Architecture Words 4: Having Words (Denise Scott Brown)

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Architecture Words 4

Denise Scott Brown Having Words PREFACE


‘I have come to feel like a grandmother in architecture’, Denise Scott Brown tells us in her afterword to the 12 essays comprising Having Words, ‘a guardian of its institutional memory who knows the pitfalls and where the bodies are buried.’ The line is just one of countless gems you will uncover in this rare compilation of selected writings produced by Scott Brown during nearly half a century of work as an architect, planner, designer, teacher, researcher and writer. Famous as the co-author of one of the twentieth century’s defining architectural texts, Learning from Las Vegas, it is Scott Brown’s commitment to learning, one realises, that is central to all of her many successful activities around the designing and making of architecture and urbanism. These varied topics and destinations, we now recognise, are also the vehicles for learning itself, and for her assertion of its fundamental importance to architects. In the world of Denise Scott Brown words too are a building material. With them, material culture is invented and negotiated, interrogated and communicated. In a world of knowledge economies (where what you know matters more than who you know or what you do), her message to makers and doers that they should learn is more convincing than ever. The startling breadth of examples on offer in this book only strengthens that larger argument of her thinking, writing and learning.

Denise Scott Brown

Architectural Association London

Architecture Words 4

Denise Scott Brown Having Words PREFACE ‘I have come to feel like a grandmother in architecture’, Denise Scott Brown tells us in her afterword to the 12 essays comprising Having Words, ‘a guardian of its institutional memory who knows the pitfalls and where the bodies are buried.’ The line is just one of countless gems you will uncover in this rare compilation of selected writings produced by Scott Brown during nearly half a century of work as an architect, planner, designer, teacher, researcher and writer. Famous as the co-author of one of the twentieth century’s defining architectural texts, Learning from Las Vegas, it is Scott Brown’s commitment to learning, one realises, that is central to all of her many successful activities around the designing and making of architecture and urbanism. These varied topics and destinations, we now recognise, are also the vehicles for learning itself, and for her assertion of its fundamental importance to architects. In the world of Denise Scott Brown words too are a building material. With them, material culture is invented and negotiated, interrogated and communicated. In a world of knowledge economies (where what you know matters more than who you know or what you do), her message to makers and doers that they should learn is more convincing than ever. The startling breadth of examples on offer in this book only strengthens that larger argument of her thinking, writing and learning.


Having Words

Scott Brown’s ability to adjust how she writes to the purpose of the writing is one of the most important things in her oeuvre from which architects can learn. The articles and texts included here were originally produced for a spectacularly diverse range of publications and occasions. It is a selection no less eclectic than the projects and buildings she has produced through the architectural office she shares with her husband, Robert Venturi. Scott Brown writes in ‘Words About Architecture’, written specifically for this collection, that ‘Bob and I vary our writing according to our purpose’. And how. These are two people who have produced words in a full spectrum of forms: as books, extended stories, countless lectures and speeches; as captions to exhibitions, as cartoon-bubbles offering commentary on design objects; as research documents, planning guidelines, and as decoration applied directly to their buildings in printed, painted, carved and electronic form. And as this collection so handsomely documents, in the more recognisable form of short essays and articles, of which Scott Brown proves herself a perfectionist, in terms of the construction of arguments, the telling of anecdotes, and the unexpected opportunities essays provide for self-analysis. The work of Denise Scott Brown is indeed a world of words very much at work; of words ‘doing things’ for the clearly stated purposes of their author’s invention. I would like to thank Denise Scott Brown for allowing us to bring together this vital collection of her writings and with it better understand the clarity and rarity of her world – an architect’s world where reading and writing operate in unison for the making of an architectural space out of the printed page. It is a space of great beauty, wit and persuasion; and one built one word at a time. Brett Steele Director, AA School and AA Publications

