1 + 1 > 2: Letter to Biljana, Notes to Frida

January 2, 2023

Text by Denise Scott Brown excerpted from the book Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes: Portraits of an Architect (Birkhäuser) edited by Frida Grahn.


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Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on the terrace of Vanna Venturi House. They lived there for six months after their marriage in 1967. Photograph by George Pohl, 1964.

From: Denise Scott Brown
Sent: Sun, Feb 13, 2022 at 6:21 PM
To: Biljana Arandelovic
Cc: Jeremy Tenenbaum, Frida Grahn
Subject: Reply to Biljana, Information on Denise

Dear Biljana,

I very much enjoyed our telephone conversation and I do apologize that this reply has taken me so long. But as we talked it became clear to me that what you and various other writers, mainly women, want to know about me has not been written. In fact, the appearance of Learning from Las Vegas taught architects about our lives up to its date of publication. Thereafter, although much was written, it was largely about Bob. So I wrote this account of what I have done from 1967, when we married, till today. I describe projects, methods we used, how we worked together, and the scope of my work.

My collaboration with Bob started at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, but moved to his office in 1967 when we married. Arrangements were at first informal. Times were bad and my help was needed. Without discussing contracts or salary I started work on office projects, and our teaching was included as part of the broad weave of our practice.

Then, in 1968, my social planner colleagues asked me to join in stopping an expressway on Philadelphia’s South Street. Four years of volunteering as advocates and planners for the low-income communities there brought approval of our plans, avoidance of the Expressway, and experience and some notoriety for me. But others were selected to develop our plans.

However, urban work soon followed and augmented the outlook and income of the firm. In 1969 I was made a partner. Bob and I continued our peripatetic studios, lectures, and writing, raised our child and, as we grew, I helped on our firm’s Westway project and ran neighborhood and Main Street planning projects in Philadelphia, Santa Monica, Memphis, Miami Beach, Princeton, Austin, Galveston, Boonton, Jim Thorpe, and others. And members of our office staff—Steve Izenour and Mary Yee, for example—had learned to offer the finely-grained detail of social planning, regional and Main Street economics, mapping, and graphics that these plans required.

When 1970s governments removed funding for urban planning, our firm could not subsidize the hours needed for responsible social planning. We reassessed, looked outward, and found architectural commissions in London (Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, 1991), Toulouse (Provincial Capitol Building, Département de la Haute-Garônne, 1999), and Kirifuri, Japan (Mielparque Nikko Kirifuri Resort, Nikko National Park, 1997), plus a programming project for the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian (1992).

Three of these large and exciting civic commissions filled our lives from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s but, though we and they knew we could never be their architects, programming for the American Indian Museum was, for me, deeply fulfilling, owing to the amazing information we learned about the purposes, uses, and correct display of their treasures, and the fun of joining members of different Indian nations, as in-jokes, ribbing, and laughter, incomprehensible to us, rippled across the boardroom table.

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John Rauch, Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi at the office on 333 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, 1970s.

Campus Planning

At Penn, the campus and West Philadelphia served as areas for studio projects and research. When I changed from student to teacher in 1960, I added photography around Penn for use in teaching. Planning faculty meetings were arenas for debate on pedagogy of all kinds, but particularly on relationships between interdisciplinary coursework and studio, and I learned more about teaching studio from planning school than I did from architecture at Penn. Then for a while, I was Penn’s campus planner.

So when, in 1988, a request came to plan for the Dartmouth College campus, I knew campus planning issues and town–gown relationships. More followed and, as our experience grew, we discovered that a “learning from” walkabout to share first reactions and early thoughts was a good way to meet and greet our clients, even though their approach was often, “I’ve lived and worked here for 30 years but never noticed that!” But we were, all of us, “innocents”—they of planning procedures, we of the campus—and we stored our early impressions to revisit during the process.

