Every spring, universities across America follow a long-standing tradition of awarding honorary degrees to distinguished individuals with whom the schools want to associate themselves. This practice is partly a way to recognize excellence in the community, but it also serves as a very public way for a university to delineate the qualities it values most. Not many people who have received honorary degrees hold only one of them; when one institution deems a person worthy of the honor, others are likely to follow suit. Denise Scott Brown, one of the most important architects and architectural theorists of the twentieth century, currently holds eleven honorary doctorates from schools in the US and abroad, among numerous other awards. In its overview of the degree conferment process, the University of Southern California says that it is "particularly interested in candidates from diverse backgrounds, and whose own accomplishments might serve to highlight areas in which the University has developed exceptional strength." Judging by its recent selections, USC is not sticking to this guideline very well, but honoring remarkable individuals like Denise Scott Brown could help to bring this practice back to where it should be.
Although she lived outside the Unites States until her late twenties, since then Scott Brown has been actively involved in higher education in the United States as a student, professor, author, and guest lecturer. Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, the Philadelphia-
based architectural firm she runs with her husband Robert Venturi, has also developed a penchant for designing university buildings and spaces recently. She is sought after by many of the most respected architecture schools in the country. USC, home to one such school, has long used her work in the classroom, which should be an indication that she might qualify for an honorary degree from the school. USC’s Central Role and Mission describes its goal as "the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit," and the school (sometimes) uses the granting of honorary degrees as a way to show students and the public exactly who it believes has achieved such cultivation and enrichment. As the award site explains, USC’s main goal in awarding these degrees is to "elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor." The school obviously recognizes Scott Brown as an authority in her field, which is one of the main (official) criteria for degree conferment, but she has not been deemed worthy of the honor yet.
The criteria universities use in selecting appropriate honorands roughly correspond to the sources of meaning outlined by Mike Martin. In his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Martin writes that "we might sort professionals’ desires, pleasures, and sources of meaning into three broad categories: craft, compensation, and moral concern," which correspond to "the very definition of professions: advanced expertise, social recognition, and service to clients and community" (21). The recipients of honorary degrees have distinguished themselves as experts within their fields and have been recognized as such, and they have also served the greater community in some way, whether directly through their work or not. Scott Brown’s expertise is apparent, but her service to the community is different than what might usually be expected, as it tends to involve her work directly. In an article about her recieving the Radcliffe Medal, the Harvard Gazette argues that Scott Brown has "helped significantly to redirect the mainstream of modern architecture since the mid-1960s. No architect studying or in practice can have avoided her work or missed her call to broaden architecture to include ideas on pluralism and multiculturalism." While awards of this type are very prestigious, her social recognition is not quite as complete as it should be - people do not recognize her name as readily as her husband's, but USC could help to change that. The school asserts that it is interested in awarding outstanding individuals “whether or not they are widely known by the general public,” so it should not matter especially that non-architects may not know who she is.
As is the case with most universities, past honorands have traditionally tended to fit other criteria than those the schools claim to use. Freedman, President Emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, writes that "until recent decades, men were the overwhelming, if not exclusive, choices for honorary degrees" (120). While women are now more commonly considered, they are still a minority among awardees. Most recipients were also previously affiliated with the university in some way, as students, professors, trustees, or benefactors. However, the nomination guidelines ask for "individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the welfare and development of USC or the communities of which they are a part," so (in theory) that affiliation is not required. If the school is in fact aiming for diversity among honorands, adding some more women to the mix would be a good start. Of course, it would not make sense to honor women who are not supremely qualified for this award, but there are many who do fit that description, and Denise Scott Brown is one of them. In addition to being a respected architect, planner, author, and lecturer, she contributed to some of the most controversial and influential architectural ideas of the twentieth century. The theories that she and her husband, Robert Venturi, set forth in seminal books like Learning From Las Vegas (which includes their famous classification of buildings as "ducks" or "decorated sheds") were radical for their time, and have since become standard reading in architecture schools worldwide. Las Vegas has been the basis for all of their firm's work. In the June 2001 issue of Interview, Scott Brown said "I believe if you have one idea in your life, you're very lucky. What's happened to us is we've been able to build on that one idea through all the different experiences we've had." Since Scott Brown’s work has been assimilated and canonized, it should acceptable enough to institutions wishing to avoid too much controversy in its choices of honorands, as USC tends to do.
