Biography of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Celebrated Architects of Postmodernism

Colorful over-sized columns and pediment with word Museum
Children's Museum of Houston, 1992. Photo by Barry Winiker / Photolibrary / Getty Images (cropped)

Denise Scott Brown (born October 3, 1931 in Africa) and Robert Venturi (born June 25, 1925 in Philadelphia, PA) are known for smart urban designs and architecture steeped in popular symbolism. Kitsch becomes art in designs which exaggerate or stylize cultural icons.

When they met and married, Denise Scott Brown had already made important contributions to the field of urban design. Through her work as an urban planner and her collaboration with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates Inc.

(VSB), she has brought the artifacts of popular culture into the realm of architecture and has shaped our understanding of the relationship between design and society.

Robert Venturi is known for turning architecture on its head by exaggerating historical styles and incorporating cultural icons into the building design. For example, the Children's Museum of Houston is built with the basic Classical characteristics—columns and pediment— but they are playfully exaggerated to appear cartoonish. Likewise, the Bank Building in Celebration, Florida has the stately form of the J.P. Morgan & Co. Building, the iconic fortress on Wall Street in New York City. Yet, as designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, there's a playful retro look that more resembles a 1950s-era gas station or hamburger restaurant. Venturi was one of the first modern architects who embraced this playful (some say sarcastic) architecture that became known as postmodernism.

VSB, based in Philadelphia, PA, has long been recognized for much more than Postmodernist designs. The firm completed more than 400 projects, each uniquely suited to the special needs of the clients.

The couple is highly educated individually. Scott Brown was born to Jewish parents in Nkana, Zambia and raised in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa.

She attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (1948-1952), the Architectural Association in London, England (1955), and then went on to the University of Pennsylvania to earn a Master of City Planning (1960) and a Master of Architecture (1965). Venturi started out closer to his Philadelphia roots, graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University (1947 A.B. and 1950 MFA) in nearby New Jersey. He then ventured to Rome, Italy to study as a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy (1954-1956).

Early in his architectural career, Venturi worked for Eero Saarinen, and then in the Philadelphia offices of Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov. He partnered with John Rauch from 1964 until 1989. Since 1960 Venturi and Scott Brown collaborated as founding partners of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. For decades Brown has directed the firm's urban planning, urban design, and campus planning work. Both are licensed architects, planners, authors, and educators, yet it was Venturi alone who was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, a contentious honor that many have decried as sexist and unjust. In 2016 the pair together was awarded the highest honor bestowed by the American Institute of Architects—the AIA Gold Medal.

Since retiring, Venturi and Brown are archiving their work at venturiscottbrown.org.

Selected Projects:

  • 1964: The Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    —designed in 1962; named one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America in 2013.
  • 1968: Fire Station No. 4, Columbus, IN
  • 1970s: Preservation planning for historic districts in Galveston, Texas and Miami Beach, Florida
  • 1971: Trubek-Wislocki Houses, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
  • 1972: Brant House, Greenwich, Connecticut
  • 1975: Tucker House, Katonah, New York
  • 1976: Allen Art Museum Addition, Oberlin, Ohio
  • 1976: House in Tuckers Town, Bermuda
  • 1980s: City plan for downtown Memphis, Tennessee
  • 1983: Gordon Wu Hall, Princeton, New Jersey
  • 1990s: Master plan and schematic design for the Denver Civic Center Cultural Complex,  Denver, Colorado
  • 1990s: Campus plans for Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania
  • 1991: Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London, UK
  • 1991: Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
  • 1996: Sun Trust Bank, Celebration, Florida
  • 1997: Mielparque Nikko Kirifuri (resort hotel), Nikko, Japan
  • 2008: Chapel, Episcopal Academy, Newtown Square, PA

Learn More:

  • Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi
    In this groundbreaking book, published in 1966, Robert Venturi challenged modernism and celebrated the mix of historic styles in great cities like Rome.
    Buy on Amazon
  • Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown, 1972
    Subtitled The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form this postmodernist classic called the "vulgar billboards" of the Vegas Strip emblems for a new architecture. The controversial book presented the idea that architects could learn important lessons in design from commercial art and casino ads.
    Buy from Amazon
  • Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time by Venturi Scott Brown, Harvard University Press, 2004
    Buy on Amazon
  • AA Words 4: Having Words by Denise Scott Brown, Architectural Association, 2009
    Buy on Amazon
  • A Difficult Whole: A Reference Book on the Work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown by Architecture Without Content, 2016
    Buy on Amazon

Famous Robert Venturi Quote:

"Less is a bore."—Rejecting the simplicity of modernism and responding to the Mies van der Rohe dictum, "Less is more"