March 13, 2007
Speaking of her childhood in South Africa, Denise Scott Brown
recalls that an influx of European Jews had formed a lively
intellectual community there. One of those immigrants, a Dutch
art teacher, had a strong impact on the young girl's point
of view: "She told us, 'You won't be a creative artist
unless you learn from the landscape around you.'" Even
today, Scott Brown says, "I quite often think of myself
as a visiting anthropologist. That quality of marginality
gives the edge, the sparkle to what I do."
The outsider's sensibility may not have been so heightened
were Scott Brown not herself a third-generation South African
and first-generation American. But thanks to that quality-which
she also attributes to her husband and partner Robert Venutri,
FAIA-she has taught the world a thing or two about the hidden
beauty of Las Vegas, shed an unflattering light on sexism
in architectural practice, and designed insightful plans and
buildings for American colleges. In recognition of her achievements,
tomorrow the Vilcek Foundation will present Scott Brown with
its 2007 Prize in the category of arts and humanities.
Now in its third year, the Vilcek Foundation Prize honors
foreign-born individuals for extraordinary contributions to
American society. Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude won the
prize in 2005, but Scott Brown is the first architect to receive
it. RECORD deputy editor Suzanne Stephens, a member of the
prize committee, says the selection of Scott Brown was swift
"She is remarkably prescient of how people use and read
the environment," Stephens says of Scott Brown's work.
Citing her campus plan for the University of Michigan, Stephens
further notes that Scott Brown is at the height of these powers
when developing interstitial spaces.
For her part, Scott Brown says that being an immigrant explains
that talent "because [its outsider status] means bringing
together disparate parts of yourself." She adds that
that perspective manifests itself in the Michigan campus plan
by incorporating elements of Las Vegas and ancient Rome, and
by linking the disparate cultures of the main campus and the
The Vilcek Prize is just one of a string of recent acknowledgments
for the self-described "architectural grandmother."
In November 2006, Venturi and Scott Brown donated their archives
to the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.
And a feature-length documentary, Learning from Bob and Denise,
is scheduled for release in 2008.
Scott Brown plans to use her Vilcek Prize as another opportunity
to teach. Just as she and Venturi gave their $25,000 Vincent
Scully Prize to Philadelphia's Charter High School for Architecture
and Design, they are considering another deserving beneficiary
for Vilcek's $50,000. Referring to the Scully Prize, she says,
"We thought it was a windfall we hadn't expected, and
the best thing to do with it was to try to set an example
for other prize-winning architects that a good thing to do
would be to support a cause."
This year's Vilcek jury members included Stephens, with RECORD;
Paola Antonelli, curator, and Barry Bergdoll, chief curator,
for the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture
& Design; architect Peggy Deamer, dean of the University
of Auckland's School of Architecture and Planning; and Michael
Sorkin, the writer and architect.