her on a near-daily basis. Some people believe that the younger generation is the driving force behind the petition. But now, it’s taken off and the whole community has taken it on. There’s so much solidarity. It’s very much in line with her wishes.

Do you feel like a similar thing happened with Wang Shu’s wife, Lu Wenyu?

Assouline-Lichten: We’re thinking about bringing that into our campaign. This is all about equality in the field. It’s not just a women’s issue. It’s about recognition, and that can span different genders, races, etc. People are overlooked for so many reasons. I think it’s something that’s essentially built into this prize. We’ve heard that from a lot of people. The prize doesn’t necessarily recognize collaboration. The Pritzker jury started to acknowledge the nature of collaboration by awarding Herzog & de Meuron and Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (of SANAA), but in the case of Lu Wenyu and Wang Shu, who are married, and in the case of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown—both of the wives were marginalized. It might have something to do with the stigma of the notion of the wife that puts her in second place. So many of the people who sign are men. A lot of them have worked for Denise and Robert, and their first-hand accounts really strengthen the campaign.

James: This has grown so much further beyond support for Denise Scott Brown. People have used the petition to voice their personal experiences—working as women, as men, as husband-and-wife teams, and the struggles that they’ve had, no matter their background.

What does your group hope to do next?

James: We’re planning an event for the fall with Denise Scott Brown. We’re going to invite different partners in crime—leaders in design who work in partnerships—and have a greater discussion about the collaborative, as well as individual, creative efforts in architecture.

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