Our examination of building types suggested that the origins of college halls, labs, and studio buildings could lie in mills and warehouses of the industrial revolution. But West Philadelphia housing, beside the University and beyond it to the west, revealed multiple creative departures from Philadelphia’s colonial Center City, signaling that in the world’s then biggest heavy-industry region, good numbers of the working population were rich enough to own homes. In designing academic buildings, we studied these environments and settings, physical and intellectual, plus the requirements of different disciplines, and their linkages—with each other, the campus, and the city. And in campus planning we pulled them together.

Here the interdisciplinary connections I had made while teaching served me well, as I debated with faculty members on what they loved most. When asked “Where should the math building go?” I answered, “It depends what you think of math. Is it the handmaiden of the sciences, the muse of the arts, the grounding of all structure, the shock troops of IT, or, at its best, inspired puzzle solving?” All eyes turned to the head of the math department. He lay low, eyes peeking out, the grin of his jaw just visible. He was a crocodile in the Limpopo River, aping a log. Then, widening from grin to beam, he said, “All of the above.”

Math disciplines must be near everything. And Main Street should be near enough. In the 1990s, life scientists called for buildings that encouraged exchanges among scientists in various disciplines, for the discoveries these could bring. And formula-filled whiteboards in lab floor coffee lounges raised the question, “Where will the next Nobel prize be hatched, at the lab bench or over coffee?”

My plans had, since the 1950s, tied campus activities together using the linkage diagrams of land use planning, desire lines of transportation, central place theories of regional economics, plus land and water programs of natural scientists. And although modern architecture held that functionalism is how the bedroom relates to the bathroom, and this is what to show on the outside, for me the tools of urban planning teach “functionalism for the outside.” And, put together, this can respond to the faults of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City—the vision behind the Athens Charter and the cause of urban problems for 100 years.

Our campus planning helped locate new buildings, and some of these became commissions for us. Given a choice, we picked the project that would best help implement our plan and guide future planning. At Penn, I produced the parti for the campus center I had recommended as campus planner. It converted historic spaces indoors and out, including basement and service spaces at the heart of the campus, to a campus center precinct. At the University of Michigan, it was a life sciences complex bridging a state highway and connecting the main campus to the medical center.

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

Working with Bob

I turned to Bob for advice on these projects, as he did to me on his. But most of our projects were shared between us and there were often two design partis.

“When you have Bob and Denise you have double your problem,” said one client, and an intern in our office wrote simply, “1 + 1 > 2.” These views, wry or happy, apply to many of our ideas—but function, especially the notion of functions of the outside, always lay behind Bob’s “planning from the outside in” and my “outside functionalism.”

We paralleled each other but at different scales. Bob worked from the piazza, street, or parking lot to building entries, and on to the activities, space sequences, and circulation of inner functions. My work spanned and sought guidance from urban surroundings, and the tools, social and physical, planners use for harnessing the forces that shape form. And in evolving basics for our project, urban contexts, a million memories, and loves led our linking of gossamer patterns of the space economy to mannerist complexities that interrupted their systems.

In the process, we noted that uneven and sloping sites endowed universities with buildings whose first floors are at ground level, while the basements protrude above ground at the back and have windows there. Into these large, evocative spaces, we introduced campus centers, an architecture archive and exhibition space, a small conference center, and a student-run art gallery—leading to the sighs of visiting students saying, “I wish our school hadthis!”


Bob and I had each seen Toulouse as students and been moved by it. But when a design competition was announced for the Haute-Garonne administration building in 1990, our further learning began from the air. We noted how the red-brick city center stood out from the red and white, brick, stone, and stucco of the outskirts, and that the site cleared showed how big the “Conseil Général” would be. Abutted on two sides by medieval streets rebuilt with modest twentieth-century buildings, edged on a third by a canal lined by a high wall and trees and on the other side by the Avenue Honoré Serres.

This busy highway fronted the site, bridged the canal, then continued past a small shopping center. On its way, it gave pedestrian access to the site at the bridge, making this a candidate for the main entrance to the complex. And at a corner diagonally opposite on the medieval side, connections with a smaller road and a second shopping center suggested a second entry.