As often happens when a man and a woman collaborate on anything, especially in traditionally patriarchal fields like architecture, most people assume the man is the primary authority. Though Venturi and Scott Brown continue to stress that they work together as equal partners, outsiders unfailingly see Venturi as the more important contributor and always list Scott Brown’s name second, if at all. The pair has often been granted the same award at once but this is likely because such a double-award is fashionable; as Freedman says, "many institutions have realized that husbands and wives make a fetching combination for degree-granting occasions" (127). The University of Pennsylvania, which Scott Brown attended and they both taught at simultaneously, took fourteen years longer to award her an honorary doctorate than it took for Venturi. She deserves just as much credit for their collaborative work as her husband, and if USC were to recognize her without also giving Venturi the same honor it would speak volumes about the school’s commitment to diversity. Freedman points out that "honorary degrees are, of course, one of the ways in which universities advertise themselves" (125). Scott Brown would highlight different aspects of the school than the honorands commonly represent.
A partial list of USC’s recent honorands is available at the honorary degrees section of the university’s website. More than half of the recipients over the past five years were awarded the Doctorate of Humane Letters, and most of the remaining degrees were Doctorates of Science. There were only two exceptions: John Williams received a Doctorate of Music, and Robert Zemeckis was awarded a Doctorate of Fine Arts. The last architect to be conferred a USC degree was Frank Gehry in 2000. Gehry is one of the most famous alumni of USC’s architecture department, so it is only natural that the school should want to play up its association with him. This does not mean, though, that architects who do not currently have any affiliation with the school are any less deserving of its recognition. Forming new associations with accomplished professionals like Scott Brown could be beneficial to the school because it would expand the university’s apparent sphere of influence and illustrate its tolerance and respect for diverse ideas and viewpoints.
Since VSBA is based out of Philadelphia, most of their affiliations are with east coast universities and clients; USC would be the first school in California to grant Scott Brown an honorary degree, though she has received them from eleven other institutions. This in itself is something USC does not make use of often enough – people who are basically removed from the Southern California scene. Scott Brown truly has the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. According to the Encarta article on her, "She was born in Nkana, Zambia, and raised in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg from 1948 to1952, and then studied at the Architectural Association in London, England." She then worked in England and Italy before moving to the US to earn masters degrees in city planning and architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Her relative isolation from American culture in her early life made her first visit to Las Vegas in the ‘60s even more shocking and fascinating, and is part of what prompted her and Venturi to begin studying the visual language of the city as part of their postmodernist theory of design.
According to Encarta, Scott Brown "designed the Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown studio classes" at Yale as the first stage in her exploration of her spatial experience of Las Vegas. As part of these “innovative collaborative research courses, architects studied problems in the built environment using empirical methods and drawing from media studies, pop art, and social science-thus greatly expanding the scope of architectural design.” These courses paved the way for the book which followed a few years later. The timeline feature of VSBA’s award-winning website explains how "Learning from Las Vegas created a healthy controversy on its appearance in 1972, calling for architects to be more receptive to the tastes and values of ‘common’ people and the commercial vernacular and less immodest in their erections of ‘heroic,’ self-aggrandizing monuments." These ideas were completely at odds with the prevailing modernist focus on the architect’s grand vision and buildings as objects which were to stand out from their surroundings rather than work within a greater context. If Le Corbusier (one of the most famous Modernist architects of the twentieth century and a favorite in the USC architecture school) were alive when this book came out, it would have given him a heart attack. USC’s honorary degree page states that originality is important in nominees, and Scott Brown is definitely unique.
This idea of valuing different (and even opposing) points of view might in fact be something Scott Brown could discuss in the commencement address, which one of the honorands typically delivers. USC asks anyone nominating a person for an honorary degree to consider the "specific content of the nominee's contribution" to society and "what is original about that contribution," and her team-focused working methods are both original and relevant to USC students. She understands the need for individuals to challenge conventions and push the boundaries of a field in order to expand it and create meaning. She has an extremely diverse background, and her experience with related fields such as urban planning help her to bring different ideas to the table and contribute to the multifaceted nature of VSBA’s projects. Martin, a professor of philosophy at Chapman University, writes that "professions are based on advanced expertise that combines theory-based understanding, practical know-how, and liberal learning" (22). Scott Brown definitely has all of these and makes use of them in her work.