3. Foreword 5. Invention and Tradition (1986) 22. Towards an Active Socioplastics (2007) 55. On Pop Art, Permissiveness and Planning (1969) 60. The Hounding of the Snark (1999) 69. On Formal Analysis (1979) 79. SEXISM AND THE STAR SYSTEM (1989) 90. THE MAKING OF AN ECLECTIC (1979) 97. A Worm’s-Eye View (1984) 119. What Should New Orleans Do? (2005) 128. PLANNING THE POWDER ROOM (1967) 136. On Analysis and Design (1970) 145. Words About Architecture (2009) 154. afterword 158. FURTHER READING


For Robert Venturi

I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reining together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride. My role as an architect and planner takes in more than physical planning or urban design. A large part of my career has been spent applying an urban outlook to the practice of architecture and working at the type of urban planning that I helped to evolve during the social movements of the 1960s. But I have also looked beyond both architecture and planning, toward the social sciences at one end and art and iconography at the other. I love to survey this wide world yet (switching metaphors) my window onto it is architecture. From it, I gaze on vistas that seldom catch architects’ eyes, and in urban sociology and economics in particular, I have found instructive and invigorating ideas for our built and design work. The 1930s and 40s saw me in Africa, mainly South Africa; the 1950s in England and Europe; and from 1958 my life has been spent in the United States, mostly Philadelphia, but with a two-year stint in California from 1965. Social change and the unrest that went with it dogged my steps in every place. Fortuitously the lessons learned in one tied neatly into the next, and many questions resolved themselves in planning school at the University of Pennsylvania during the Civil Rights movement. This, and architecture schools on three continents, provided the point of departure for a career that has taken me across the United States and to England, Europe and Asia. My intimacy with several cultures, while young, helped me to do my work in these places – though the African in me still asks, ‘What am I doing here?’ Also riding the horses of practice and education, I have been intrigued by the differences between academic


Having Words

education, broadly conceived, and the professional education offered to architects and planners (as much as engineers, lawyers and physicians). Practitioners use knowledge in ways quite distinct from academics – to make things, recommend policy, take part in a world of action. The professional gets the fun of both learning and doing and, if lucky, the reward of seeing the results. And so although I love teaching, I am really addicted to practice. In these essays I match thoughts and ideas from several disciplines against some traditional notions of architecture, to see what richness one can bring to the other. I also discuss the influence of my three locations – the Johannesburg of the 1930s, with its vying English Edwardian and South African cultures, and mixed with the European Jewish cultures of my grandparents and the refugees from Hitler’s war. These were all strongly present in my life before I ever reached Europe or the US. I also try to show how the melding of academic and professional, the ‘miniversity’ that we have supported in our office, has sustained our work intellectually and artistically. I offer the combination of these ideas in the belief that they can contribute to humane and creative design. Apart from these intentions, the essays have no theme. Written over a period of 40 years, they add up to a complex and untidy whole. Most have been published elsewhere but some were unpublished and one was written for this book. Although a few have been slightly abridged and all re-edited, I have not attempted to update them or to neuter the early texts. I am more than happy that these ideas have been published by the AA, my school, where I feel I first came into my own architectural identity. Although I believe architectural writing should take its ideas to a logical conclusion through the illustration of buildings, this small book, cheap enough to be available to students and young architects and easily readable on the bus or in bed, will I hope offer ideas that are cogent and graphic without the need of pictures. So here it is, and I am happy it is designed with the dimensions of the back pocket of a pair of blue jeans in mind. Please accept my bottom offer.


