Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture

September 14, 2015

Essay by Denise Scott Brown.


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Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi at the office on 333 South 16th Street, Philadelphia. Photograph by George Pohl, 1968.

Most professional women can recount horror stories about discrimination they have suffered during their careers. Mine include social trivia as well as grand trauma. But some less common forms of discrimination came my way when, in mid-career, I married a colleague and we joined our professional lives just as fame (though not fortune) hit him. I watched as he was manufactured into an architectural guru before my eyes and, to some extent, on the basis of our joint work and the work of our firm.

When Bob and I married, in 1967, I was an associate professor. I had taught at the universities of Pennsylvania and Berkeley, and had initiated the first program in the new school of architecture at UCLA. I had tenure. My publication record was respectable; my students, enthusiastic. My colleagues, mostly older than me, accorded me the same respect they showed each other, and I had walked the same corridors of power they had (or thought I had).

The first indication of my new status came when an architect whose work I had reviewed said, “We at the office think it was Bob writing, using your name.” By the time we wrote Learning from Las Vegas, our growing experience with incorrect attributions prompted Bob to include a note at the beginning of the book asking that the work and ideas not be attributed to him alone and describing the nature of our collaboration and the roles played by individuals in our firm. His request was almost totally ignored. A body of theory and design in architecture apparently must be associated by architecture critics with an individual; the more emotional their criticism, the stronger is its focus on one person.

To avoid misattributions, our office provides an information sheet describing our preferred forms of attribution—the work to our firm, the writing to the person who signed the article or the nook. The result is that some critics now make a pro forma attribution in an inconspicuous place; then, in the body of the text, the design of the work and the ideas in the writing are attributed to Robert Venturi.

In the Japanese journal Architecture and Urbanism, for example, Hideki Shimizu wrote:

“A review of his plan for the Crosstown Community suggests that Venturi is not so much affording his theory new development as giving the source of his architectural approach clear form in a fundamental attitude toward city planning …
Venturi’s position in relation to city planning is the thing that enables him to develop his basic posture in relation to architecture. The Crosstown Community reveals a profound mood of affectionate emotion.”1

This would be fine except that the Crosstown Community was my work and was attributed as such in our book; I doubt whether, over a period of two years, Bob spent two afternoons on it.

When Praeger published a series of interviews with architects, my name was omitted from the dust jacket.2 We complained and Praeger added my name, although objecting that this would spoil the cover design. On the inside flap, however, “eight architects” and “the men behind” modern architecture were mentioned. As nine were listed in the front, I gather I am still left out.3

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Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. © Matt Wargo, courtesy of VSBA.

There have been exceptions. Ada Louise Huxtable has never put a foot wrong with me. She also works hard at reporting our ideas correctly. A few critics have changed their methods of attribution in response to our requests, but at least one, in 1971, was on the warpath in the opposite direction, out to prove that Great Art can only be made by one man, and that Robert Venturi (read Howard Roark) is led astray when “he joins his wife Denise Scott Brown in praising certain suburban practices.” And the consort and collaborator of a famous architect wrote to me that, although she sees herself in his work, the work owes its quality to his individual talents and not to her collaboration. When real architects collaborate, she claimed, their separate identities remain; she gave as an example the lieder of Schubert and Goethe. We countered with the Beatles.

The social trivia (what Africans call petty apartheid) continue too: “wives’ dinners” (“we’ll just let the architects meet together, my dear”); job interviews where the presence of “the architect’s wife” distressed the board; dinners I must not attend because an influential member of the client group wants “the architect” as her date; Italian journalists who ignore Bob’s request that they address me because I understand more Italian than he does; the tunnel vision of students toward Bob; the “so you’re the architect!” to Bob, and the well-meant “so you’re an architect too?” to me. The head of a New York architecture school once reached me on the telephone because Bob was unavailable: “Denise, I’m embarrassed to be speaking to you because we’re giving a party for QP and we’re asking Bob but not you. You see, you are a friend of QP and you are an architect, but you’re also a wife, and we’re not asking wives.”

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© Courtesy of VSBA.

These experiences have caused me to fight, suffer doubt and confusion, and expend too much energy. “I would be pleased if my work were attributed to my husband,” says the designer wife of an architect. And a colleague asks, “Why do you worry about these things? We know you’re good. You know your real role in the office and in teaching. Isn’t that enough?” I doubt whether it would be enough for my male colleagues. What would Peter Eisenman do if his latest article were attributed to his co-editor, Kenneth Frampton? Or Vincent Scully, if the book on Newport houses were attributed to his co-author, Antoinette Downing—with perhaps a parenthesis to the effect that this was not intended to slight the contribution of others?

