Denise Scott Brown: "A lot to be learned from Postmodernism"

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"There is still a lot to be learned from Postmodernism" says Denise Scott Brown

Pomo summer: in this exclusive interview, architect and planner Denise Scott Brown distinguishes the research-led brand of Postmodernism championed by herself and husband Robert Venturi, from the style employed by Philip Johnson, which she calls "limp" (+ transcript).

Unlike many architects and designers, the Philadelphia-based duo embrace the controversial Postmodern movement, which they are credited with helping found in the 1960s.

But speaking to Dezeen earlier this month, Scott Brown was quick to put distance between their work and more superficial versions of the style, which she calls Pomo.

"We do Postmodernism, Philip Johnson does Pomo," Scott Brown told Dezeen. "It doesn't have all that thought behind it and it doesn't even have the thought about aesthetics that we've done behind it."

"I call Pomo 'limp', and think what we do is lasting and part of Modernism's long-past departure."

Johnson – who died in 2005 – designed iconic Modernist buildings including the 1949 Glass House, and the 1958 Seagram Building with Mies van der Rohe. But later in his career, he designed the AT&T building in New York with elements that are much more closely associated with Postmodernism, including the historical-looking pediment on top.

"Bob started to say 'we're not Postmodernist' when he saw what Philip Johnson was doing," said Scott Brown.

Queen Anne Chair by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Queen Anne chair was one of a series of flattened designs developed by the duo in the 1980s

"But I later said: 'Look Bob, why let Philip have this when we really have something so much more serious, and it's tied to people who call themselves Postmodernists, who are very serious about life and have done wonderful things about creating art'."

Scott Brown believes that the legacy of her and her husband's Postmodernism has been a shift in the way architectural research is carried out.

"We've turned it into learning about how decoration works along with other things, or studying cultural values in relation to design," she said. "I think there was a lot that was learned in that way from Postmodernism, but there is still a lot to be learned."

Read on for an edited version of the transcript from our interview with Denise Scott Brown:


Dan Howarth: How exactly do you define Postmodernism?

Denise Scott Brown: In defining our Postmodernism – going much further back, involving social concern and serious religious thought – we distinguish it from what Philip Johnson picked up from us at the [1976] Signs of Life show. There Philip Johnson read all that tight prose from the city room, the whole damn lot. And that's where he got his, what I call, Pomo.

So we do Postmodernism, Philip Johnson does Pomo. It doesn't have all that thought behind it and it doesn't even have the thought about aesthetics that we've done behind it. I call Pomo "limp", and think what we do is lasting and part of Modernism's long-past departure.

Dan Howarth: What do you think the legacy of Postmodernism is?

Denise Scott Brown: Well, I'm still trying to deal with that. That little house [Vanna Venturi] turned round the culture of architecture. Our studios Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown – we have been told by numerous people it has turned around the culture of research in architecture.

It has made research something much closer to design, to applied research, than what you did as research before, which was the kind of historical theses that would allow you to teach, or else allow you some structure that would allow you to be an engineer for architecture. That's what research in architecture used to be about.

We've turned it into learning about how decoration works along with other things, or studying cultural values in relation to design, and all sorts of other things. Someone said recently that that Las Vegas studio and all of its teaching methods are still to be plumbed by architects and I absolutely agree. What we put into it, they haven't realised the half of it.

Much of it came from my planning training, which is where they did studios like that – teamwork and a lot of research, huge stress about not relating work and design. Not getting research via a ritual that you danced and then you closed that book and then you go onto your favourite subject design, really making the one lead to the other.

So I think there was a lot that was learned in that way from Postmodernism, but there is still a lot to be learned. Function is a much broader topic than the Modernists thought of it. I'm still fighting architects to get them to learn and I'm trying to think how I can do that. I'm trying to write about it, but when I do, the moment I mention the word "planning" they run right onto another chapter.

Postmodernism in architecture: Vanna Venturi House by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
The influence of Robert Venturi's Vanna Venturi House was so great, it is now credited as the first Postmodern building. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Smallbones

Dan Howarth: Can you please explain a bit more about the difference between Postmodernism and Pomo?

Denise Scott Brown: Bob started to say "we're not Postmodernist" when he saw what Philip Johnson was doing. And that's true, we don't do what he does. But then he said a very amusing thing. You remember when American communists were forced to say: "I am not a communist and have never been a communist". It was a terrible time of corruption in American politics when that happened. That was a very famous statement, so Bob said: "I am not a Postmodernist and have never been a Postmodernist", thinking of his mother's socialism and all of those things. So it was a joke.

