The AIA Gold Medal Goes to Venturi and Scott Brown: Progress and the Prize

On why the Gold Medal isn’t too little too late, it’s just a little with a long way to go

Architect Denise Scott Brown will be awarded the 2016 AIA Gold Medal. She will share the prize with her husband and longtime collaborator Robert Venturi.

Courtesy Ryan Collerd

Much has been made of the AIA’s 2016 Gold Medal Award, announced on December 3, and rightly so. Not only is this the first time the Gold Medal will be awarded to a collaborative pair, it is also the first win for a living woman architect (Julia Morgan was awarded posthumously in 2014). What’s more, this will be the first time Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown will share the stage to receive a top industry award, which many think is far overdue. More than 20,000 people petitioned the Pritzker Committee in 2013 to afford Scott Brown an inclusion ceremony for the 1991 Pritzker, which was awarded to Venturi alone. That initiative failed to sway the committee, and so some now feel that the AIA honor, as Blair Kamin puts it, “makes a statement about the role of women in design.”

As with most major awards, who wins is a political decision. With this announcement, then, the AIA is certainly sending a strong message. Worldwide, women have won just 3% of architecture’s top prizes and are often overlooked in collaborative practices. In 2012, for example, the Pritzker committee awarded Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio, a practice he operates with his wife, architect Lu Wenyu. The fact that the 2016 Gold Medal was announced by the AIA’s fifth woman president, Elizabeth Chu Richter, who herself had left architecture for 12 years to raise her children, is a hopeful moment for progress in the profession.

But while the AIA is working to correct its missteps—not to mention the Pritzker’s—by opening up the prize to a long list of eligible partnerships, there are still underlying cultural issues that need to be addressed in the discipline, and the “star system” may be among them.Scott Brown has been a vehement critic of architecture’s star system for years. Even before her husband alone was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991 for their collaborative work, Scott Brown noted the second-class treatment she received from both colleagues and the press. As she described in “Room at the Top? Sexism in the Star System,” a prophetic 1975 lecture-turned-article that remained unpublished until 1989, Venturi was groomed to join architecture’s elite while Scott Brown was pushed aside. “By the time we wrote Learning From Las Vegas,” she wrote, “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.” Whether it was a failure to acknowledge Scott Brown’s role on projects, or another moment of outright sexism—such as the dean of a prominent school declining Scott Brown an invitation to an event for architects because “we’re not asking wives”—her exclusion from the Pritzker was clearly a symptom of a bigger problem.

Hopefully, the Gold Medal will allow us to look past Scott Brown’s perennial “woman’s problem,” and shift the discussion back to where it should have been all along: her work.

Scott Brown says she began to dislike her “hostile persona” that developed when advocating for her own inclusion. Venturi had been approached repeatedly for the Gold Medal, but he refused: “Not without Denise!” After years of the AIA refusing the couple’s joint submissions, she says, “I had to feel selfish for preventing him from winning.”

In many ways, elite awards are useful in recognizing real contributions by talented individuals in the field. Some optimistically believe the honorees provide role models for younger practitioners. But despite the groundbreaking nature of this year’s prize, it is unlikely the announcement will have much impact on the day-to-day experience of architects at work. Can an award encourage culture shifts that contribute to a higher retention of mid-career women architects, who are so much more likely than their male colleagues to leave the discipline? In 2012, 95% of US architecture firms were exempt from federal parental leave policies. Could it help close the gender wage gap, which, despite progress, is still 79%? The Gold Medal isn’t too little too late, it’s just a little with a long way to go.

We know that the work of both Venturi and Scott Brown together and separately has already been deemed worthy of the highest prizes in the profession. Hopefully, the Gold Medal will allow us to look past Scott Brown’s perennial “woman’s problem,” and shift the discussion back to where it should have been all along: her work.

Researchers Liz Walder and Susanne Bauer contributed research to this article.

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