Ms. Scott Brown's profile on her firm’s website describes her as "an architect, planner and urban designer, and a respected theorist, writer and educator, whose work and ideas have influenced architects and planners worldwide." It also points out that she works on "the broad range of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates’ projects in architecture and is principal-in-charge for many projects in urban planning, urban design, and campus planning," and argues that her "years of experience in interdisciplinary work and teaching contribute to the firm’s unusual breadth and depth in architectural design." The fact that she is still as active in her field as ever is also important because she is connected with the same world as USC's students. In the same Interview article, which was about a retrospective of VSBA's work, she remarked that it felt strange for her to look back on her accomplishments because she and her husband were "not at the stage yet of 'looking for our footprints in time,' as they say of old people. We're still out there making those footprints." Education in three different countries has also required Scott Brown to assimilate conflicting ideas and cultural influences into her life and work, which is a skill USC strives to develop in its students.
Her firm’s method of working is based on teamwork and interdisciplinarity, which are becoming increasingly important in virtually every field and are thus of the utmost importance to new college graduates. The VSBA website explains that all of the senior architects work on every project together, and unlike the typical setup "in which a project is handed off to various departments at different stages of the design, our ‘one-team’ method promotes a consistent, knowledgeable, and dedicated project team." In describing their democratic approach to individual projects, the site points out the "wide variety of project types, ranging in scale from decorative arts to city planning", but the projects share a common thread: a "fresh approach to complex and contradictory problems." The firm always considers "the philosophy of their client, the traditions of the institution, the requirements of the program, and the characteristics of the site," which helps the designers to create innovative solutions for each client. These ideas are radically different from those which modern architects ascribed to, but they are all the more relevant now as design problems are becoming more obviously complex and contradictory than ever.
Among other qualities, USC looks for individuals with exemplary morals and character as recipients of honorary degrees. Looking at the way VSBA approaches its work, everything they do could be considered public service. The goal is always to serve the individual client but also the greater good; much of this stems from Scott Brown’s background in planning, and also from the interest in the aesthetic value of vernacular culture. Theirs is a remarkably egalitarian approach to design. Mike Martin believes that "ideals influence the style or manner in which individuals pursue their work. For example, architects have responsibilities to meet the needs of their clients and to avoid coercion and paternalistic violations of clients’ freedom. Nevertheless, architecture allows flexibility in how far professionals are allowed to assert their own aesthetic and even moral ideals" (20). VSBA strives to keep the clients interests, as well as those of the general public, at heart when working on any project, but their work always has a clear underlying vision as well. The testimonies of recent clients suggest that this method has served them well. Scott Brown's full resume is available on the VSBA site, but the organizations she has worked with include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Society of Architectural Historians, among other institutions dedicated to preservation and development.
USC’s Central Role and Mission says the school has "played a major role in the development of Southern California for more than a century, and plays an increasingly important role in the development of the nation and the world." Association with Scott Brown, whose work with communities all over the country, would help the school toward its goal of influencing the outside world. She has been involved in looking for solutions to the architectural problems imposed by events like 9/11 and Katrina. In a Metropolis article called "What Shall We Do about the World Trade Center?" Scott Brown writes that "as an urban planner I am concerned with trends and patterns in the city, with understanding them, knowing their origins, and thinking about their future. As an architect I try to find ways to work within these trends and patterns--augmenting and possibly redirecting them to meet new needs and changed futures, relating new structures to existing patterns as they evolve." The goal of this is to create a better environment for everyone to live and work in without destroying what was originally there. While this may not seem like the best way to serve the communities affected by these disasters, it is actually one of the most important parts of the recovery process. The fact that Scott Brown serves others in a less obvious way does not mean her contribution is less significant or less worthy of recognition. As Freedman says, honorary degrees make a statement about the universities that grant them (132). Denise Scott Brown can help restore the level of USC’s honorands to what it should be while bringing some much-needed variety to the mix.