“There was no record of what the house looked like at all,” says Denise Scott Brown on the phone, explaining the design for Philadelphia’s Franklin Court, a complex that includes a museum, archaeological site, and frames of white steel that serve as an evocation of the home Benjamin Franklin built for himself in 1763. Demolished in 1812, the house’s site and surrounding properties were purchased by the National Park Service (NPS) in the 1950s, who then began an extensive archaeological excavation in search of remnants of the house. The dig uncovered portions of the homes’ structure, including walls and foundations, as well as mountains of trash produced by the Franklin family, but no clues on what the house looked like above ground. “What we did have was kitchen middens,” Denise continues, “and an urban system that we could tie to the plans for the site.”
Along with the archaeological site and its findings, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), the firm founded by Denise Scott Brown and her late husband Robert Venturi (1925–2018), also had correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and his wife during the house’s construction. Scott Brown, who trained, taught, and implemented planning schemes and architectural design for fifty years, formulated a plan for a “talking landscape.” The museum would be built underground, a move that would allow for the exhibits to interface with the archaeological remains. The area above the museum could then be given over to open space and engaged with Market Street and Philadelphia’s historic Old City. The National Park Service reconstructed five houses on Market Street, which also recreated the approach to the site from the streetscape when the house was still standing, as the home had originally been situated within a walled interior courtyard. The urban relationship was recreated by bringing back the interior courtyard as a small park, with the underground museum entrance located along the north side of the site, tucked behind a brick wall with continuous seating under a long canopy running along it.
But what about reconstructing the Franklin home? Instead of rebuilding it as NPS had done with the Market Street properties, the “Bob-designed” Ghost Houses (as they have become known) use steel tubing to express the house’s basic form and exterior features, creating a bold graphic element that invited visitors to recreate the house in their imagination through reading the Franklin correspondences, excerpts of which are etched into the site’s pavers. Concrete viewing hoods provide visitors with vignettes to archaeological elements below and served as a complement to the Ghost Houses as an alien material to the eighteenth-century Philadelphia elements of brick and stone. “We made peepholes from above, so you had two ways of learning about it,” adds Denise. The area around the house became a “Colonial Park that simulated the blocks of nearby Society Hill” with formal gardens across the front and an informal garden at the rear.
The design of Franklin Court was an innovative approach to both historic preservation and historic sites. When Independence National Historical Park, which Franklin Court is a part of, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, Franklin Court was identified for its significance and design, but the project was too new to be considered as contributing to the historic district. Rather, Franklin Court was recommended for further study as it approached fifty years old, the standard age for which historic places are typically evaluated for their eligibility to become local or national landmarks.
In 2010, the NPS announced plans to redesign the museum, and within the scope, planned to alter the museum entrance at the courtyard. Plans called for replacing the brick wall and canopy with a glass and metal entry enclosure, an action that would compete with the communicative function of the original 1976 eighteenth-century forms in the landscape design and introduce an expression of modern materials counter to the Ghost House structures. “It became Miesian,” protests Denise, who wrote a letter to NPS asking that aspects of the renovation, including the entry enclosure, be reconsidered. Ultimately, the work proceeded, giving short shrift to how the museum entrance would work harmoniously with the rest of the design. Today, the museum is entered under a heavy pergola, supported by black steel posts with opaque and Miesian-modern transparent glass panels behind.
The design and implementation of each element of Franklin Court is emblematic of the way Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi worked together. The success of individual components was weighed against the success of the whole, and each component had an objective that was rooted in knowledge and culture.
“It’s a mixture that we do,” states Denise of her practice with her late husband Robert Venturi until his retirement in 2012. That work included scholarship, teaching, planning, design, and a legacy of built projects that complemented and reinforced a creative understanding of architecture and humanities’ relationship with it.
While that “mixture” has been widely recognized as having a profound influence on architecture, up until recently, much of the work has been attributed to Robert Venturi. It was “his” book, Learning from Las Vegas, critics, writers, and architects said, that so inspired how we see the symbols of the commercial built environment. It was “his fresh view” of the built environment as the pop architect that drove praise and ire from the world of architecture. It was Venturi’s duck and Venturi’s Ghost Houses. “It’s impossible to tease out our individual contributions because we worked as a team,” admits Denise. Yet, stereotypes of how men and women work as a team created a cultural environment where Denise’s contributions were obfuscated.
