Text and photography:
© 2005 Vladimir Paperny
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An Interview with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi
Reprinted from Architectural Digest Russia magazine
Vladimir Paperny: The first question is about the nature of your collaboration. Do you have any “separation of powers”, for example, one is responsible for ideas, the other for images…
Denise Scott Brown (sarcastically): Yes, I do the typing, and he does everything else.
Robert Venturi: That’s what the world thinks.
VP: Are there two architects or just one in two bodies?
DSB: It’s very-very complex. We don’t find it easy to tease our ideas apart. Creativity in this office comes from two minds and then from a lot of other minds as well. Architecture is a big social structure. There is a difference between what we do and the rest of the firm — in degree. But there are times when one of us is much more involved in a project than the other, and even that may very over the life of a project.
RV: In general, Denise is more into urban design and city planning, and possibly I am a little more into architecture. But we still collaborate and critique each other. We like the idea that creativity derives from critiquing — something that was emphasized by T. S. Eliot. It’s more important to be a good critic than to be original.
DSB: From Bob’s formulation you would think that no architectural design comes from me, but very often in the process of master planning and urban design the architectural part of the project comes out; you may find the first design ideas in the planning and urban design reports before we even have an architectural contract. It’s very simple-minded to say that design goes in one place and planning in the other.
RV: But as far as the everyday running of the office — now more and more you have to be a businessman, a bureaucrat, sadly, you have to spend more time dealing with all those agencies than on design — we are equal.
VP: What about furniture?
DSB: That’s much more Bob. On the other hand, when I look at that chair — I worked with him on those profiles. But he spent months on it and I spent weeks. Or maybe he spent years and I spent months.
RV: But in the writing, the book called “Complexity” was me, although near the end she influenced its content. “Learning from Las Vegas” is both of us. Parts of it she wrote and I critiqued, parts I wrote and she critiqued. This book, “Architecture as Signs and Systems”, is a little different. The first part is me, the second part is her.
DSB: But the ideas are shared.
VP: What about balancing business and personal life?
DSB: What personal life? What architect has a personal life?
RV: Literary, we work seven days a week. We work a half-day on Christmas. We don’t have much life beyond that. Once in a while we travel. Once in a while we have a vacation in Europe or something but generally we don’t have much life outside our office. When we were parents we felt very guilty for not spending enough time with our child. Even last night we went to an art exhibition at a museum but actually it was a museum that we ended up designing an addition to, so in a way that was work too.
DSB: And our child is just the same — he works all the time.
VP: How old is your child?
DSB: He is now 34.
VP: I also have a son who is 34.
RV: Is he advising you a lot?
VP: No, he lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles.
RV: Well, we live in Philadelphia and our son lives in New York. I was at a reception once and a young lady was saying “both my husband and I work a lot and we don’t see enough of our children.” I said “oh, I understand entirely, that was a problem we had.” Our son Jim was standing right behind me and he said “Dad, you got it all wrong — I saw much too much of you and mom when I was growing up.”
DSB: He was being kind. But see, we can go on a cruise to Japan, for example. But we go to Japan to work so we see so much more by working there than on a regular cruise. It’s better than a holiday. You are always tired but you are never bored.
VP: So when you come home you still talk about work?
DSB: No, we just vegetate.
RV: We flip TV channels.
VP: If you type “Venturi Scott Brown” in Google you’ll get thousands of references but my impression (although it’s not anything scientific) was that you get more reference to your theory that to your practice. Is that something that bothers you?
DSB: I don’t know if it’s true — it depends on how Google is set up. There are people who say “Venturi built his mother’s house and has done nothing since, and he wrote a book in 1968…” They always say “Venturi” the want to forget about me, please put her away somewhere. Anyway, they say “what has Venturi done, he had one idea, and that was in 1968.” We’ve done 400 and something projects, about 190 buildings. Our oeuvre is large (of course, you can put 40 of our buildings into one Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV in Beijing, I imagine) but in the last 15 or so years people are not very interested in it. Now we are finding that in Europe there is a lot of interest in our theory. Since Bob and I married, I’ve insured that we kept the bibliography of our work. This morning I was in touch with someone in Germany and someone in Holland, and then you are here. And everyone’s reading our bibliography and doing theses on something like “the role of controversy in architectural profession”. Our work is also available but the people who are approaching us are ones doing their doctoral dissertations, therefore they are interested in theory.