From the air, and without yet understanding it, I began to think that this complex would have one or more routes through it, and that walls along them should be of red brick like the inner city, with outer walls of brick and limestone like those at the perimeter. Once home, and with a supply of maps, documents and programs, Bob and I met in our office with two friends of long standing, Fred Schwartz, an architect in our firm, and Françoise Blanc, from Toulouse and the French Academy at Rome, and one of our four French project members.

Fred began, “We have room here for five slab buildings, and down here for four more.” But I suggested placing an axis diagonally across the site—providing a shortcut across it and modeling the “chicken bone” plan of a shopping center with stores along it and at its two ends. A five-story slab on either side could serve the needs of the Department and, surrounded by a large landscaped space, only their narrow ends would confront the small-town streets and buildings at the entrances.

In one wing the public would do its business with the Department. The other would hold the Assembly Hall, the Hall d’honneur, and spaces leading to and serving them. Two “passerelles,” glass-lined bridges, took people between the wings at every floor, ending at corridor coffee corners on either side. At ground level, arcades and a few trees would create shade, and give entry to various activities, including dining, a daycare center, and its playground. Below was basement parking, reached via its own side-street entry.

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Aerial photo of Toulouse Provincial Capitol Building, France, in association with Anderson / Schwartz Architects and Hermet-Blanc-Lagausie-Mommens / Atelier A4. Photograph by Matt Wargo, 1999.

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Toulouse Provincial Capitol Building. Photograph by Matt Wargo, 1999.

These ideas started in our re-meet with Toulouse by air, with an overview of the patterns and relationships that city and site offered each other. But they derived too from walking donkey paths in the Transvaal, pedestrian shortcuts across English cathedral closes, reading London street studies by Alison and Peter Smithson, backpacking in medieval Europe, and a multidisciplinary planning education in the US. These begot, inter alia, my belief that diagonal shortcuts were a kind offer to urban pedestrians.

At that first meeting, a quick survey of movement and activity patterns at about a quarter-mile (400-meter) radius around the site—with wider glances at the old city—produced the first parti, or rather, the first hypothesis. There was a lot to be tested as we placed programmed facilities, densities and activities, old and new, in relation to the city and each other. But this first parti sketched out the directions of the building itself, its access points and, through these and major routes, its high- and low-density activity points and open spaces, plus the connection and cognition between its parts.

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Courtyard bridges at Toulouse Provincial Capitol Building. Photograph by Matt Wargo, 1999.

Bob strongly supported these ideas. As heir to his father’s business, he had owned a fleet of delivery trucks, and he and I had supervised the company while building our practice as architects. So, while unconnected to his education in architecture, Bob knew delivery routes in greater Philadelphia, as well as pilgrim routes in Rome. I too had studied Nolli maps, and the relation of piazzas and church entrances. But added to mine were courses in land use, transportation, and urban and regional economics.

From that we moved to parti two and studied sequences of major spaces leading indoors and out, asking what would determine their activities and shape their forms. Bob’s first idea was to ennoble the central portion of our diagonal by introducing a crescent on its Department side between the two passerelles. This alludes to the Royal Crescent in Bath that he and I shared our love for in the first week of our friendship. On the other side, a steel and glass Palladian entry for pedestrians to the Assembly Hall is Bob’s odyssey in loosening and enlivening Mies van der Rohe.

Then he applied the warehouse themes of our lab buildings to offices on both sides, skillfully joining that order of architecture to the one suggested in parti one. I liked the way he jammed the warehouse window pattern into the steel and glass of the Palladian entrance, and we planned the photographs to resemble beaux arts analytiques.

At the back I took on the problem of joining curved and straight walls. But the major entry, scaled to receive pedestrians from the bridge, was classic Bob. He discovered two monumental columns that had marked the early Avenue Honoré Serres, and recast them as flattened silhouettes that mediated scales between tall building fronts, bulky columned doorways, and people entering.

Then we made a discovery. We had collected, we thought, all historical maps of the site, but found another while in construction. It showed a small street exactly where we had designed our shortcut across the site. So, by returning a street to its original location between two small shopping centers, we maintained an activity pattern perhaps a thousand years old.

