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Second Time Around: Will Denise Scott Brown Get Her Pritzker?

By Wendy Moonan
April 18, 2013
Photo © Matt Wargo
Denise Scott Brown in front of the Provincial Capitol Building in Toulouse, France. Designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, it was completed in 1999.

As of today, 9,300 people had signed an online petition demanding that Denise Scott Brown be given a retroactive Pritzker Architecture Prize as the equal partner and collaborator of her husband, Robert Venturi, who won the prize in 1991. Scott Brown says she is “thrilled” about the petition, which was launched on March 27 by two students at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Caroline James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten, after they learned that Scott Brown had recently told the Architects’ Journal in London that she deserved her own Pritzker in a modest “inclusion ceremony.” The petition, which James and Assouline-Lichten hope gets 10,000 signers, was earlier this week hand-delivered to Martha Thorne, the executive director of the Pritzker Prize. In an interview, Scott Brown asked philosophically: “I am a prize loser, but which of the prize winners could have been the cause of a petition signed by more than 8,700 people?”

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Should Scott Brown be given the prize retroactively? Those who signed the petition respond with an emphatic yes. So did several architects interviewed for this article. “Of course, the Pritzker jury should recognize Denise Scott Brown,” says Annabelle Selldorf. “Why did they not in the first place?”

Traditionally, the Pritzker Prize has been awarded to only one person, almost always a man. Very few women have served as jurors. The Pritzker’s mission is “to honor a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

Of the 38 prizes awarded since 1979, only two women have won: Zaha Hadid in 2004 and Kazuyo Sejima in 2010, the latter with her partner, Ryue Nishizawa, of SANAA. The only other architects who have won as a partnership are Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Last year the jury awarded the prize solely to Wang Shu, even though he works with his architect wife and partner, Lu Wenyu. (Wang has signed the petition.) And just to muddy the waters even more, in 1988, two Pritzkers were awarded in a single year unrelated firms, to Oscar Niemeyer and Gordon Bunshaft.

Clearly, the prize criteria are inconsistent, particularly at a time when more and more young architects are engaged in collaborative practices that no longer even go by the names of the principals. When Venturi accepted the prize, Scott Brown refused to attend the ceremony, in protest. Only two members of the 1991 jury are still alive, and one of them, Lord Jacob Rothschild, refuses to be interviewed. The other one, Kevin Roche, of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, is not at all contrite about his vote. “I was the one who proposed Bob and pushed him,” Roche recalls. “It was more about his writing [referring to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venturi’s book from 1966] and thinking than about his actual work. Denise’s name really never came up. At the time the ground rules were that the prize would be given to one person.”

But times have changed. “The starchitect model is outmoded; there is not one lone genius handing down all the ideas in any practice,” says Peggy Deamer, a New York architect who also teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. “There are many, many examples of partnerships where it’s impossible to disengage one partner’s work from the other.”

Barry Bergdoll, an architectural historian who is now the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), points out that the Pritzker Prize is a completely private initiative. “The Pritzker plays a role as if it were an academy with a membership,” he says. “In fact, it is a prize given by a real estate company with a really prestigious jury. But that’s the only thing the Pritzker does; it has no other function in architecture.” Because of this, he adds, “The Pritzker jury can do whatever they want to; the current jury could change its policy not only on the gender issue but also on the partnership issue. They could also make it more like the Academy Awards.”

The online petition could also be seen as a feminist fist pump, attempting to right a perceived wrong and show that women architects need to step out of the shadows of their male counterparts, whether married to them or not. In 2002, architect Beverly Willis established the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation in New York to “expand knowledge about women’s contribution to the built environment.” “I worked my ass off for 35 years and finally realized that just because I was a woman, there was no way my legacy would ever be known,” she says. “I want to get women architects into the history books and change the culture of architecture.”

Attempts to talk to Pritzker jurors were mostly unsuccessful. One former Pritzker juror said, provocatively, “Don’t discount the negative role that prickly personalities play.” Thorne responded via email: “The Laureate is chosen annually by a panel of independent jurors. Those jurors change over the years so this presents us with an unusual situation. The most that we can say at this point is that I will refer this important matter to the current jury at their next meeting.” To which Scott Brown says, “I suggested the inclusion ceremony to Martha Thorne three years ago.” Thorne says she did not speak to Scott Brown three years ago, but that they did talk on the phone in late 2012.

Former Pritzker Prize winners who have already signed the GSD petition include Venturi, Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas. Other prominent architects who have added their names to the list include Toshiko Mori, Frances Halsband, Deamer, Deborah Berke, Hani Rashid, Farshid Moussavi, and Jeanne Gang. Will Scott Brown finally get the award? “Are the Pritzkers just going to remain silent?” asks Laurie Hawkinson, a New York architect and partner with Henry Smith-Miller. “What’s wrong with recognizing partners in architecture? Someone has to stand up and say, ‘The buck stops here.’ The Pritzker is considered top of the pile. The jury should be setting an example and reflecting the world as it is today.”

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