Invention and Tradition in the Making of American Place (1986) Some Paradoxes of Colonial Cultural Landscapes I once overheard the following conversation on a bus: First woman: ‘I can tell from your accent that you’re from Home.’ Second: ‘Yes, I left Home 30 years ago.’ Third: ‘I’ve never been Home but one day I hope to go.’ This exchange, in Johannesburg, South Africa, was not an expression of sentimental nostalgia, but the affirmation of an alliance among members of a caste. By tracing their origins directly or at one remove to England, these women reassured each other of their social status in the South Africa of the 1940s. Their jingoism goaded my patriotism for local landscapes and cultures. As a child I wriggled uncomfortably when English visitors likened views of the lowveld to ‘a little piece of Surrey’, and I pondered the incongruity of black children in French West Africa reciting lessons about nos ancêtres les gaulois. As a teenager, I joined an art class where we were exhorted to paint what was around us, to see the landscape of veld and sun and the life of Africans in the city as our most important inspiration if we were to produce vital art, if our art was to be ‘African’. I have long since realised that my art teacher’s formulation was too simple. After all, we spoke English and the roots of our culture were in Europe. European, and particularly English, culture pervaded our intellectual lives, conditioning our perception and appreciation of our African world. But this orientation toward outside influences limited our ability to use local experience as


Having Words

material for our art and perhaps constrained our creativity. The South African writer Dan Jacobson defined this colonial artistic condition in his introduction to The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.1 He observed that Schreiner’s un-English, African setting, ‘her snowless, woodless, lawnless Karroo’, seemed implausible, even in South Africa, as a background for fiction, because it had never been seen in literature before. Jacobson, when he first read her novel, had to struggle with his own incredulity ‘that the kopjes, kraals and cactus plants she mentions were of the same kind as those I was familiar with; so little experience had I had of encountering them within the pages of a book.’ ‘This is not to deny’, he added, ‘that The Story of an African Farm is a very “literary” piece of work; the fruit in places more of reading than of life.’ Although Jacobson found this literary quality damaging to the novel, it may have played an important part in the unlocking of colonial artistry. Perhaps Schreiner’s conversion of African sources to ‘literature’ was key to making them artistically available. Her tale of the veld was told, not in voortrekker prose, but in the style of the author’s literary contemporaries in England. By making the work comprehensible in London, Schreiner may have rendered the African landscape visible for the first time to her audiences in South Africa and England. If so, then, in an artistic sense, she invented the African landscape. When, in the late 1960s, Robert Venturi and I tried to do something similar in Las Vegas, it was relatively easy to transfer my African attitude to an American one, suggesting that for the sake of cultural relevance and artistic vitality, American architects look at the landscape around them and learn. In that sense, mine is an African view of Las Vegas. Yet our analyses of the American suburban landscape were based in large part on European modes of scholarly inquiry; we defined the Las Vegas Strip by comparing it with historical European architecture, using categories set up for the study of traditional European urban space.


Invention and Tradition

These paradoxes beset societies and cultures whose origins are in another place. As problems, they are different although surely no worse than those of more settled societies, but they persist as tensions between artistic dependence and independence long after political freedom has been won.2 In America the paradox is fourfold: The United States is a diversified nation, differentiated regionally and ethnically, stratified socially and culturally pluralistic; yet it is also a mass society that shares symbols and systems to such an extent that Americans are accused by outsiders of being a nation of conformists. Many if not most Americans left their lands of origin because they were different from those around them. They were poorer, more oppressed, different racially or religiously, more adventurous or maverick. The cultures they took away with them were not the same as those of the people they left behind, and in the ensuing years they diverged even further. America is far more different from Europe than most visiting Europeans realise. This is in part due to the emigrants’ search for a new world, which they defined as the counterform to the unsatisfactory old world. American morality, polity, governance, social structure and culture, and a physical container expressive of American aspirations were all to be invented. This invention was a great experiment and high adventure. Nevertheless, most immigrants brought their old worlds to the new, carrying landscapes and mores in memory and reasserting them, mutatis mutandis, in city or farm. Some Elizabethan English and nineteenth-century Italian customs that were lost in their countries of origin are preserved in Kentucky and South Philadelphia. Landscapes transported from England to New England resettle uncomfortably in Arizona.


