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Women in Architecture: Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown knew from the age of five that she wanted to be an architect. Born in 1931 Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Scott Brown pursued her dream by spending her summers working for architects and studying at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

In 1952, Scott Brown moved to London to work for modernist architect, Frederick Gibberd. While in London, Scott Brown won admission to the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1958 to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s planning department and obtain a master’s degree in city planning and architecture.

In 1967, Scott Brown joined Robert Venturi’s architectural firm, Venturi and Raunch, where she became principal in charge of planning in 1969. Scott Brown’s approach to architecture with Venturi was to understand a city in terms of social, economic, and cultural perspectives and to use these perspectives a set of complex systems in which to build a structure.

With Venturi, Scott Brown designed the Bryn Mawr College Campus Center as well as a campus plan in 1997 which considered the campus’s physical character as originally shaped by famous planners and architects Calvert Vaux, Frederick Olmsted, Louis Kahn, and more. The student body of Bryn Mawr College, having grown, needed an expanded campus, and Scott Brown planned an expansion that celebrated the campus’s original orthogonal pattern while accommodating the students’ needs. 

Nikko Hotel, designed by Scott Brown
Nikko Hotel, courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates

Another of Scott Brown’s designs is for the Japanese Nikko Hotel chain, in which Scott Brown merged the ideals of western comfort with Japanese Kimono patterns to celebrate the heritage of the hotel chain while catering to the western audience. 

In 1989, Venturi and Raunch was renamed to Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, celebrating Scott Brown’s contributions to the firm. The firm is known as one of the most influential architecture firms of its time and is celebrated for radical theories of design while approaching its practice clearly and comprehensively.

In 1991, Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, while Scott Brown was not recognized for her contributions to Venturi’s work. Scott Brown boycotted the award ceremony. In 2013, a student organization titled Women in Design started by Caroline Amory James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten at the Harvard School of Design started a petition for Scott Brown to receive joint recognition for the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Though Scott Brown has still not been awarded joint recognition for the Pritzker Prize, in 2017, she won the prestigious Jane Dew Prize. 

Throughout her career, Scott Brown struggled to be recognized as an equal partner at a male-dominated firm. In 1975, Scott Brown wrote an essay titled “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” though Scott Brown did not publish the essay until 1989 out of fear of damaging her career. The essay became an immediate hit, and Scott Brown has continued to advocate for women in architecture throughout her life.

Female Weavers and the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus is a renowned institution in the history of Modernist architecture — and art in general. But what may come as a surprise to many: the most commercially successful department of the school was actually the Bauhaus weaving workshop. And even more notable, this workshop was run by a slew of highly innovative, influential female designers.

Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Defying Expectations

When the Bauhaus opened in 1919, the progressive school was heralded as an equitable place. In fact, its founder Walter Gropius even wrote in the Bauhaus bylaws: “Every eligible person whose talent and training are considered adequate will be accepted without regard to age and sex.” Gropius’s philosophy was stronger in theory than in action. He later became known for believing men thought in three dimensions, while women only thought in two.

Because of this gender bias, when women applied to the school, they were directed away from heavy craft areas, such as carpentry and metalwork, to a workshop considered more appropriate for women. This was the weaving workshop, which Gropius even referred to as “the women’s section” of the school.

Like many other women in architecture, the female weavers at the Bauhaus wouldn’t be put down by others’ limited perspectives. Designers such as Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger took the two-dimensional textile craft and breathed new life into it. In addition to creating patterns that were both commercially marketable and had deep influence on the fine arts world of the time, these female weavers also played with form and function. They took weaving beyond the two dimensional — inadvertently, defying Gropius’s backwards beliefs.

Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A Collaborative Cohort

While the other workshops of the Bauhaus dealt in the highly theoretical and abstract, and often struggled to succeed commercially, the success of the weaving workshop stood in stark contrast. Besides its practical success, the workshop was also notable in the way that its female members taught to and learned from one another in a deeply collaborative process. Because Bauhaus members like Albers went on to teach their learnings globally, the impact of this collaboration is still seen in the weaving world today on figures like Sheila Hicks, Claire Zeisler and others. 

Most recently, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit titled Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus, which ran from 2019-2020. The exhibit explored the influence of the Bauhaus weaving workshop across the Atlantic and across the decades. In lieu of traditional placards for each work, viewers navigated the exhibit by reading quote cards from various women in the field, all of whom were in conversation with one another, and with one another’s work. 

The women weavers from the Bauhaus exemplify an ongoing trend in the world of architecture and design: despite the odds or expectations, female designers are always ready and willing to rise to the challenge.

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