RV: The reason we write a lot is because we often cannot do it. If you are ahead of your time, and I think we are (I’ll be rather egotistical here), it’s very hard to find a client who is willing to do it. A painter can do anything he wants, he might starve because he cannot sell a painting, but at least he can do it. An architect cannot. So you write to get your ideas out. We've always been considered controversial, radical, so we had a little more trouble getting jobs than the people who work more in the line of what's happening. On the other hand, we had wonderful university clients (we don't get developer clients, unfortunately) and they are sophisticated, and they let us do what we can. So, if you can't do it, you write.
DSB: Many American architects would say that we get the prime work because academic clients are wonderful to work for. Clients like to choose architects like themselves, we and they have a lot in common because we've taught a great deal in a lot of universities. That's very good work for us.
RV: It's fun that we have a variety of work. We worked for Harvard, Yale and Princeton but also for McDonalds.
VP: I've come across two statements about your work. One is that your buildings are just illustrations of your theories. The other is that your theories are just explanations of your buildings. Is either of these correct?
DSB: Both are wrong. We've been very careful to say “you should not translate a theory into a building — you'll get a very dry building.” We have this oscillation between looking, and researching, and writing, and working things out in our heads, and designing, and working things out with our hands. And these always go together. We see something in Tokyo or Shanghai, and that makes us start thinking about architecture.
RV: We are very thrilled and influenced by actual places. I celebrate the anniversary of my first day in Rome every year. And we are thrilled and influenced by the everyday.
VP: So, between these two activities — theory and practice — neither is more important than the other?
RV: Yes, but we are first architects. I wanted to be an architect when I was three years old.
VP: You've been considered something like the “founding parents” of postmodernism.
DSB: Another lie. The postmodernism that was taken up by Philip Johnson and used in a very gross way is nothing of what we are concerned with. But there was a postmodernism that was a social movement, theological movement, literary movement, which talked about the end of innocence with the Holocaust, about multiculturalism, about reserving judgment, about being skeptical even about your own best ideas — that we very much agree with. I’ve traced influences on me that come out from Africa and through Europe where I studied in the 50s to America of the 60s. Out of that we derived a certain postmodernism but certainly not the architectural one that we find specious. If it’s our child it’s an illegitimate child.
RV: I first heard the word “postmodernism” when I was in college. I occasionally used it. But we are not postmodernists.
VP: Do you belong to any movement?
VP: Have you started any movement?
RV: No, we did not try to do that. Architects invent movements every month or a year. We do not talk in terms of movements. We talk in terms of ideas. If there is a movement its incidental.
DSB: I feel I belong to a group of people, who were not architects, at Penn in the 1960s. I disagreed with them a lot but I feel an identity with them. They are all gone and dead except Herbert Gans. Paula Davidoff was another, Lynda Davidoff, Tom Reiner. These were people who were battling social issues and urbanism and hitting architects on a head. I was fighting back but also agreeing with them. They and some of the thinking that was happening in Europe in the 50s — I came out of all of that and certainly brought that into our marriage. So Bob is influenced by things that he doesn’t really know about — through me, if you know what I mean. Also the “systems” thinkers at Penn and MIT had a lot of influence on me.
RV: I really was never part of a group but what I came out of was a particular education I got at Princeton, in the School of Architecture and Design, which was unfashionable at that time, it was not Harvard or MIT. What was interesting there is that you still studied history even though you were designing in modern. That had a great influence on me and my connecting of modernism with the evolution of art history, which was very unusual at that time, and that’s essentially the book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”.
VP: At the time when there was this polemics between the “grays” and the “whites”, were you a part of it?
RV: I had nothing to do with that. I despised that. I though it was just self-promotion — you give yourself a name and you get another news into a journal. They considered me a “gray” but I was not in it at all. There is a great quote by Sir Edwin Lutchens about one of his competitors, Herbert Baker, something like: “If God was Herbert Baker he would first invent the names of animals and then design the animals.”
