At last: Phila. architect Denise Scott Brown gets her (Gold Medal) due

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Denise Scott Brown.

This time, Denise Scott Brown's name is on the prize.

After decades of being overlooked and even openly scorned by the architecture profession, Philadelphia's best-known female designer was singled out Wednesday by the American Institute of Architects as cowinner of its prestigious Gold Medal, together with her husband and partner, Robert Venturi.

An author of the groundbreaking study Learning From Las Vegas, she is the first living woman to win the medal for career achievement since the AIA began handing out the prize in 1907.

Scott Brown, 83, and Venturi, 90, were at their home in Mount Airy late Wednesday when the head of the AIA telephoned with the news, and they broke out the champagne to celebrate. "I think this shows there has been enough of a shift in the world that they were able to take this small step," said Scott Brown.

Or, as architect Billie Tsien put it: "It's about time. It's about effing time."

Tsien, who designed the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway with her husband, Tod Williams, made the final nominating speech to the AIA board Wednesday, saying, "Bob and Denise are our heroes. They are American heroes."

Fittingly, Venturi and Scott Brown will receive the medal in Philadelphia in May, when the AIA meets here for its 2016 convention.

Although Venturi and Scott Brown have worked together since the 1960s, and their buildings and books are internationally renowned, it has always been Venturi who was singled out for architecture's big honors. After he was named winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1991, Scott Brown was so angry that she boycotted the ceremony. In the original prize announcement, she was mentioned only in the 11th paragraph as a "collaborator."

That snub turned Scott Brown into one of the most vocal critics of sexism in architecture. Two years ago, she caused a furor when she suggested the Pritzker should retroactively list her as joint winner of the 1991 prize and hold a ceremony to acknowledge its lapse.

Her comments went viral and prompted two Harvard University architecture students to launch an online petition. It garnered more than 20,000 signatures, but the Pritzker did not back down. Only two women have received that prize in the 36 years since it was established.

Because the AIA medal comes just two years after that flap, the award is being seen as a retort to the Pritzker. Throughout her career, Scott Brown had to put up with dual resentments, for being a female architect and for complaining about her second-class treatment, said Julia Donoho, a member of the AIA board who championed her nomination.

"People would say she's not really an architect, just a planner," said Donoho. "They told her she just had to shut up" about not receiving the awards.

But David Brownlee, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in architecture, argued that the prize is long overdue for both architects, given their contribution to the field.

"They really should have won it back in the '80s," when they were at the height of their careers, he said, although he noted that they were perceived as too radical by some of their peers.

Because they delighted in inserting playful classical elements into their designs, and drew inspiration from pop culture, they are often seen as the instigators of the controversial style called Post-Modernism. They preferred to be called "Mannerists."

Their portfolio was actually submitted for the AIA medal once before, but was withdrawn after Venturi learned that Scott Brown could not be included. Until last year, the medal could be awarded only to one person. Acknowledging that architecture is a collaborative art, the AIA changed the rules to allow two people to share the prize. It also bestows a second award, Firm of the Year, which the couple's Philadelphia firm, Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown, won in 1985.

Giving them the Gold Medal now, Brownlee said, "feels right because their practice was such a shared practice."

Although Venturi and Scott Brown have put down their drawing pens and confine themselves to the occasional lecture, the Gold Medal comes at a time of growing recognition and admiration for their work. The AIA cited their design for Franklin Court, at Third and Market Streets, and the Sainsbury addition to Britain's National Gallery as paradigm-shifting works.

The Chestnut Hill house that Venturi designed for his mother is considered one of the most influential works of the 20th century, and was recently added to the neighborhood's National Register district.

And their writings still inspire architects, particularly Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, the jointly authored Learning From Las Vegas, and Scott Brown's Having Words. Those books helped liberate architects from the crushing strictures of orthodox Modernism.

Given that they also railed against the myth of the "lone-genius architect" throughout their careers, there is a poetic justice in the fact that they are the first architects to share the Gold Medal.

They are "like Pierre and Marie Curie, Lennon and McCartney," said Donoho. "These two have gone down a whole new path."

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This story was updated to clarify details about Venturi's previous Gold Medal nomination.