Having Words

We Americans, like other former colonials, are xenophobes, yet in some areas of life, we clutch the apron strings of our mother cultures. We are proud of our indigenous styles, yet at times we still require European endorsement to validate them in our own eyes. The United States is artistically both precursor and follower, and the pendulum swings quite rapidly. But in architecture, discovery by latter-day European ‘colonisers’ – a Reyner Banham for Los Angeles, a Charles Jencks for postmodernism – is still needed to dignify for Americans those artistic forms that originate in America. Is the American architectural experience a colonial experience? Can it be termed colonial after 1776? Assuredly not in all spheres. Although I use the terms ‘colonial’ and ‘coloniser’ here to discuss attitudes toward artistic sources and artistic identity in American architecture, I have not attempted a general analysis of relations between colonialism and architecture; nor have I investigated the expression of colonial power through architecture – either in colonial America or by America today. Where I describe colonial architecture, it is as the architecture of settlers rather than rulers; and I have seamed settlers and immigrants together, viewing the colonists, architecturally, as early ethnic groups with problems of adjustment not wholly different from the problems of those who came later. Inventing America and Inventing the Landscape What are the effects of immigration on the artist? If the earliest stimuli, the sights and scents experienced when the infant first comes to awareness, are in some way linked to future creativity, what is the artistic prognosis for immigrants or refugees removed, probably forever, from the environment they knew when two feet above


Invention and Tradition

the ground? What of the immigrant group and its group artistic culture? In most group migrations to America the first generation was lost, in an artistic sense and indeed in most senses. They heaved their young above their heads and saw their reward as the success of the second generation. ‘Culture’, when there was time for it, was internal to the group. It lay in Little Italy or in the Yiddish press and theatre. Subsequent generations turned to ‘face America’.3 Yiddish poetry began to read like Walt Whitman, house decorations in Italian neighbourhoods included the American eagle. Yet later, immigrant descendants, speaking and writing in English, have shared in the artistic life of the dominant cultures and have added to the vitality of what is called ‘American’. They play a leading part today in the inventing and reinventing of America. Perhaps their off-centre starting point lends intensity to their art.4 How does this generational sequence of adaptation, invention and reinvention tie in with American architecture and the making of place? Only fitfully perhaps, in a literal sense – most architecture is not designed or developed by actual or metaphorical immigrants – but perhaps rather well in the artistic and cultural sense of ‘inventing’. European colonists took their architecture with them and adapted it to conditions they found in the colonies. Dutch farmhouses in the Cape Colony developed porches and pergolas. To English houses in the United States were added porches and jalousies in the South and clapboard in the North. The two major colonial heritages in the United States were the English and the Spanish, with the Anglo predominating and forming the basic matrix of architecture in this country. The English heritage itself was bifurcated, containing on the one hand a rural cottage and romantic landscape tradition and, on the other, a classical tradition derived from English Palladianism. High culture grafted other strands to this matrix.5 Classical influences from antiquity and republican France accompanied the birth of the new republic, symbolising republican virtue in furniture, architecture and urbanism.



Towards an Active Socioplastics (2007)

answers to our questions, and at the end of the semester I could not believe I had lived my life till then without the information I now had. But the questions had their origin in other places. Johannesburg in the 1930s & 1940s

In 1958, Robert Scott Brown and I entered Herbert Gans’s class in urban sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. We were three years out of architecture school, newly enrolled in the Department of City Planning at Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts and full of questions from our travel and work experiences in Africa and Europe. Since then my professional life has spanned the fields of architecture and planning, trying to keep them together as they diverged. In the 1960s I was deeply involved in the physical-versus-social debate that challenged planners and architects. Before that, I had confronted similar problems in Africa and Europe. Our first experiences on arriving in Philadelphia were pivotal in tuning this past to the future. The meeting with Gans was one of these, representing a confrontation of three continents and at least three disciplines, but I did not guess how influential it would be on me, especially after Robert Scott Brown’s death in 1959, when all prospects for my future changed. That confrontation is my subject here. I will scan the thought streams that brought us to Penn and consider the results of our encounter with a teacher not much older than ourselves, who became a colleague and a friend. I will document the ideas of Gans and others at Penn as I saw them develop during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and discuss the interplay of their work and mine then and since, describing where their thought has taken me. During our first semester in planning school Robert and I ‘went spinning around like tops in the most interesting intellectual environment we had ever encountered’.1 Here seemed to be the possibility of finding