DSB: In the 1950s I was in England when the Smithsons and the “new brutalists” rediscovered early modernists. Then in 1953 Jim Sterling came from Paris, and suddenly Le Corbusier was doing things in brown, not white. But Colin Rowe had already left for America. If he waited a few more months, he would have “browns” in America, not “whites”.
VP: Has your position shifted in any significant way after the first two books, “Complexity and Contradictions” and “Learning from Las Vegas”? Is there anything in these two books that you would like to disown?
RV: There was one little thing. In “Complexity” I mentioned Giovanni Michelucci’s Church of the Autostrada near Florence that I thought was really bad but later I visited the church and realized it was an extremely beautiful building. But our philosophy has not changed, it evolved. One architect said after one of our lectures that we had not had a new idea in forty years. My reaction was this: at least we’d had an idea. In a sense, we are rather proud that we evolved and don’t have revolutions. Sometimes revolutions make sense, possibly in 1905 and in 1917 in your country. Modernism was an aesthetic revolution, and that was good. But ever since everybody says “you must be original”. You could buy caps at one of our exhibitions. One says “heroic and original”, the other “ugly and ordinary”. We are ugly and ordinary.
VP: You’ve used the terms “duck” [a building in a shape of a duck from Peter Blake’s book “God’s Own Junkyard”] vs. “decorated shed” [a Las-Vegas casino]. Is this dichotomy still valid today?
RV: Yes, but we are not saying that one is better than the other. We are saying that “decorated shed” is probably more appropriate today.
VP: My impression was that you used the term “duck” mostly in a negative sense, although you said that a Gothic cathedral was both a “duck” and a “decorated shed”.
DSB: Dichotomy is the problem. The more “ducky” you get, and the more that calls for a building that is a separate identity, has civic value, the more danger there is that you use it inappropriately. You make something a “duck” the shouldn’t be a “duck”. We were looking at old factory buildings, which had a little decoration over the front door and on the capitals of the columns. I came from England with a great love of those early industrial building. My feeling of a modernist was “the only pity is that little decoration”. And then I was looking at the Yale Art & Architecture Building by Paul Rudolph and I suddenly thought: “the industrial buildings put a little decoration in a few places, and why is that not better than distorting the whole building…
RV: To be “interesting”…
DSB: Yes. And then I suddenly thought: “the way he did that with the Yale building is much like the ‘duck’ in Peter Blake’s book”. It became obvious that I should stop disliking the decoration on the factory and see it for what it was: in the right places and the right amount.
VP: Las Vegas of the 70s was made of “decorated sheds”. Today’s Las Vegas is dramatically different.
RV: Disneyland scenography.
VP: And it’s all “ducks”. What can we be learning from Las Vegas today, if anything?
RV: What is really funny is to write a book called “Learning from Las Vegas” that had a lot of influence and the same city 30 years later is completely the opposite. I am a kind of Protestant-Quakery type of guy, so I am kind of offended by the current La Vegas. I am not finding it fun and thrilling to walk through.
DSB: I'm not sure we're in a position to be able to learn from the new Las Vegas but Rem Koolhaas seems as if he is. But he doesn't like his Las Vegas the way we kind of liked ours. From another point of view, Steve Winn, in getting rid of the neon, also single-handedly more or less turned around the market in Las Vegas and made it something every different: no more cheap meals and gambling and a much wider audience for the city based on many more things.
RV: You can bring your family there.
DSB: That's the economic policy, which he brilliantly achieved. That is something I look at with some awe and also with some loathing. There is a big irony. You don't have to go to New York, Paris, Venice, but you can get it all there. The original Las Vegas was looked upon as all private. This wasn't true as we found out, there was a strong public sector. Now you have something in Las Vegas that looks like public sector and absolutely isn't. People, who were trying to demonstrate in Las Vegas on a sidewalk in front of the casino, were told “move along, move along, this is private territory.” They said “no, we are on the sidewalk.” The casino people said “would you like to see where the public sidewalk is?” And they took the demonstrators to the eight-inch-wide granite curb — that was public. The casinos have bought everything up. What looks like the epitome of the old civic Europe is all private.