So I complain to the editor who refers to “Venturi’s ducks,” informing him that I invented the “duck.” (He prints my letter under the title “Less is a Bore,” a quotation from my husband). But my complaints make critics angry, and some have formed lasting hostilities against both of us on this score. Architects cannot afford hostile critics. And anyway I begin to dislike my own hostile persona.

That is when self-doubt and confusion arise. “My husband is a better designer than I am. And I’m a pretty dull thinker.” The first is true, the second probably not. I try to counter with further questions: “How come, then, we work so well together capping each other’s ideas in both design and theory? If my ideas are no good, why are they praised by the critics (even though attributed to Bob)?

We ourselves cannot tease our contributions apart. Since 1960 we have collaborated in the development of ideas and since 1967 we have collaborated in architectural practice. As chief designer, Bob takes final design responsibility. On some projects, I am closely involved and see many of my ideas in the final design; on others, hardly at all. In a few, the basic idea (what Louis Khan called the what) was mine. All of our firm’s urban planning work, and the urban design related to it, is my responsibility; Bob is virtually not involved with it, although other architects in the firm are.4

As in all firms, our ideas are translated and added by our co-workers, particularly our long-standing associates. Principals and assistants may alternate in the roles of creator and critic. The star system, which sees the firm as a pyramid with a designer on top, has little to do with today’s complex relations in architecture and construction. But, as sexism defines me as a scribe, typist, and photographer to my husband, so the star system defines our associates as “second bananas” and our staff as pencils.

Short of sitting under our drawing board, there is no way for the critics to separate us out. Those who do hurt me in particular but also others in the firm, and by ignoring as unimportant those aspects of our work where Bob has interfaced with others, they narrow his span to meet the limits of their perception.

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© Courtesy of VSBA.

Although I had been convinced with my role as a woman years before the rebirth of the movement, it was my experience as an architect’s wife that finally compelled me to act. In 1973 I gave a talk on sexism and the star system to the Alliance of Women in Architecture in New York City. I requested that the meeting be open to women only, probably incorrectly, but for the same emotional reasons (including hurt pride) that make national movements initially stress separatism. Nevertheless, about six men came. They hid in the back and sides of the audience. The hundred or so women identified strongly with my experience; “Me too!” “My God, you too?” echoed everywhere. We were soon high on our shared woe and on the support we felt for and from each other. Later, it struck me that the males had grown glummer as we grew more enthusiastic. They seemed unable to understand what was exercising us.

Since then I have spoken at several conferences on women in architecture. I now receive inquiries of interest for deanships and department chairs several times a year. I find myself on committees where I am the only woman and there is one black man. We two tokens greet each other wryly. I am frequently invited to lecture at architecture schools, “to be a role model for our girls.” I am happy to do this for their young women but I would rather be asked purely because my work is interesting.

Finally, I essayed my own interpretation of sexism and the star system in architecture. Budd Schulberg defines “Star Quality” as a “mysterious amalgam of self-love, vivacity, style, and sexual promise.”5 Though this definition catches the spirit of architectural stardom, it omits the fact that stardom is something done to a star by others. Stars cannot create themselves. Why do architects need to create stars? Because, I think, architecture deals with unmeasurables. Although architecture is both science and art, architects stand or fall in their own estimation and in that of their peers by whether they are “good designers,” and the criteria for this are ill-defined and undefinable.

Faced with unmeasurables, people steer their way by magic. Before the invention of navigational instruments, a beautiful lady was carved on the prow of the boat to help sailors cross the ocean; and architects, grappling with the intangibles of design, select a guru whose work gives them personal help in areas where there are few rules to follow. The guru, as architectural father-figure, is subject to intense hate and love; either way, the relationship is personal, and necessarily one-to-one. This accounts for the intensely ad hominem stance of some of “Venturi’s” critics. If the attribution were correct the tone would be more even, as one cannot easily wax emotional over several people. I suspect, too, that for male architects the guru must be male. There can be no mom and pop gurus in architecture. The architectural prima donnas are all male.

Next, a colleague having her own difficulties in an American Studies program brought the work of Lionel Tiger to my attention. In Men in Groups, he writes that men run in male packs and ambitious women must understand this.6 I recalled, as well, the exclamation of the French architect Ionel Schein, writing in Le Carré Bleu in the 1950s: “The so-called studio spirit is merely the spirit of a caste.” This brings to mind the upper-class origins of the American architecture profession, the differences between upper-class and middle-class attitudes to women, and the strong similarities that still exist today between the architecture profession and a men’s club.

