Changing Skyline: Online petition seeks to right a Pritzker Prize wrong

Denise Scott Brown was omitted when the 1991 Pritzker Prize panel gave its prestigious annual award to Robert Venturi, her husband and partner in their Philadelphia-based firm.
Denise Scott Brown was omitted when the 1991 Pritzker Prize panel gave its prestigious annual award to Robert Venturi, her husband and partner in their Philadelphia-based firm. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 03, 2013

Twenty-two years later, the omission still rankles Philadelphia architect Denise Scott Brown. She and her husband, Robert Venturi, designed their projects together. They wrote several paradigm-shifting books together. They taught their influential studio classes together. But when the winner of architecture's most prestigious prize was announced in 1991, it was only Venturi who was honored.

Scott Brown, now 82, has never been one to be silent about her treatment by the Pritzker Architecture Prize jury, but her pointed remarks last month at a conference in London have touched a nerve as never before. After she declared that she should be listed retroactively as co-winner of the 1991 prize, a group of students at Harvard University's design school independently launched a petition on Change.org demanding that she be acknowledged.

It would be too much to say the cause has gone viral, but in the well-appointed corner of the Internet that focuses on design issues, their appeal has been lighting up the screens.

Zaha Hadid, one of only two women architects to win the Pritzker in its 36-year history, has offered to sign the petition. Architecture blogs have been weighing in, urging the Chicago-based Pritzker jury to redress the wrong.

Scott Brown, an architect, urban planner, and co-author of the ground-breaking study on roadside architecture, Learning From Las Vegas, made her comments about the Pritzker in the course of a lecture about the plight of women designers, delivered by video at the recent Women in Architecture Awards in London. She called her omission "very sad" and said, "they owe me, not a Pritzker Prize, but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony."

"When I read about her remarks, I just felt she needed the support," said Arielle Assouline-Lichten, the architecture student at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and Philadelphia native who drafted the Change.org petition with classmate Caroline James. "It's still such a male-dominated profession, and we're hoping to change that."

The Pritzker has long been the most coveted prize in architecture, and its jurors scour the world for the most progressive thinkers. But the renewed focus on Scott Brown's shoddy treatment has caused some to question how a prize for innovation can perpetuate regressive attitudes about women.

As of Monday, the students' modest proposal had been embraced by more than 2,245 people. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the husband-and-wife team that designed Philadelphia's new Barnes Foundation, were among those applauding the effort. In a joint interview, they said they found it "unimaginable" that the Pritzker would choose just one half of a collaborative team. "This should definitely be brought up and discussed," Tsien argued.

The Pritzker organization, which just awarded its 2013 prize to a man, the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, has so far been treading lightly on these tricky sands.

In response to an e-mail, the prize's executive director, Martha Thorne, acknowledged she had been following the discussion "with much interest," and would "refer this important matter to the current jury at their next meeting."

At the same time, she suggested that amending the Pritzker's 1991 decision would not be a simple matter. "The Pritzker Laureate is chosen annually by a panel of independent jurors. Those jurors change over the years, so this matter presents us with an unusual situation," Thorne wrote.

Scott Brown doesn't see what the difficulty is. All the Pritzker has to do is arrange a "modest ceremony," she said. Such an event would be a major statement by an organization and go a long way to making things better for women in the profession, Scott Brown said.

Although the gender ratio in most architecture schools is now even between men and women, only about a quarter of those working in architecture firms are women. The membership of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which represents architects who have accumulated enough experience to pass a rigorous exam, remains about 85 percent male.

Because 1991 hardly seems like the Pleistocene era for women's rights, Assouline-Lichten and James were stunned to discover Scott Brown had been overlooked. The Pritzker jury's citation does mention her contribution to Venturi's work, describing Scott Brown as his "talented partner."

Scott Brown said she was so angry at the time, she refused to attend the award ceremony for her husband. Afterwards, the couple went out of their way to use the collective "we" when discussing their work, which includes the Sainsbury Wing at London's National Gallery and the chapel at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square. When the AIA later offered Venturi its own prestigious Gold Medal, he declined because the organization refused to include Scott Brown, she said.

Even before she met and married Venturi (who is now unwell), Scott Brown said she struggled to be taken seriously in the profession. As a young professor at Cornell University, she could not attend meetings with her colleagues because they were held at the men-only faculty club.

Since the Iraqi-born Hadid won a Pritzker in 2004, the jury has given its award to only one other woman, Kazuyo Sejima, half of the male-female team that runs SAANA, a Japanese firm. She and Ryue Nishizawa, her partner and 2010 co-winner, have been intentionally coy about their relationship, but it is believed they are a couple.

Last year, however, when Chinese architect Wang Shu won the Pritzker, there was no mention that all his buildings had been designed jointly with his partner and wife, Lu Wenyu.


The Change.org petition can be found at https://www.change.org/petitions/the-pritzker-architecture-prize-committee-recognize-denise-scott-brown-for-her-work-in-robert-venturi-s-1991-prize.

Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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