VP: Let me go back to Paul Rudolph. In “Learning from Las Vegas” you criticized his Crawford Manor in New Haven. You said that vertical grooves in the surface looked like “marks of violently heroic construction process”, which actually never took place. You seem to be criticizing him for lack of honesty, which is a typical orthodox modernism kind of criticism.
DSB: Yes, and we are on some level orthodox modernists. We have to reassess the doctrine of functionalism. It's still a good doctrine. In a sense, Las Vegas was much more honest that Paul Rudolph. It was an honest fake.
RV: You asked if there was anything in our writing that I would want to change. When I criticized Paul Rudolph's building it was a convenient way to explain what I was doing by explaining what I was not doing. But since then I feel very guilty about that. Paul Rudolph was the head of the department who invited me to teach at Yale. I later wrote him a letter saying “look, I'm sorry, that was a dumb idea.”
VP: Did he respond?
RV: He never responded.
DSB: He did respond. I was at a party and Paul Rudolph was there and he was very angry. And he said to me “are you saying that the people in our building don't like their building, are you saying the all the elderly have the same value system?” I said “no, we were not saying either of those things, it was a discussion of what was comme il faut, what was relevant.” And a little later he came up and apologized, he said “I didn't mean to be that rude to you.” Because I think he understood. And then there was another funny time when we were invited to a party on false pretences by Philip Johnson. We didn't want to have this debate with New York architects. We thought we were having dinner with Philip and they were all there and they were constantly arguing over our heads. We couldn't understand a word of what they were saying, we were trying to bring some what we thought were rather direct arguments. We eventually crept out underneath the argument and went home, and as we did it I could see a kind of understanding on Paul Rudolph's face.
VP: In the1970s, Fred Koetter accused you of being socially irresponsible, by which he meant flirting with mass tastes and celebrating decadent status quo. If not for federal intervention, he said, the white majority in Alabama would have never given up segregation.
DSB: If he read carefully he would have seen that we said “we withhold judgment in a temporary way for a heuristic purpose to make our judgment more sensitive.
VP: Let me play devil's advocate. I think he was saying that common taste, common political instinct, common sense were responsible for electing Hitler in Germany.
DSB: You have to choose your battleground. Fighting against Nazism may be more worthwhile that fighting against the billboard. Anywhere you want to take it, it isn't good thinking. Societies, which control to the nth degree, don't do well by that people either.
VP: Another criticism by Fred Koetter was something like this. You say that you don't judge economic and marketing reality behind Las Vegas billboards , you are only talking about the communication system. But, he says, you cannot really pretend that this force feeding of the consumer could be separated from the sign system.
DSB: For our purpose at the time, looking to learn a craft, we could separate it. It all depends on what you are trying to do. He doesn't think very well. He is just an architect. He hasn’t been trained to think. Scientists would agree that you isolate variables to understand them. When you then take a different role and you have to bring then together, if you leave one out you can be criticized. Once our design is done, it can be evaluated. Whatever we did to get there — isolated variables, did not isolate them, looked at Las Vegas, looked at Koetter's work — in the end our building can be checked for function, structure, meaning, or emotional impact.
VP: To finish with Fred Koetter, his last argument was “if Main street is almost OK, why do we need architects?”
DSB: Because of that word “almost”.
VP: So architecture is just a little sizzling?
DSB: No. Sometimes architects do too much. In the 1960s, everyone was criticizing urban renewal because it did too much.
RV: It was importing a continental European ideology to the American urban scene.
DSB: In doing that, without the architects intending it, it had the effect of human removal, particularly removal of the low-income people, and particularly the low-income African-American people. It had huge social consequences. So we would say that architects had too much influence, and we weren’t the only ones saying that. So that’s the background of our thesis “try to do less, be more modest.”
VP: You don’t seem to be consistent, you say “try to do less”, but “less is a bore”, and then you say “we don’t’ want to be heroic and original, we prefer to be boring.”
DSB: You are right. These are wonderful contradictions, aren't they?