Book Review: Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes – Guest Critic George Michelin 12.05.2023 – Posted in: Book Thoughts

Books are meaningless without readers. This blog post adds to our book review series about interesting new titles viewed through a lens of a critical reader. This time, our guest critic is George Michelin who reviews Denise Scott Brown: In Other Eyes edited by Frida Grahn and published by Birkhäuser in 2022. Please also take a look at Mimma Tuomisalo’s review of Collective Processes and Pijatta Heinonen’s review of Architects after Architecture – Alternative Pathways for Practice.

Text by George Michelin (b. 1990) who is a graduate of the Oxford Brookes School of Architecture and the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. He is a Helsinki based designer and architect with an interest in understanding the interplay between creative theory and practice, as explored by his master’s thesis Towards a Culturally Durable Ultraviolet Architecture which investigated the notion of cultural sustainability in architecture.

Denise Scott Brown: In Other Eyes offers a comprehensive anthology of essays examining the life of one of the key figures of architectural postmodernism, who’s ideas helped to shape Western architectural and urban planning discourse and teaching pedagogy to this day. Published half a century after the landmark postmodernist manifesto Learning From Last Vegas, co-othered by Scott Brown, her second husband Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour, the book forms part of a welcome series of recent publications which seek to correct the historical portrayal of 20th century architecture as a male dominated narrative.

The publication is edited by Frida Grahn, an architect, architectural historian and current Ph.D candidate at the Accademia di architetturia di Mendrisio, Università della Svizzera italiana (USI).
It is comprised of a series of high quality essays offering a richness of perspectives from a variety of contributors including collaborators, employees and students amongst others. Following an introduction by the editor, the book is composed of three main sections: Part 1 1950s: Learning, Part 2 1960s: Teaching, and Part 3 1970s–2020s: Designing.

Between the is and the ought

Parts 1 and 2 resemble the format most typical of chronological biographies, with the essays within these first two sections succeeding to establish a thorough account of the events of the architect’s formative years. As the daughter of European Jewish exiles, her white colonial African youth and early studies in apartheid Johannesburg, Scott Brown’s personal experiences proved valuable in questioning orthodox Modernist ideological dogma, later formulated in her distinction between the “is and the ought.” The essays then follow her career northwards through post-war Europe, and finally west to the United States. A distinct academic contextualisation of this period is achieved by means of reference to key architectural figures and texts of historical relevance, accompanied by quotes from Scott Brown’s own writings throughout.

The final section “Part 3 1970s–2020s: Designing” is the least structured, allowing the book to open up its scope to include texts which allow for the exploration of Scott Brown’s works and writings in regards to their international reception, influence and interpretation. This part also succeeds in bridging the historical biographical aspect of the book to cover the architect’s contemporary relevance, including a contribution from Herzog & de Meuron’s Jacques Herzog as an example.

A succeeding epilogue presents email correspondence between Scott Brown and one of the books contributors and editor, including a summary of Scott Brown’s recollections relevant to the themes discussed. Whilst it is clear that the intent of book is to justifiably promote the historical position of the architect and that such participation from the subject of the biography may allow for a degree of valuable insight, it perhaps also suggests a reason as to why the book lacks a more critical reading of Scott Brown’s often divisive and controversial positions. One example of the architect’s combativeness which can be found in the book is illustrated by her rebuttal of criticisms regarding the seminal Learning From Las Vegas, labelling notable figures including architectural historian and critic Kenneth Frampton, as “armchair academics” and “radical chic architects.”

However, beyond the book’s biographical aspect, one of the most enriching merits of the publication is its ability to act in parallel as a sourcebook for many seminal writings relevant to its conversation. As such, it develops an appetite in the reader to seek out further texts towards developing their own critical position. For this reason, the book would appeal to both academics looking for a condensed autobiographical portrait of a known leading post-war architectural figure, as well as students in search of an engaging alternative introduction to 20th century architectural discourse.

Although the quality of research and theoretical background provided by many of the essays stands as one of the publications strengths, one shortfall is that there are limited examples of projects in which Scott Brown’s theories become concretised which also receive the same degree of analysis. Whilst it is acknowledged by the architect, particularly in regards to her working partnership with Robert Venturi, that her role was predominantly related to urban scale project development, in the context of a work about a figure which sought to close the gap between architectural theorising and its users, this is somewhat disappointing. Again, it could also be considered a point at which the reader should be encouraged to form their own opinions beyond the pages of the book.

Deconstructing norms

Within a single publication including numerous authors writing on the same subject, the anthology has been edited as to allow for some overlap and repetition. Considering the depth and richness of many of the essays which would perhaps not have been possible under a single authorship, this retreading of some key points is another useful quality.

Scott Brown’s role can be seen as instrumental in deconstructing the established norms in American post-war architecture and urban planning, arguing for a plurality and diversity of views towards enabling community empowerment in shaping the inhabitant’s built environment. At a time in which there is currently a lively debate in many urban centres across Europe in relation to the impact of investor lead development and its effect in altering and destroying the identity of our towns and cities, such a position is useful to promote and learn from.

Whether or not the postmodernist era has now come to an end in itself, within today’s architectural practice where there is a need to form a united front in the context of the environmental crisis, there is a sense of nostalgia towards the ideological clarity of orthodox 20th century Modernism. Whilst the book does have some shortfalls, it acts as an inspirational and practical refresher that totalising theoretical concepts can lead to ideological dogmatism, and that a more nuanced critical position which questions established trends in contemporary architectural discourse should be valued.

Text by George Michelin. Published by Bookmarchitecture Oy by permission of the author.

The feature image is a collage of the following images: Denise Scott Brown photographed in her home 1978 © Lynn Gilbert CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, and Denise Scott Brown by Imoisset, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Book cover image derived from Collage by Bookmarchitect.

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