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December 06, 2015

Famed Philly architects get equal recognition they fought for

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown receive first ever joint Gold Medal from American Institute of Architects

Architecture Awards
Vanna Venturi house outside Contributed art/

The famed Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill is a classic example of Postmodern architecture.

Renowned Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi was often asked if he would accept a nomination for the American Institute of Architects' highest award, the Gold Medal, for his groundbreaking work in Post-Modernism.

He refused — unless the prize also went to Denise Scott Brown, his partner in architecture and life.

This week, both architects got the credit they deserve, as the AIA awarded its first joint Gold Medal ever to the married couple.

"One cannot speak about the thinking and theory of one partner without speaking about the contributions and support of the other; they are as unified as two halves of the same, luminous brain," declared the institute's journal, AIA Architect.

Not only is it the first Gold Medal awarded to two people, but as Newsworks reported, it's also the first Gold Medal given to a living woman.

The only other Gold Medal awarded to a woman went to Julia Morgan, over 50 years after her death. Fittingly, it was Scott Brown who wrote Morgan's letter of recommendation in 2014.

The married couple broke up the severe, uncompromising orthodox of the Modernist style that ruled over architecture in the 1960's, and thus paved the way for Postmodernism.

Their work focused on organic, uninhibited design. The Modernist motto was "less is more," while Venturi declared in his 1966 manifesto Complexity and Contradiction that "less is a bore."

For example, what self-respecting designer in the 70's would deign to study the architecture of Las Vegas strip malls? Yet Venturi and Scott Brown's book Learning From Las Vegas, written with Steven Izenour, became the textbook for Postmodernism.

“What Denise and Bob have done for the profession far exceeds the completion of a great building or two," said AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter in a statement. "Through a lifetime of inseparable collaboration, they changed the way we look at buildings and cities. Anything that is great in architecture today has been influenced in one way or another by their work."

Perhaps the most famous house that Robert Venturi ever built was for his mother: the Vanna Venturi house in Chestnut Hill. The home is on the market for the first time since 1972, and just last week it was nominated for the city's Register of Historic Places.

Buildings that the partners worked on together include the Guild House in Philadelphia and the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London. Nevertheless, Scott Brown was snubbed in 1991 when the world's most prestigious architecture award, the Pritzker Prize, went only to her husband.

She'll get her long-delayed recognition in May, when Scott Brown and Venturi will accept the award at the AIA's annual convention in Philadelphia.