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Denise Scott Brown Awarded the Vilcek Prize for Arts and Humanities

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 and unanimous.

"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 medical school.

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.

David Sokol