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Mr. & Mrs. Architect

The beauty—and complexity and contradiction—of designing with a spouse.

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Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (m. 1967).  

Architecture is an art that thrives on argument. The silent battles that poets and sculptors wage with themselves, architects need to articulate. Because a skyscraper costs so much more than a sonnet, because in the end others will build it, and because the finished product won’t stand isolated on a page or a pedestal, people who design buildings expend their creative energies suggesting, defending, criticizing, revising, and adjusting to a thousand external needs. And since you can argue creatively only with someone you trust, what better sparring partner than a spouse?

Jing Liu, who in 2008 founded the firm SO-IL with her husband, Florian Idenburg, says that creative tension winds its way through their private lives. “We can afford to fight it out over days and days. You don’t chicken out of the argument. You just keep going at it until you have a resolution.” And husband-and-wife firms are not just proliferating; they’re dominating. Several ubiquitous New York firms—SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Asymptote Architecture, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien—were founded by couples. The next generation of boutique studios, too, is thick with them, including Idenburg and Liu, and Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, the principals of WORKac. The phenomenon is hardly new, but it still cuts against two enduring fallacies: that men build as women help, and that the noblest kind of architect is a Napoleon of the blueprint, dispatching orders for others to carry out.

The architect Denise Scott Brown is best known for Learning From Las Vegas, the irreverent, revolutionary book from 1972 about the glories of trashy American buildings and their hyperbolic signs that she wrote with her husband and partner, Robert Venturi. Lately, she is second-best-known for not winning the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1991, when Venturi did. They met in 1960, married in ’67, and two years later went into business as Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. For decades, they cooperated, co-designed, and frequently co-wrote; few outsiders can pin down which of them did what. In April, prompted by a wish for belated recognition that Scott Brown expressed in an interview with Architects’ Journal, a group of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design posted an online petition to correct that injustice. So far, more than 16,000 people have signed it, including many of the profession’s heavyweights and nine Pritzker laureates (including Venturi himself). The group that administers the prize promised to pass the buck to the next jury, which has also punted.

The petition is partly an effort to combat the field’s chronic misogyny. In a recent interview in Architect magazine, Brown described decades of pinprick humiliations: clients who ignored her and talked only to Venturi, get-togethers at all-male clubs, a request to step away from a group of architects that was posing for a photograph, accusations that she was resentful, shrewish, and demanding. Today a less-candid sexism comes out in the numbers: Women make up about half of all architecture students but only 17 percent of practicing architects. Zaha Hadid remains the only woman to win the Pritzker on her own. And although Kazuyo Sejima, the female co-founder of Sanaa, did win along with her younger (male) partner Ryue Nishizawa in 2010, the next year’s prize once again went to the male half of a two-person partnership: the Chinese architect Wang Shu, but not his wife, Lu Wenyu. (Women are reaping other laurels, though: the first $100,000 Wheelwright Prize has just been awarded to the 35-year-old Brooklyn architect Gia Wolff.)

But the Scott Brown controversy also shows how hard it is to dismantle the myth of the solitary auteur popularized by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead. “A building is alive, like a man,” declaims the young architectural genius Howard Roark. “Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.” Roark’s first nemesis is the cringing dean of his architecture school, who responds with a paean to compromise: “Nothing has ever been invented by one man in architecture. The proper creative process is a slow, gradual, anonymous, collective one,” he whines. In Rand’s world, he might as well be chairing the committee that tried to design a horse and came up with a camel.


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