I spent my childhood and youth in Johannesburg. In the 1930s and 1940s this already multiracial, multicultural society grew more so, as refugees from Nazism arrived. Many were professionals, forced to earn a living by working in small businesses or teaching music or art. My childhood was surrounded by these resourceful people, who helped the city become a sophisticated centre of arts and intellect. Around me were also English-speaking South Africans and some English expatriates, few in number but influential in that their media – English publications and radio – set the dominant cultural tone in English-speaking parts of South Africa. Then there were the offspring of earlier Eastern European immigrants, Jews like us, from Lithuania and Latvia, people of my parents’ age and mine. This mixed population brought its own views to the issues of the majority of the South African population, who were living under egregiously unjust and deprived conditions. Racial inequities had dogged South Africa from its start but grew in intensity after the Second World War, with the change to a Nationalist government and the legalisation of apartheid. At that time, questions of justice and equity were pervasive and liberals, particularly students, protested with every change. The result was that in the late 1940s my university, the University of Witwatersrand, felt somewhat like an English university in the 1950s and an American one in the 1960s. But artistically there was another side. African folk cultures, landscapes and ways of living vastly different from the English models before us, gave rise to debates on identity. Where did we fit culturally and artistically, with Africa or with Europe? My refugee art teacher asked: ‘How


Having Words

can you be a creative artist if you don’t respond to the landscape directly around you?’2 This was an early form of the question of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that social scientists in planning were to raise vividly for us at Penn. In South Africa the confrontation was between the ‘is’ of the colony and the ‘ought’ of the mother country, but there were also dialogues between high culture, folk culture and popular culture. And there was an intriguing folk/pop culture in the street life of urban Africans and in their irrepressible adaptations and interpretations of western commercial and industrial artefacts – bead-covered Coca Cola bottles or sandals made from old car tyres – and in their hybrid AfricanAmerican music. London in the Early 1950s In 1952 I transferred from my school of architecture in Johannesburg to the Architectural Association (AA) in London. Here another postwar society in upheaval had spawned the ‘look-back-in-anger’ generation and innovative thought and ideas on social life and the rebuilding of London. The main task of architects in England at that time was seen as the regeneration of cities, with the primary emphasis on housing. Before the war ended, policy had been initiated to move bombed-out or ill-housed Londoners to new towns established outside the metropolis. In the 1950s the results of this policy were sparking debate. The sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott described what life had been like in London’s East End, and what happened when its low-income residents were moved. Their study revealed the urban planners’ lack of understanding of the social interdependencies within poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and the disruption induced by urban renewal. This critique reverberated with an assemblage of avant-garde artists in London who formed the Independent Group. Within the group were members of a proto pop



art movement dating from the early 1940s and also the architects, Alison and Peter Smithson, founders of new brutalism, a movement that attempted to augment the philosophies of 1930s modern architecture to cope with new social realities.3 In this context a debate on ‘is’ and ‘ought’ arose, equivalent to the South African one but concerning working-class and middle-class values in planning. Here the ‘is’ to learn from was the street life of East Enders. In both South Africa and England proponents of ‘is’ turned for lessons to sources unacceptable to the tastes of the educated. In South Africa these lay in the ‘impure’ urban folk/ pop culture, in London new brutalists revisited Le Corbusier’s early modernist castigation of ‘eyes that will not see’, and his admonition to look at the scorned architecture of industry. But some of them augmented the list of impolite sources to include artefacts, ‘found objects’, of the popular commercial culture of a mass society. The Smithsons aimed for a ‘new objectivity’. This may have been a direct translation of the German neue sachlichkeit, a term in vogue earlier in modern architecture. Early modernists and brutalists said, ‘If you look very straight at a problem, the solution you find may be ugly but the ugliness may be right’. Such looking, they felt, could not only help architects face modern social and technological realities but could also open their aesthetic eyes and enhance their creativity. So they were functionalists for moral and aesthetic reasons. And in England as in Africa, this approach led to a reluctance to rush early to judgment – on either aesthetic or social questions. In that time of rebuilding, the architectural debate did not depart far from urbanism and many architects saw themselves as urbanists. But brutalists, unlike the official planners of London, began to canvass the street life of the East End for ideas on how to design housing where the benefits of neighbourly relationships could be maintained. This outlook was named ‘active socioplastics’ by the Smithsons. However the need to design for urban sites, and perhaps the early modern vision of high-rise,