American architectural education was modeled on the turn-of-the-century École des Beaux-Arts. It was a rip-roaring place and loads of fun, but its organization was strongly authoritarian, especially in its system for judging student work. The authoritarian personalities and the we-happy-few culture engendered by the Beaux-Arts stayed on in modern architecture long after the Beaux-Arts architectural philosophy had been abandoned; the architecture club still excludes women.

The heroically original modern architectural revolutionary with his avant-garde technology, out to save the masses through mass production, is a macho image if ever there was one. It sits strangely on the middle-aged reactionaries who bear its mantle today. A more conserving and nurturing (female?) outlook is being recommended to the profession by urban planners and ecologists, in the name of social justice and to save the planet. Women may yet ride in on this trend.

The critic in architecture is often the scribe, historian, and kingmaker for a particular group. These activities entitle him to join the “few,” even though he pokes them a little. His other satisfaction comes from making history in his and their image. The kingmaker-critic is, of course, male; though he may write of the group as a group, he would be a poor fool in his eyes and theirs if he tried to crown the whole group king. There is even less psychic reward in crowning a female king.

In these deductions, my thinking parallels that of Cynthia F. Epstein, who writes that elevation within the professions is denied to women for reasons that include “the colleague system,” which she describes as a men’s club, and “the sponsor-protégé relationship, which determines access to the highest levels of most professions.” Epstein suggests that the high-level sponsor would, like the king-maker-critic, look foolish if he sponsored a female and, in any case, his wife would object.7

You would think that the last element of Schulberg’s definition of a star, “sexual promise,” would have nothing to do with architecture. But I wondered why there was a familiar ring to the tone—hostile, lugubriously self-righteous, yet somehow envious—of letters to the editor that follow anything our firm publishes, until I recognized it as the tone middle America employs in letters to the editor on pornography. Architects who write angry letters about our work apparently feel we are architectural panderers, or at least we permit ourselves liberties they would not take, but possibly envy. Here is one, by an English architecture instructor: “Venturi has a niche, all right, but it’s down there with the flagellant, the rubber-fetishist, and the Blagdon Nude Amateur Rapist.” These are written by men, and they are written to or of Bob alone.

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© Courtesy of VSBA.

I have suggested that the star system, which is unfair to many architects, is doubly hard on women in a sexist environment, and that, at the upper levels of the profession, the female architect who works with her husband will be submerged in his reputation. My interpretations are speculative. We have no sociology of architecture. Architects are unaccustomed to social analysis and mistrust it; sociologists have fatter fish to fry. But I do get support for my thesis from women architects, from some members of my firm and from my husband.

Should there be a star system? It is unavoidable, I think, owing to the prestige we give design in architecture. But the schools can and should reduce the importance of the star system by broadening the student’s view of the profession to show value in its other aspects. Heaven knows, skills other than design are important to the survival of architecture firms. The schools should also combat the student’s sense of inadequacy about design, rather than, as now, augmenting it through wrongly authoritarian and judgmental educational techniques. With these changes, architects would feel less need for gurus, and those they would need would be different—more responsible and humane than gurus are asked to be today.

To the extent that gurus are unavoidable and sexism is rampant in the architecture profession, my personal problem of submersion through the star system is insoluble. I could improve my chances for recognition as an individual if I retuned to teaching or abandoned collaboration with my husband. The latter has happened to some extent as our office has grown and our individual responsibilities within it take more of our time. We certainly spend less time at the drawing board together and, in general, less time writing. But this is a pity, as or joint work feeds us both.

On the larger scene, all is not lost. Not all architects belong to the men’s club; more architects than before are women; some critics are learning; the American Institute of Architects (AIA) actively wants to help; and most architects, in theory at least, would rather not practice discrimination if someone will prove to them that they have been and will show them how to stop.

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Denise Scott Brown. © Jeremy Tenenbaum, courtesy of VSBA.

The foregoing is an abridgement of an article I wrote in 1975. I decided not to publish it at the time, because I judged that strong sentiments on feminism in the world of architecture would ensure my ideas a hostile reception, which could hurt my career and the prospects of my firm. However, I did share the manuscript with friends and, in samizdat, it achieved a following of sorts. Over the years I have received letters asking for copies.

In 1975, I recounted my first experience of the new surge of women in architecture. The ratio of men to women is now 1:1 in many schools. The talent and enthusiasm of these young women has burst creatively into the profession. At conferences today I find many women participants; some have ten years or more in the field.