When Denise Scott Brown is noted as a component in Robert Venturi’s creative process, she is “wife,” “partner and wife,” or “Mrs. Robert Venturi.” A 1970 Philadelphia Daily News article examining redevelopment plans for South Street, in which Denise, having a planning background, served as lead author and researcher for the plan, is introduced to the reader by a description of her appearance. “Denise Scott Brown, a small-boned, auburn-haired woman of 38, sometimes works 12 hours at a stretch hunched over a drawing board in her 24th floor apartment at Society Hill Towers.”
“These experiences have caused me to fight, suffer doubt and confusion, and expend too much energy,” Denise writes on the obfuscation of her role in the collaborative work with her husband and firm in “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” an essay written in 1975. Concerned that its sentiments would damage both her career and firm, the essay was not published until 1989. It was Robert Venturi who, in 1991, was given the Pritzker Architecture Prize, an honor that relegated Denise’s contributions to the second to last paragraph of the announcement.
Fifty years after the publication of the first edition of Learning From Las Vegas, the work and ideas of Denise Scott Brown are receiving recognition for their singular significance and their contributions to the “mixture” that was Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. A new anthology, Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes: Portraits of an Architect, edited by Frida Grahn, sheds light on her legacy as one of the most influential thinkers on architecture and urbanism. A symposium convened at the Yale School of Architecture in 2023 presented new scholarship on her groundbreaking career as urban planner, designer, thought leader, and educator.
Yet, as her influence is being celebrated, the built work of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), like Franklin Court, has been threatened, altered and, in many cases, demolished, despite the awards and landmark protections it has been given. As modifications to the work of VSBA continue, the opportunities to learn more about Scott Brown’s specific impacts to architecture, planning, and design are undermined. At 91, after defending her place in the cannon of architecture, she is now defending the integrity and future of the built work that originated from a partnership that revolutionized architecture in the twentieth century.
In 1979, Betty and Irving Abrams hired Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown, who would become VSBA after John Rauch resigned in 1989, to design a home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The result was exuberant, inspired by a stone bridge at the rear of the property, and featured a distinctive wavelike roof and bright colors. An agreement minted between Betty Abrams and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation placed a landmark easement on the house, guaranteeing its sale to a preservation-minded buyer, who would then provide an annuity to Abrams’ children. A low appraisal of the house after Betty Abrams’s death in 2018 caused the deal to collapse, and the Abrams’ children sold it by right to the owners of the property next door. The house was nominated for landmark status by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, but the nomination was rejected by Pittsburgh City Council. Demolition loomed for the Abrams House for four years until it was razed late in 2022. The text of the landmarks designation notes the significance of the “first Postmodern building in Pittsburgh” but attributes its design solely to Robert Venturi, not mentioning the firm name or Denise Scott Brown.
By the mid 1990s, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCASD) was a hodgepodge of additions to what was originally The Scripps House, a 1915 villa designed by architect Irving Gill. Inspired by the rhythm of Gill’s work, VSBA designed a new façade in 1996, consisting of an inviting Tuscan-inspired pergola with bold signage inspired by a historic pergola on the property. The pergola strengthened the pedestrian orientation of the museum’s entrance and provided a place for visitors to gather—what Denise would refer to later as a connection between “Main Street lovers” and “Museum-goers.” Renovations inside, including a starfish-shaped, soaring central lobby, improved circulation and gently enhanced the building’s relationship between old and new.
In 2015, the MCASD announced an expansion plan that would double the museum’s overall size. An addition was designed by Selldorf Architects that would tear down the VSBA façade—including the pergola—in favor of a glassy entrance pavilion in a contemporary modern style. A petition signed by architects and historians, including comments by Charles Jencks and Denise Scott Brown, could not convince MCASD to rethink the renovations. The museum reopened in 2018 with the VSBA elements removed. A section of the entrance pergola was saved from demolition by the La Jolla Historical Society of San Diego and placed in a public garden.
As the MCASD renovation by Selldorf Architects moved forward, the United Kingdom granted its highest level of historic designation, Grade I, to VSBA’s Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London. This distinction is given to less than 3% of listed buildings in England that includes Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, and made the Sainsbury Wing one of the youngest Grade I listed buildings in the country.
Designed in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing connected and reflected on the original 1838 National Gallery building as it maintained its own contemporary identity. Like the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, the design looked to the surrounding historic streetscape to draw visitors in. In 2019, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gave its 25 year award to VSBA for the Sainsbury Wing, noting that the design “has stood the test of time for 25–35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.”
It came as an unexpected surprise when the National Gallery of London announced in 2022 that they would redevelop the building’s VSBA entrance along with the interior entryway and gallery spaces. Like the MCASD, the alterations would seek to modernize the visitor experience and be designed by Selldorf Architecture.
“Much of this carefully orchestrated movement of the visitor through the building will be lost should the current proposals be approved and the destructive, irreversible demolitions be allowed to proceed to this Grade I listed building,” wrote Denise in a 2022 objection to the proposal placed in front of the Westminster City Council. A heritage impact assessment was compiled by the National Gallery, arguing that the entrance of the gallery was of lesser importance than the façade, the galleries, and an interior staircase. This assessment established a justification for the reconfiguration, and despite an international response to the effects of the renovation, four councilors from Westminster City Council voted in support of the remodeling.
At the northern edge of Princeton University’s Butler College is Gordon Wu Hall. Completed in 1983, Wu Hall “initiated a new era in campus architecture at Princeton and elsewhere that favored differential insertions into traditional college quadrangles,” according to a piece in Common Edge written by historian Mark Allen Hewitt. Wu Hall’s design and orientation fully engages with the urbanism of the campus as well as the palette of existing materials. That orientation became a favorite of Princeton students (Robert Venturi was a graduate in 1947). A new residential college, Hobson, will replace First College, located just north of Butler College and Wu Hall. While Wu Hall will remain in the new scheme for Hobson College, a series of interconnected five-story buildings will meet the east elevation of the building, dwarfing its shorter height and breaking the circulation between other buildings and Butler and Hobson Colleges.
Named after donor and alumni Mellody Hobson, Hobson College will be the first at Princeton University named for a Black woman, replacing the name of First College, which was formerly Wilson College, after President Woodrow Wilson, who has been widely denounced for his racist viewpoints and policies. Most of the buildings of First College, cited as some of the most unpopular on the Princeton campus, will be demolished. Wu Hall will continue to serve students as the dining hall for Butler College, but the alterations of the building’s circulation, relationship to other buildings, and the drastic contrast in scale point to Wu Hall as a superfluous component to the new design.
Architect Richard Pain wrote his thesis on VSBA’s residential work and has kept tabs on the status of the firm’s built work with assistance from both Robert Venturi before his passing and now, Denise Scott Brown. Early works from the practice, such as the Naval Community Center (1964) and Grands Restaurant (1962), both in Philadelphia, have been destroyed. Residential projects such as a House in Tuckers Town, Bermuda, (1976) and a Ski House in Vail, Colorado, (1977) have been substantially remodeled, according to Pain. Other residential works have fared better. The Vanna Venturi House (1962) and the Guild House (1964) have been listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, with VSBA acting as the architect of record for a 2009 rehabilitation of the Guild House. With assistance from James Venturi, son of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the Leib House (1969) was relocated from Long Beach Island, New Jersey, to Glen Cove, New York, by boat in 2009. Portions of the Best Products Showroom (1978) in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, which featured brightly colored porcelain enameled steel panels, are exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
“Not all buildings can be saved, and we must be careful not to save them all or we won’t be taken seriously, but there are two sides to that story.” Denise is talking about her work in context with its preservation. From 1981 to 1985, Denise served as an advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Main Street Center. Policy recommendations and design guidelines undertaken by VSBA for main streets in historic American cities like Galveston, Memphis, and Miami helped those places see their historic places as community and economic assets, while also subtly placing their recommendations as a continuum amongst the historic fabric.
Whether or not VSBA’s work was explicitly concerned with preservation, it was a sense of continuity between new and old, folk art and fine art, that guided their choices and made their work exceptional. It was perhaps Denise’s unique diasporic identity—born in South Africa, educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, teaching in California, and then practicing out of Philadelphia—that allowed for the work to have such transcultural ideas and work across the globe, but also a respect for how to allow narratives to coexist simultaneously.
As architectural history continues to tease out not the individual contributions of specific designers working in a collective, but what talents they brought to the projects that made them successful, it is critical that the built work of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates remain intact, not to drive its preservation towards landmarking, or to place it it within the field of heritage conservation, but so that the work may be studied in harmony with the complementing discourse that has been written and published, from Learning from Las Vegas to “Room at the Top.” It is also critical that the physical integrity of the work be protected to better understand the time and context in which it was created, and so that it may be studied against how, like the Ghost Houses to the viewing hoods of Franklin Court, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown worked together as the designers, thinkers, and innovators they are.
Thanks to Emma Brown, research assistant at VSBA, for her invaluable help providing photographs of the work of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Thanks also to architect Richard Pain for his help with the current status of several works of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.