Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:
Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.
If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one. The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis. There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations. As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.
Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored. Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park. It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places. The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.
Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.
It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning. Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin. Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces. The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown. At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.
In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests. They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.
As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.” Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later. The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.
A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan: