Learning from Denise Scott Brown

Learning from Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

Urban Planner and Architect, Denise Scott Brown became one of my heroes last summer after reading an interview with her on Gizmo Web.  There was so much to learn from even this interview.

On communication in architecture. I particularly found in interesting her examination of the way architects look at the ‘masses’ and how instead we should understand that society is made up of many subgroups with individuals being part of several of these groups.

“Social scientists in America now would say that we cannot usefully talk about the masses, that we need to consider the subgroups that form large populations, that even the commercial discussion of «markets» and «market segments» is better than rhetoric on the masses. And mention of the word in our profession usually carries the corollary «We the architects know the real needs of the little people». The same goes for the “mass media”. Modern means of communication permit messages to be targeted to families, women, men, young people, intellectuals, non-intellectuals, poker players, football fans, philatelists, entomologists – there are million ways to cut the media pie. And one individual can belong to several groups. I may hold certain opinions as a woman, others as an architect, and yet others as a planner. To fulfill these roles I must internalize conflicts among them. How could it be otherwise? And should it be otherwise? When people harbour no internal conflicts they become one-dimensional and may become ideologues. That can be dangerous. Conflicts within the individual may be a valuable protection against extremism, against the possibility of another Hitler or Mussolini. …. if communication is one of the functions of architecture, then we architects must understand the hierarchies of messages and the forms of communication that should co-exist, at certain locations and within different building types from a city hall to a suburban house.


Denise Scott Brown spent time learning from fields outside architecture and urbanism. I feel like that is what I am doing at the moment, learning about other ways of doing and it is fascinating to see how her experiences influenced her work and approach.

DSB: I was at that time searching for new methods of analysis and synthesis “outside” architecture – that could help architects break from their narrowly architecture-centric views. I found useful thought and techniques in urban sociology, systems thinking, Pop Art, Mannerism, and the area of land economics called Regional Science – to name a few. Even in the 1960s computers played an important role. After War World II American social scientists and planners tried to adapt war-time computer techniques to research on cities.

Denise on on exploring and analysing cities.

“Learning from” studies to date have appropriated only limited facets of our LLV and LLT material and techniques, and the research studio’s role within an overall education plan has not been thought through. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that architects today use urban research information for sculptural purposes – city mapping, for example, as an aid to discovering cool new forms. They ignore the relationships these maps reveal. And they miss the powerful resources offered by mapping that shows how social and economic conditions distribute “on the ground” . Architects need such information to achieve what they have long desired: ability to design what Aldo van Eyck called «the physical counterform to social form», what the Smithsons called «active socioplastics».

This is where I got the name of my blog, I love the thought of active socioplastics, the relationship between physical forms and social and economic behaviours? On people?

Her essay “Sexism and the star system” is a fantastic womens experience in architecture. Although written over 20 yrs ago in 1989, it still rings true.

DSB: «So you’re the wife! Are you an architect too?» was a question asked me throughout my career at VSBA and up to today. And I have answered, pointing to Bob: «No, he’s the “architect too”! I am an architect». However this is a problem of being married to a guru, not the one faced by young women as they progress in the field.

SM: At that time women’s rights were at the center of social debate. Today I perceive a new social problem, which is the struggle between generations. In Italy the phenomena is most relevant, it seems that young architects have trouble to take over the previous generation, as there is a sort of “resistance”. What do you think about it?

DSB: There is always a generation problem, and it exists at both ends – I have been at each. But do you believe there is no longer a women’s problem? You’re right – but only in the sense that there never was one. It was always a men’s and women’s problem! And I believe it exists today as strongly as ever. You have not yet perceived it, because as a young architect you are accorded the greatest equality that you will ever know. It gets worse as you proceed, and when it does, you’ll find it is a strong problem. And sadly, because you don’t have a feminist awareness, you’ll think it’s your fault.
Although women start out in practice equal with men, complications set in when they must juggle child-rearing and practice, just at the point in their professional development when seniority brings responsibilities for project management and the need for one hundred percent participation in the studio. Then even if you are brighter than they, the men will go further than you, and you will think: «There’s something wrong with me!»

There are other reasons why men receive preference over women when both reach “the glass ceiling”. And there are reasons – too many to consider here – why architects don’t make gurus of women. And another theory is sometimes offered women: «You have power in your own sphere. Look at the power of the Spice Girls. Why must you compete with men?» This is the age old power of seduction. But where has it got us? As an old feminist recently said: «If the Spice Girls really had power, Dick Cheney, would wear a tutu»!

Denise Scott Brown is an inspiration 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s