Architecture, too, has changed since I first wrote this essay. However, my hope that architects would heed the social planners’ dicta did not pan out, and women did not ride in on that trend. Postmodernism did change the views of architects but not in the way I had hoped. Instead, the cult of personality increased. Architects lost their social concern and the architect as macho revolutionary was succeeded by the architect as dernier cri of the art world. This made things worse for women because, in architecture, the dernier cri is as male as the prima donna.

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Denise Scott Brown explaining the campus plan of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Photograph by Ke Feng, 2004.

The rise in female admissions and the move to the right in architecture appear to be trends in opposite directions, but they are, in fact, unrelated because they occur at either end of the seniority spectrum. The women entrants are young; the cult of personality occurs at the top. The two trends have yet to meet. When they do, it will be fascinating to see what happens. Meanwhile, affirmative action programs have helped small female-owned firms get started but may have hindered the absorption of women into the mainstream of the profession, because women who integrate large existing practices gain no affirmative action standing unless they own 51 percent of the firm.

During the 1980s there has been a gradual increase of women architects in academe (I suspect that the growth has been slower than in other professions). I now receive fewer offers of deanships, probably because there are more female candidates than before and because word is out that I am too busy to accept. I have little time to lecture. As our office has grown, Bob and I have found more, rather than less, opportunity to work together, since some of our responsibilities have been delegated to the senior associates and project directors who form the core of our firm.

During this period we have ceased to be regarded as young turks and have seen a greater acceptance of our ideas than we would have dreamed possible. Ironically, a citation honoring Bob for his “discovery of the everyday American environment” was written in 1979 by the same critic who, in 1971, judged Bob lacking for sharing my interest in everyday landscape.

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Denise Scott Brown. © Ingrid von Kruse. Courtesy of VSBA.

For me, things are much the same at the top as they were. The discrimination continues at the rate of about one incident a day. Journalists who approach our firm seem to feel that they will not be worth their salt if they do not “deliver Venturi.” The battle for turf and the race for status among critics still require the beating-off of women. In the last twenty years, I can not recall one major article by a high-priest critic about a woman architect. Young women critics, as they enter the fray, become as macho as the men and for the same reasons—to survive and win in the competitive world of critics.

For a few years, writers on architecture were interested in sexism and the feminist movement and they wanted to discuss them with me. In a joint interview, they would ask Bob about work and question me about my “woman’s problem.” “Write about my work!” I would plead, but they seldom did.

Some young women in architecture question the need for the feminist movement, claiming to have experienced no discrimination. My concern is that, although school is not free of discrimination, it is probably the least discriminatory environment they will encounter in their careers. By the same token, the early years in practice bring little differentiation between men and women. It is as they advance that difficulties arise, when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibility to women. On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault.

Over the years, it has slowly dawned on me that the people who cause my painful experiences are ignorant and crude. They are the critics who have not read enough and the clients who do not know why they have come to us. I have been helped to realize this by noticing that the scholars whose work we most respect, the clients whose projects intrigue us, and the patrons whose friendship inspires us, have no problem understanding my role. They are the sophisticates. Partly through them I gain heart and realize that, over the last twenty years, I have managed to do my work and, despite some sliding, to achieve my own self-respect.

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Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. © Courtesy of VSBA.


Essay republished with permission from the Architectural Association from Denise Scott Brown’s AA Words Four: Having Words (London: Architectural Association Publications, 2009), 79–89. Originally published as “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” in Architecture: A Place for Women, ed. Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 237–46.

1 Hideki Shizumi, “Criticism,” A+U 47 (November 1974): 3.
2 John W Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (New York: Prager, 1973).
3 The architects originally listed were Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, Bertrand Goldberg, Morris Lapidus, Louis Kahn, Charles Moore, and Robert Venturi. Also omitted from the dust jacket was the architect Alan Lapidus, interviewed with his father, Morris. Alan did not complain; at least he’s up there with those men behind the architecture.
4 Bob’s intellectual focus comes mainly from the arts and from the history of architecture. He is more of a specialist than I am. My artistic and intellectual concerns were formed before I met Bob (and indeed before I came to America), but they were the base of our friendship as academic colleagues. As a planner, my professional span includes the social sciences and other planning-related disciplines that I have tried to meld into our critique and theory of architecture. As an architect, my interests range widely but I am probably most useful at the initial stages of a design as we work to develop the parti.
5 Budd Sculberg, “What Price Glory?” New Republic 168 (January 6 and 13, 1973): 27–31.
6 Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (New York: Random House, 1969).
7 Cynthia F. Epstein, “Encountering the Male Establishment: Sex-Status Limits on Women’s Careers in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology 75 (May 1970): 965–82.