From Venice Beach to the Venice Architecture Biennale: the “Wayward Eye” of Denise Scott Brown

Every two years, the international architecture community comes together for a truly inspirational presentation: the Venice Architecture Biennale. Held in Venice, Italy, the 2016 edition runs from May 28th until November 27th, and includes 88 participants from 37 countries, as well as 62 national participants and a curated selection of associated events. The Biennale is truly THE place to engage with cutting-edge, thought-provoking architecture – which is why, when Anne Mooney and John Sparano recently visited Venice, they understandably made the Biennale the focus of their stay. Here, we present a blog series about their architectural discoveries…

Installation view of "Wayward Eye - The Photography of Denise Scott Brown"

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself living la dolce vita in Venice, Italy, this autumn, then embrace your inner culture vulture and meander to the Palazzo Mora: here, you’ll find a revelatory exhibition of works by architect, photographer, writer, educator and feminist icon Denise Scott Brown. As part of the Venice Architecture Biennale collateral event "Time, Space, Existence", the "Wayward Eye – The Photography of Denise Scott Brown" exhibition is designed and curated by Scott Brown and chronicles two formative decades of photographing cities from Venice, Italy, to Venice, California. Hosted with the European Cultural Centre, the exhibition showcases Scott Brown’s acclaimed photographic works, which will also be featured in a forthcoming publication by Metropolis Books. Sparano + Mooney Architecture offers sustainable, contemporary architecture and design to our clients from offices in Los Angeles, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah, so we were particularly interested in this exhibition of works that in part examines our roots in the American West.

Scott Brown has been unquestionably prolific in her architecture and planning career that has spanned six decades. Principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia, she is regarded as one of the most influential architects of the 20th and 21st centuries due to her award-winning design practice, theoretical writings and teachings. Though her built work has garnered acclaim as an architect, she is perhaps best known for her legendary studio course and book with Steven Izenour and Robert Venturi, titled Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, in which the visionary architects sought to capture the vibrant architecture and culture of Sin City – “things that would shock you and open up your eyes and might make you aesthetically more sensitive”, reflects Scott Brown. The photographs within Learning from Las Vegas

The photographs within Learning from Las Vegas speak to Scott Brown’s persistent relationship with capturing mundane aspects within urban life: “I shot commercial architecture built for quick returns, social succession and invasion, machine romanticism, freeway lyricism, violent juxtapositions between freeways, pylons, and rural cottages, symbolic communication by architecture and signage, and interesting activities and ways of life – a mash of 1960s urbanism”, Scott Brown explains. Through this architect’s camera’s lens, she had begun to do more than just record, she had started to analyze. 

Lincoln and Pico, Santa Monica, California, 1966. Courtesy Metropolis Magazine. Photography by Denise Scott Brown. 

This approach also informed Scott Brown’s teachings, which have undeniably influenced generations of architecture students and aficionados alike. “Students in architecture need concrete examples to understand concepts like ‘symbol in space before form in space’. My aim was not to answer questions but to help students learn to seek answers” she has explained. Scott Brown’s own search began when she was a student herself, visiting Venice, Italy, with her first husband Robert Scott Brown for the Congrès International d’Architecture Modern (CIAM) Summer School in 1956. During this Grand Tour, she learned to reconsider her photographs within a broader geographical, political and socio-economic framework. From Italy, her next stop was the American Southwest in the 1960s: Muscle Beach, Santa Monica, Las Vegas – arid landscapes and sun-bleached vernacular architecture inundated with radiant signage promoting the American dream. So many of these images have become iconic in their own right, but Scott Brown insists they are not works of art. “I’m not a photographer,” she states. “I shoot for architecture – if there’s art here it’s a by-product. Yet the images stand alone. Judge what you see”.

"Wayward Eye – The Photography of Denise Scott Brown" is on view as part of "Time, Space, Existence" at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Palazzo Mora. Until November 27th, 2016.


1.       “The World, As Seen by Denise Scott Brown”, by Anna Fixsen, Architectural Record, September 2016 (print)

2.       “From Venice to Venice Beach: Denise Scott Brown’s ‘Wayward’ Eye”, by Denise Scott Brown, Metropolis Magazine (online)

3.       “Learning from ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ with Denise Scott Brown, Part 1: The Foundation”, Denise Scott Brown and Nicholas Korody, Archinect (online)