Harris: Digital push builds to rectify 1991 Pritzker Prize omission

Harvard students' online petition recognizes work of Denise Scott Brown

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Denise Scott Brown has worked side by side with her husband, architect Robert Venturi, since the early 1960s, joining his firm and marrying him in 1967 and becoming the firm's principal in charge of planning in 1969.

In 1991, Venturi won their profession's highest award, the Pritzker Prize, an award founded by Chicagoans and administered here.

Scott Brown boycotted her husband's award ceremony.

At the time, her omission was viewed by many as a slight. It has now, thanks to technology and changing opinions about women in the workplace, become a cause celebre in the architecture world.

In videotaped remarks at a March luncheon for the London-based Architects' Journal, Scott Brown said: "They owe me not a Pritzker Prize, but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony."

The video was posted online and caught the attention of Harvard Graduate School of Design student Arielle Assouline-Lichten. She called her friend Caroline James, who was helping lead an effort to reconstitute Harvard's Women in Design group. The two decided to launch an online petition at change.org, calling for Scott Brown to be "retroactively acknowledged for her work deserving of a joint Pritzker Prize."

"Arielle said to me: 'She's basically asking for a party,'" James said in an interview. "And Arielle thought: 'Let's not give her a party. Let's ask for something more.'"

James said the two women were inspired by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In." They had never met Scott Brown, and James said it took them four days to get through to her. As of Wednesday evening, the petition has been signed by 12,451 people, including Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and nine Pritzker winners, including Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.

"Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner," Venturi wrote on the petition.

"In a way (the petition signers) have mended my heart," Scott Brown told the Tribune. "I stopped talking about it (for a while) because it made those sad, old white men so very angry, and they were in power everywhere, including at the American Institute of Architects. They still don't award their gold medal to more than one person at a time. Because genius comes out of one mind only. We all know that, don't we?"

The response from those who organize the prize has been silence but for one quote from the prize's executive director, Martha Thorne, a former associate curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Jurors change over the years, so this presents us with an unusual situation," Thorne, a non-voting member of the jury, told The New York Times. "The most that I can say at this point is that I will refer this important matter to the current jury at their next meeting."

That should not give any Scott Brown supporter hope. For starters, the jury will meet only informally at its awards ceremony next week in Boston. A formal meeting is not scheduled until January, when the 2014 winner will be selected.

And the Pritzkers themselves are unlikely to weigh in.

Jay Pritzker, the late founder of Hyatt Hotels, and his wife, Cindy, founded the prize in 1979. Their son, Tom, as president of the Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation, is now its chief steward, although his mother remains a director. No other member of the extended Pritzker family sits on the foundation's board.

Tom and Cindy can have input in selecting jurors. But from the award's inception, the Pritzkers have been adamant about not interfering in jury deliberations. They have worried that their involvement would tarnish the prize, opening them up to accusations that the prize favors architects with whom the Pritzkers have done business.

Ordering or nudging jurors to undo the work of a previous jury is sure to fall outside the realm of actions Tom and Cindy deem appropriate.

But Tom Pritzker's silence also can be construed as an acceptance of the status quo.

I interviewed eight people for this column, all prominent architects or critics. And each one expressed concern that the prize was at risk of becoming outdated both for its lack of recognition for women — two women have won the prize since 1979 — and for its tendency to honor singular authors, rather than partnerships and teams. Two partnerships have been recognized.

"They have done it twice and made a huge deal about it," said Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record. "And what I would say is that when they honored (Herzog & de Meuron founders Jacques) Herzog and (Pierre) de Meuron, at the time they gave the honor, the firm had four partners, two of whom were not recognized by the jury."

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