BY Isobel Harbison in Profiles | 02 AUG 18

Learning from Denise Scott Brown

As two recent London exhibitions of the architect’s photographs show, this underappreciated polymath has always been ahead of her time

BY Isobel Harbison in Profiles | 02 AUG 18

Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Levittown, the swinging singles on the Westheimer Strip, golf resorts, boating communities, Co-op City, the residential backgrounds to soap operas, TV commercials and mass mag ads, billboards, and Route 66 are sources for a changing architectural sensibility. New sources are sought when the old forms go stale and the way out is not clear.1

Denise Scott Brown has learned from many sources. She is a polymath: architect, urban planner, furniture designer, critic, theorist, photographer, filmmaker and DIY anthropologist. Throughout her career, this fact has been poorly acknowledged and certainly under-celebrated. Her professional achievements and innovations have often been accredited to her collaborator and partner Robert Venturi – as was most notably, and still contentiously, the case with the 1991 Pritzker Prize. Along with Steven Izenour, the pair co-authored the seminal Learning from Las Vegas (1968/77).

Denise Scott Brown, Architettura Minore on the Strip, Las Vegas, 1966. Courtesy: the artist and Betts Project, London

Las Vegas was the city to which Scott Brown first was drawn. Her interest in it coincided with her work in California, during her tenure as co-chair of the Urban Design Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the mid 1960s. Like Los Angeles, Las Vegas was uniquely bound to the North American phantasmagoria: a city of neon lights and elevated signs, of freeways and parking lots, of 24-hour casinos and nocturnal transformations, of constant kino-graphic communication. In her 1969 essay ‘Learning from Pop’, she wrote, ‘space is not the most important constituent of suburban form. Communication across space is more important, and it requires a symbolic and a time element in its descriptive systems which are now only slowly being devised.’ Las Vegas was the city she had invited Robert Venturi to walk around with her in 1966. It was the city to which they returned numerous times to develop the site-responsive methodology they taught at Yale and it filtered, too, into their own inimitable architectural style over the following decades, combining modular forms with unique, location-specific decorative orders.

In that seminal publication, photography was a crucial medium for recording urban environments and, and throughout their professional practice, the medium that helped configure their composited orders. Looking at Scott Brown’s own photographic work (while reading her consistent output as a writer), we get a strong sense of her unique conceptual and aesthetic sensibilities. The recent exhibition ‘Wayward Eye’, between London’s Betts Projects and the Lethaby Gallery at Central St Martins, was the first solo presentation of Scott Brown’s photographs in the UK. Taken between 1956 and 1966, the images show how Scott Brown’s lens was consistently drawn to vast, urban spaces. Her compositions show her keen early interest in the distant objects that steer or propel urban movement (billboards, hoardings, neon signs). Scott Brown’s photographs document her travels from Venice to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, navigating between islands, across piazzas, through airborne pigeons, under electricity cables, along freeways, down the Strip.

Denise Scott Brown, Mojave Desert, California, undated (before 1968). Courtesy: the artist and Betts Project, London

Scott Brown’s research process – multi-part, multi-media and collaborative – supported her conviction that formal analysis need not relinquish socio-political concern. Indeed that there was a necessary reflexivity between urban observation and architectural design. Photography, among other modes of documentation, played a significant role in the interim period between street recordings and studio drafting, a key element in Venturi and Scott Brown’s innovative ‘socioplastic’ approach.

While the political turbulence of the 1960s had not featured explicitly in Venturi’s pre-collaborative output, the social and political weighed heavily in Scott Brown’s practice from very early on.2 Having spent the 1930s and 1940s in South Africa (studying architecture in the University of Witwatersrand), the 1950s in England (at London’s Architectural Association School) and around Europe before undertaking consecutive masters degrees in city planning and architecture in the University of Pennsylvania from 1958, she has said, ‘social change and the unrest that went with it dogged my steps in every place. Fortuitously the lessons learned in one tied neatly to the next, and many questions resolved themselves in planning school […] during the Civil Rights movement.’3  

Denise Scott Brown, Signs, Las Vegas, undated. Courtesy: the artist and Betts Projects, London

Scott Brown has written repeatedly about her outsider’s view of the world, a realpolitik informed by a lifetime living as a foreigner while working in a male-dominated industry. From early on she was reluctant to measure or model her methods on European architectural traditions and instead constantly explored new ways to understand how vernacular architecture resonated with the singularity of lived experience within the diversity of North American society. What chimes with her interest in Las Vegas, this city of signs and slogans, so antagonistic towards any economic or ethical restraint, are the formats she chose to explore them. Writing ‘On Formal Analysis as Design Research’ (1979), she recalled using cameras in many different ways: strapping three of them to the front of a car and driving the length of the Strip; making a panorama by splicing together individual shots taken at regular intervals; shooting time-lapse movies; videotaping people talking to camera about their lives in public housing. ‘New analytic techniques,’ she wrote in ‘Learning from Pop’, ‘must use film and videotape to convey the dynamism of sign architecture and the sequential experience of vast landscapes; and computers are needed to aggregate mass repeated data into comprehensible patterns.’

Revising pop’s cannon from an art historical perspective, Scott Brown’s oeuvre might be considered among the artists about whom she often wrote, including Ed Ruscha, Claus Oldenberg and Andy Warhol, relating to their contact with the city, their clever use of lens-based media, their wit and their turn to people by way of ‘the popular’. Beyond her architectural practice, her lens-based approaches should resonate with many contemporary artists working across media at the busy juncture of spatial, technology and identity politics. The techniques that Scott Brown developed in her expansive research based-practice were, ‘non-quantitative, operational, poetic […] not so much anti-scientific as pre-scientific (and pre-artistic)… [defining] new areas for more rigorous development by both scientists and artists’. She has always been ahead of her time.

Denise Scott Brown, ‘Wayward Eye: Photography of the 1950s and 1960s’ ran at Betts Project, London from 11 – 28 July 2018.
‘Wayward Denise Scott Brown’ runs at Lethaby Gallery at Central St Martins until 27 August. 

1 Denise Scott Brown, ‘Learning from Pop’, Casabella, May/June 1971, pp.15–23
2 Robert Venturi’s, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was published in 1966, the same year as Aldo Rossi’s ‘L’architettura della città’, signposting the end of the abstract paradigm of postwar modernist architecture
3 Denise Scott Brown, Having Words, Architectural Association, London, 2009, p.3

Main image: Denise Scott Brown, Pigeons of Piazza San Marco, Venice, 1956. Courtesy: the artist and Betts Project, London 

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.