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Architecture prize should belatedly honor pioneering woman

In 1991, Robert Venturi received the highest honor in architecture, the coveted Pritzker Prize. But his wife and design partner, Denise Scott Brown, was denied the $100,000 award. In a field where talented women’s contributions have long been overlooked, this snub continues to cut deep 22 years later and should be rectified.

The 2013 Pritzker Prize will be awarded to Japanese architect Toyo Ito on Wednesday in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Sure to be discussed is an online petition, launched by two students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which demands the prize committee revisit the decision to exclude Scott Brown.

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The petition so far has drawn nearly 12,500 signatures, many from the world’s most prominent architects and design school deans, including six previous Pritzker winners. Rem Koolhaas, the 2000 laureate, called Scott Brown’s exclusion “an embarrassing injustice.” He’s right.

Scott Brown and Venturi have worked side by side for more than 40 years, designing iconic buildings spread across the globe while changing tastes with their groundbreaking theories and books. Their seminal work, “Learning from Las Vegas,” written in 1972, argues for a move away from large, self-aggrandizing buildings in favor of incorporating pop culture, including neon signs and kitsch. It is said to have ushered in design’s postmodern era and remains a standard text for architectural students.

Women enter architectural programs in numbers similar to men, yet rarely rise to leadership positions in firms or win prestigious projects or prizes. Only two women, Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima, have won the Pritzker since its inception in 1979. None has ever won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal.

And yet the myth of the architect as a singular male genius — the Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” — feels increasingly antiquated in a world where design has become less about skyscrapers and more a tool to address global issues, including climate change, water scarcity, and poverty. That is due, in no small part, to the influence and example of Scott Brown and Venturi.

Indeed, collaboration has become key in the field. The Pritzker jury panel acknowledged this itself in 2001, changing the prize organization’s practice of honoring only individual architects with the selection of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Switzerland. Now, it should change course again to retroactively include and honor Scott Brown.

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