But I later said: "Look Bob, why let Philip have this when we really have something so much more serious, and it's tied to people who call themselves Postmodernists, who are very serious about life and have done wonderful things about creating art".

After a holocaust there can be no innocence in art, in architecture. Even our idealistic talk about industrialising things. Auschwitz was an industrial programme for death before there were many for life.

To my way of thinking, Philip just takes a certain kind of tricking notion. He did some good buildings when he was early Modernist, but maybe other people did them for him, I'm not sure. But he doesn't show the same understanding of scale that we have. When we have done borrowing it has been culturally relevant borrowing. When he has done borrowing it has been from us!

He doesn't work as hard on his details and he doesn't have the talent to do all that. In the end he was mocking architects. "Well," he said "I've made a lot of money. You call me a whore but look at all the money I've made".

Dan Howarth: Another side of what you refer to as Pomo that sticks out in people's minds is commercialism.

Denise Scott Brown: I realised that, but you know that's funny. They hate commercialism in Pomo, but think of the origins of Modernism in Chicago. All those buildings that we adore were big commercial buildings. So when is commercialism amoral and when is it great architecture? Surely when it has all the talent.

Postmodernism in architecture: Vanna Venturi House by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Vanna Venturi House – designed by Robert Venturi for his mother in the late 1950s – reinterpreted the archetypal suburban house as a contemporary architectural statement. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Smallbones

Dan Howarth: What do you think about Memphis' contribution, or alignment with, Postmodernism?

Denise Scott Brown: I think of those people as pretty talented and pretty interesting. We had a pretty strange meeting with Sottsass courtesy of two of my students, who were Italian, who I taught at UCLA – talented architects who were doing lovely things when they got back from Los Angeles and then they both died – but they had been his students too and they brought us together.

But we really couldn't talk because he was into drug culture and we're such... You know that painting of American Gothic? Well one of the people in our office put our faces onto the background of American Gothic using Photoshop. I said, "he's right, we are like that!"

There's a lot of drug culture around Pop Art and when we've gone to meet people who are involved in all that, the Americans say we poop their parties. They get embarrassed about us because we don't smoke stuff. They say what will you drink or smoke? And we say we don't smoke, either cigarettes or pot, and then everybody feels guilty about us. We just don't fit in that kind of environment, though they think we do.

Dan Howarth: And do you consider the Memphis furniture to be Postmodern?

Denise Scott Brown: Yes, I think there is a spirit and a seriousness around that, and a talent around that.

In all of those things, talent can get you very far, but Philip didn't have much. Philip was also a very evil person, you thought he was sponsoring young architects and he wasn't really. And the ones he did sponsor they were really curtailed by their association with him. So, yeah not a nice kind of atmosphere.

Denise Scott Brown, photo from Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Denise Scott Brown, pictured outside Las Vegas in 1966, demanded recognition for her role in her husband Robert Venturi's 1991 Pritzker Prize. Photo from the archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Dan Howarth: Is there anything else you'd like to say about your work with Venturi?

Denise Scott Brown: I would be grateful if you would remember that I have worked with Bob since 1960, etching first and then in practice. For a very, very long time it has been both of our work, although no one would accept that.

And of course the Pritzker Prize and Lord Palumbo... he's an ass, he really is. He said: "You can't rewrite history". That's not a very intellectually respectable approach to the whole thing. No one asked him to rewrite history, no one asked him to comment on history.

So I am having to fight that battle as well. They would not put my name on the Knoll chairs, but they know quite well what my role was in all of that.

Dan Howarth: Can you tell me exactly what your role was?

Denise Scott Brown: Well basically I was working with Bob all that time and that's one of the projects where he is more responsible than I am, that is in no doubt. But in finding sources for him, and the way of thinking which we both arrived at which lead him to think like that. And then in working to the millimetre with him in details of houses, that jigsaw was going to go and make those things, I did all that. I would put it this way: he spent months on those designs, whereas I spent weeks.

It is him, but it's very much is me and the coming together of that kind of thinking. He couldn't say where I left off and he began in general, and that mistake applied to different things. And in some projects I am more concerned and in some projects he is more concerned. It's a joint sharing which then branches out and I've described to you the nature of that branching in the Knoll project and where I am doing the most and he's giving, again, useful but smaller levels of advice.

Portrait of Denise Scott Brown by Frank Hanswijk.