Learning from Denise (I): Inside, Outside and In Between Buildings.

Today urban mapping is fashionable among architects, but they don’t use its real capacities. They superimpose distributions…[…] The distributions serve as heuristics for form-giving, but their content, the relationships they represent, is irrelevant. We map urban relationships – activities (for example, wedding chapels on The Strip) and economic patterns that show linkage between activities or growth; also social and population variables and natural patterns of slopes and water. Then we relate the activities of our building program to them. So our designs become, on one level, interpolations and extrapolations of our maps. And this holds not only for urban and site planning but also for the plans of buildings. We apply ideas from land use and transportation planning to the layouts of laboratory buildings, and our activity patterns flow from inside to outside and vice versa.

Denise Scott Brown

Representative plans, drawings, and diagrams for the Williams College Campus, 1975. Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States. VSBA Architects.

It’s recently been announced that the winners of the Pritzker Prize 2020 are Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, founders of Grafton Architects. Many of the Grafton’s buildings have educational uses where collective space decisively influences users’ quality of life and where the architectural solutions employed reinforce the idea of community and relationship with the location. They explain this in an interview: “In places of learning, as in all institutions, we believe, what people desire most is casual overlap and exchange of ideas, of skills, of knowledge […]And in the case of universities, the function also has to do with the flow and the mobility of ideas”. Those words might well have been spoken by Denise Scott Brown, don’t you think? In fact Scott Brown, when talking about university campuses and education spaces, once affirmed that, “Architecture cannot force people to connect, it can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive”.

So why are we talking about Denise? Because we still have a lot to learn from her, and for several reasons: for her role as a woman architect, as a teacher and educator, as a theorist and writer, and as co-creator, with  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, of a number of architectural projects that were as controversial as they were acclaimed. But her work is also worthy of attention for other aspects which even today have lost none of their relevance:

  1. Her methodological approach to projects
  2. Her design insight in urban proposals, especially for campuses and education spaces, and
  3. Her output as a photographer

These dimensions invite reflection. Let’s start with the first.

In several interviews with her partner Robert Venturi, Denise acknowledged how her own personal vision of the city had been influenced by several notable facts: her own experience of different contrasting geographical and cultural realities; her discussions about the city with colleagues and mentors like Kahn and the Smithsons; and her collaboration with professionals from a variety of disciplines – sociologists, economists and engineers. Her appreciation of pre-existing elements led her to pay special attention to architectural form in the city, from its formalism to its symbolic significance as something closely associated with art, Mannerism, popular culture, and ordinary, everyday life. It also led her to consider holistic approaches and methods for identifying, measuring, and visualising everyday urban relationships when working on buildings, streets, public spaces, and university campuses.

This brings us to what Nuno Portas defines as the need to understand “things” and the “relationships between things”. Two complementary perspectives: a morphological perspective focusing on the forms and dimensions of urban spaces and buildings, and a topological perspective more connected with relationships, movement flows, and land use densities. The city is dynamic and changing. It is necessary to highlight both forms and relationships in order to discover or propose patterns like those of movement or those Scott Brown described as “the desire lines engineers talk about on their beautiful maps”.

Denise also reminds us that “people have learnt from Las Vegas, but they still haven’t learnt the half of it yet”. But we’ll talk about that next time.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Maria Pia Fontana, Profesora de la Universidad de Gerona (UdG). Doctora en Proyectos Arquitectónicos (UPC). Postgrado en Proyectación Urbanística (UPC). Arquitecta Universitá degli Studi di Napoli. Miguel Mayorga Cárdenas, Profesor Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña Barcelona (UPC). Doctor en Urbanismo y Gestión del territorio (UPC) Máster en Proyectación Urbanistica (UPC). Arquitecto Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL). Bogotá. Profesores colaboradores de la (UOC). Actualmente investigamos sobre cultura visual, arquitectura, ciudad y fotografía. Trabajamos sobre la habitabilibilidad y sostenibilidad arquitectónica y urbana con el uso de las nuevas tecnologías y nuevas modalidades de procesos técnico-participativos, en el desarrollo de proyectos urbanos, equipamientos, centros y entornos escolares, con énfasis en el diseño del espacio público y colectivo. Socios de mayorga+fontana arquitectos.

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