Having Words

light-seeking architecture, drew them to multi-storey residential buildings. So they evolved prototypes whose apartment access corridors were seen as ‘streets in the air’, and these were extended to form links between buildings. Unfortunately, low volumes of movement made the multi-storey streets unable to fulfil the neighbourhood surveillance function of crowded urban ways and, as crime increased, housing managers cut the skylinks and reestablished traditional ground-floor access and supervision patterns. Eventually brutalists abandoned their attempt at active socioplastics. Peter Smithson ascribed the failure to the difficulty of forging a working rapport with sociologists who could not extend their discipline to meet his needs. I was later to question whose responsibility this should be. Despite their ‘new objectivity’, brutalists were drawn toward the idealism verging on ideology of early modernism. This was expressed poignantly by M J Guinsberg in 1928: One special circumstance that will be particularly significant in furthering the work of modern architects in Russia is the emergence of a new group of clients: the working masses, free of prejudices as far as taste is concerned, and not bound by tradition – factors that have in the past exerted a decisive, dominant influence on the thinking of the petty bourgeoisie. Because of bare economic necessity the millions of workers have no love for the ornamental junk, the holy pictures, and all the thousands of useless articles that usually clutter up middle-class homes. These millions of workers must unquestionably be considered supporters of modern architecture. Their willingness to relinquish certain private desires – which make coherent planning so difficult – should make the transition to constructive building easier and should help to facilitate the industrialisation of the building process by means of serial mass production, similar to the process of high quality mass production in the consumer industries. 4



This passion, more relevant after the First World War than the Second, was what Peter Smithson referred to when he said brutalists ‘caught a whiff of the powder’ of that earlier revolution. And this whiff, not active socioplastics, guided the Smithsons’ subsequent careers. The belief that architecture could save the world through objectivity and a brave use of technology was shared by many young architects at the AA. I fell under the tutelage of my student advisor, Arthur Korn, a German refugee, old communist warhorse of the Bauhaus and November group, and member of the MARS planning group that produced a counterplan for the rebuilding of London. We of Korn’s studio were his ‘commandos’ for saving the world through architecture. While still at the AA, I began to diverge from Arthur’s early modern urbanism towards active socioplastics and have been headed that way ever since. But I continue to find naive, early-modernist fervour poignant and in some way still applicable, and strongly believe that its stance on functionalism remains important for architects today. The definition of functionalism must be adapted and readapted to suit changing times, yet the passion and probity should not be lost. After a period of work in England, Robert Scott Brown and I left for a study tour in Europe. Here too, given the enormity of the rebuilding task, it was hardly surprising to find architects deeply focused on urbanism and social housing. Summer school in Venice 5 and some weeks in the architecture office of Giuseppe Vaccaro 6 in Rome reinforced our intention, first formulated at the AA, to continue our training in architecture via the study of city planning. We knew this should be done in America, where the education covered a wider scope and was more intellectually based than in England. While we were debating how to proceed, Peter Smithson recommended that we apply to the University of Pennsylvania because the architect Louis I Kahn taught there. So we arrived in Philadelphia in 1958, backed by a new brutalist rhetoric and the hope to do good, one day, in Africa.


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