The passerelles gave access from and to all floors. They were an expensive solution, but people soon announced that they were finding their way around well and no longer confusing private and public space. Their glass walls helped orient users and so did the sunsets, sunrises, blue sky, and fluffy Mediterranean clouds that they reflected. The vista from the main entrance under the passerelles ended in one small house at the far end across the road. And in the afternoon, a sun blast from its window caught your eye at the bridge entrance.

We had hoped that our public way and shortcut could serve as other streets in Toulouse do, for food, book, and antique markets, but it was made available for ceremonial uses only. Then to my joy, a market appeared, at my second choice—the main route through the parking lot from cars to elevators. So, people got their market but without a blue sky above.

The next task was to develop the relationships from the inside out as sketched in the first parti. Here our collaborators assumed major roles, first in design development, then in production, and we and they visited the site and Philadelphia to check samples, details, and drawings. But the Assembly Hall was still a major odyssey for us and especially Bob. Its clerestory windows admitted the floating Mediterranean sky, and below them were glassed spaces, adapted from Baroque churches, but lined with slotted insulation panels overpainted with clouds.

Before that, smaller acoustic panels provided further insulation for seats on a podium facing seats in the hall. All were lovingly detailed and constructed from a forest of beech trees saved for 300 years for this occasion. And along the sides and back were glass-fronted cubicles for translators and the press. I helped choose a geometrically patterned carpet in black and white to give scale in that large room. And Bob and I, lacking light in the hall still under construction, were faced with a need to choose, right then, the pattern of black, grey and white bands, substitutes for column capitals, in the Hall. So, when Bob’s eyes could not, I chose.

But I did not expect to be involved in the acoustic panel mix-up. We had used the panels before with success. They came from Germany and had been offwhite when we received them in England. Here, they were bright pink. Everyone was shouting, and they expected me to handle it. I got on the phone to Germany. No, they said, there was no pink when they sent them. But, looking around, we saw pink sawdust everywhere from the chairs that their makers had constructed in situ. “Get a vacuum cleaner,” I advised—and it worked.

Later, I was sitting in an apartment in Geneva when on the TV came our Hall. The city of Toulouse was using it to announce the production of a new Airbus. Overseas projects were a way to see the world in depth rather than as tourists, and an opportunity to visit family, as we did in stopping in Switzerland to be with my parents on our way to Toulouse.

In 1972, we bought a house large enough to hold our nieces and nephews, siblings and parents. And to maintain and restore this art nouveau house and its English Romantic landscape we had the help of about sixty architecture students who spent summers living with us and working on the house and yard. And this huge extended family come back to show proudly their families and we have had years of reference-writing for promising people. And all the while, we wrote articles and books, adding to and commenting on the theory we had established in earlier books. Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time (2004) updated and furthered Learning from Las Vegas (1972) based on ideas from later projects.

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

In 2012, our firm passed to younger principals, and we slowly retired. Bob died in 2018 but, with a small support staff, I talk, write, photograph, exhibit, and advise. I am working now on a further update on what I now see at the far end of three long, low career curves starting in Africa, continuing in Europe, and ending in the US. I now have more understanding than I thought I would ever find when I told Arthur Korn at the age of twenty: “I have a need for structure.” Perhaps so, but soon thereafter, I think I found that enthusiasm gives better support than structure.

Biljana, I applaud your diligence in taking time to work through this on your own. You are doing a great thing. Bob and I worked on our publications without funding. Yale paid for our Las Vegas studio and, if I remember, the only outside contribution to it was $1200. For the rest we used our free hours. The results were worth the effort, and yours will be too.

With all good wishes, Denise.

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Denise Scott Brown, Venturi/Scott Brown House by Milton B. Medary, designed 1907. Wissahickon Avenue, Philadelphia. Photograph by Carl C. Paatz, 2019.

From: Denise Scott Brown
Sent: Friday, February 18, 2022 4:07 pm
To: Frida Grahn
Subject: Fwd: Reply to Biljana, Information on Denise

Dear Frida,

Biljana is very happy, and so am I. Would you like to take the next step with her by asking if you can use my letter to her in your book? Reassure her that I would love this, and love seeing her first name at the head of the letter, with, if you agree, no second name. I love that the name Biljana is used as a generic, where in England or America it would be Mary. For me a generic Biljana welcomes the world. And her second name, if she wants, can be used elsewhere.

