2016 Gold Medal Recipients
2016 Gold Medal recipients Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi enhance appreciation of architecture with whimsical designs and insightful writing.
Collaborators for 55 years, Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, have long enhanced the popular appreciation of architecture, with their whimsical forms that play off historical precedents and their writing in support of everyday building types that might otherwise be disregarded. Venturi’s 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas (with Steven Izenour) remain more than required reading for every architecture student. They are touchstones for three generations of architects in thinking critically and designing thoughtfully.
“Their writings have deeply affected the profession, in the USA and the whole world," says Cesar Pelli, FAIA, writing in support of their nomination. Together, the books draw in cultural observations, field research, historical context, and a deep understanding of architecture as a creative field as well as a multifarious vocation.
“At the intersection of historicism and pop art, Bob and Denise began a conversation in 1960 that continues to change our profession and profoundly influence how each of us as architects can change the world," says Frank Gehry, FAIA, writing in support of their nomination for the AIA Gold Medal. Working as "two great intellects, instead of one ego," he wrote, their work "broke open the field of architecture to revisit history in a freshly modern way."
Since the completion of Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1964, the pair have been creating buildings, places, books and objects that inspire affection from their users. Bold, graphical forms instantly please even the most casual passerby at the Guild House, a 1964 senior housing building in Philadelphia, as well as in their most recent major project, the chapel at Episcopal Academy, built in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania in 2008.
Brown, born in 1931 in Northern Rhodesia, and Venturi, born in 1925 in Philadelphia, joined each other in marriage and in a formal practice in 1967. One cannot speak about the thinking and theory of one partner without speaking about the contributions and support of the other; they are as unified as two halves of the same, luminous brain. The extensive works of their firm, now called VSBA, includes buildings of many types—large university halls, tucked-away vacation homes, hospitals, historical monuments—each a lively addition to its site. Often colorful, curvaceous, and cleverly detailed, VSBA’s oeuvre lives up to Venturi's legendary aphorism from Complexity and Contradiction that, "Less is a bore," as a play on the Miesian, High-Modernist sentiment that less is more.
And, nothing is less boring than Las Vegas, the city most associated with Venturi’s probing meditation on the American landscape. Learning from Las Vegas steered architects' gaze away from what had become repetitive iterations of functional Modernism to something more exuberant. Embracing the shamelessly promotional neon wilds of a place that was disconnected from the crisp rationalism of architecture schools, they gave the practice a license to lighten up.
“This recognition will resonate with generations of architects,” said 2015 AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA. “What Denise and Bob have done for the profession far exceeds the completion of a great building or two. Through a lifetime of inseparable collaboration, they changed the way we look at buildings and cities. Anything that is great in architecture today has been influenced in one way or another by their work.”
“Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect,” Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour wrote in the book’s opening salvo. “Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things.”
The quality of the answer—in architecture or otherwise—depends on the quality of the question, and Venturi and Scott Brown have spent a lifetime asking after architecture’s ultimate purpose and value.