Please tell her that we are working now on a few additions to the text, explaining that my joy in architecture and in my practice with Bob has been described elsewhere but that to explore our joint creativity requires dates, description of the changing scope of our work from 1960 on, and of our methods of working together, as academics and practitioners.

I have chosen our Conseil Général building in Toulouse to illustrate our ways of working on a project together. This is a late project, but its methods evolved from our early work together and applied to most of our projects. The exception is our houses. Bob designed most of them without me and with a project manager from the office. They were personal odysseys for him, but strangely, his greatest learning journeys, the Vanna Venturi house and the Lieb house, I was deeply involved in.

I led our teams for urban and campus planning and design, and for project programming, and was lead designer for architecture complexes at Penn, Michigan, and Dartmouth. But Toulouse illustrates our joint collaboration with members of our firm and other firms in a large project; it shows how, as our staff grew more diverse, we were able to make richer offerings to clients, and how our whole firm seemed to become happier as a result.

Young architects in big firms often feel mistreated (the Pritzker Prize petition was full of the complaints of architectural interns), but ours seemed to feel that though the going was tough it owed more to the construction industry than to our practice, and that when I talked about joint creativity it engaged their talents too and offered them opportunities for growth. Then one of our interns described Bob’s and my joint creativity as: “1 + 1 > 2.”

So I hope Biljana will answer with an energetic yes!

Please let me know what happens and how you will continue. And thank you so much for all the work you are doing. This gets to be a brighter and brighter story. D

From: Denise Scott Brown
Sent: Wednesday, April 27 2022 at 6:02 am
To: Frida Grahn
Subject: “A bag of tools”

Dear Frida,

This is an attempt to cover briefly in my paper the profound effect of the social planning movements on architecture schools in the 1960s. You could summarize it as a bag of tools that disciplines in and out of the school provided for the forms of thinking needed to replace the Athens Charter. Through them, l learned to run studios in architecture very different from the ones at the time. I need you to help me decide on the spot for this, and condense it to a couple of sentences. Read it on the plane and perhaps we can talk about it when you get back. See you soon, D

In his article in this book, James Yellin, one of my first students in my first year of teaching and a planner, not an architect, has given a succinct description of an ongoing and creative battle between two very young planning teachers: Paul Davidoff and me.

In addition to us, there were other people concerned in the planning school, also young. Herbert Gans, who later became a famous professor of social urbanism and planning and also my friend, was one such person. Robert [Scott Brown] and I met him while he was a participant observer in Levittown. We also learned from the ideas produced through his professor, Robert Merton, from which he took his sociology, from his Stuyvesant bricks and rich people in New York to the slums of Boston, where immigrants were settling, and later from Philadelphia and New Jersey, where those immigrants were moving to the suburbs and getting affordable housing from builders like Levitt. As much as Paul Davidoff, Gans helped to change the face of urban planning through this research, but at the same time, and particularly at the University of Pennsylvania, systems planning had started with the computer ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which was invented and used there by groups of people in economics and transportation. This created equivalent passions, and some of them were able to fire the imagination of architects.

These were my colleagues in the years that I was on the faculty—I learned from them as a student and a colleague, and they from me. And the economic tools I learned I put together with the passions of Davidoff and the broad knowledge of all of them to create what I call my “bag of tools,” with which I sought to replace the now almost 100-year-old Athens Charter, which was never a good formula for urban planning. As an African who has trekked more donkey paths than Le Corbusier, I am taking him with me on the donkey—using this traditional transportation system as a key to more complex ones, to what I call “outside functionalism” and to better tools for architects.


Beaux arts analytiques: A way of composing architectural drawings developed in the Ecole des Beaux Arts to show relationships among building elements.

Desire lines of transportation: A way of mapping the movement of people between their workplaces and their homes.

Town–gown relationships: Expression to describe the relationships between cities and their universities, in which the “gown” colloquially refers to the academic world (the “academic robe”).