Another French Connection
His Excellency François Bujon de l'Estang, Ambassador of the Republic of France to the United States, came to Penn last Thursday for an awards ceremony at Irvine where he conferred medals on behalf of the Republic of France to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. President Judith Rodin said, "France is renowned for officially recognizing exceptional accomplishments in many domains. I have the great privilege of witnessing two distinctively prestigious awards being bestowed upon Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown." Ambassador de l'Estang conferred the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters upon Denise Scott Brown and the medal of Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters upon Robert Venturi.
They were honored following the recent completion of one of the largest buildings Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) has designed: the Hôtel du Département de la Haute-Garonne in Toulouse, France, which serves as the equivalent of a U.S. state capitol. The 866,000 square-foot complex opened during the summer of 1999. It contains administrative and agency offices, public services, and outdoor and indoor ceremonial spaces, including a major legislative assembly hall. It houses 1,400 workers. The building was constructed following an international competition. Mr. Venturi said that it was a great honor to be given the project in Toulouse. He said that the building "creates harmony with the history of the city via analogy and contrast." Ms. Scott Brown, who described herself as cross-continental and peripatetic, said, "This award illuminates us."
Since 1957, the Order of Arts and Letters has been presented to individuals achieving distinction in the arts and literature throughout the world. Though they join a distinguished group of American laureates--Paul Auster, Ornette Coleman, Anne d'Harnoncourt, Maryilyn Horne, Richard Meier, Robert Paxton, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep--they are the first architects to receive this distinction and they are the first couple to receive these medals.
VSBA has done innumerable projects here at Penn--refurbishing and revitalizing many of Penn's most treasured buildings including the award--winning Frank Furness building, now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library, as well as Houston Hall, Logan Hall and Irvine Auditorium. They have also designed Perelman Quad, Vagelos Labs, and the Clinical Research Building. Ms. Scott Brown was the principal-in-charge for the campus planning and preliminary design phases of the Perelman Quad. As President Rodin said, "Penn's fate is linked to these wonderful people."
Robert Venturi (H '80) and Denise Scott Brown (GCP '60, GAR '65, H '94) previously taught in GSFA. He is a member of GSFA's Board of Overseers and she is a member of the Library's Board of Overseers.
At last week's ceremony, Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Anne d'Harnoncourt praised the couple for "their sense of joy in decoration." She noted that a retrospective of their work will open at the PMA on June 10. Ms. d'Harnoncourt also recalled that Philadelphia's international connections seem to begin with Ben Franklin.
Penn's ties to France go back to the institution's early days when the University's founding father-- Benjamin Franklin--was America's first ambassador to France. "In 1784, His Majesty Louis XVI, King of France, made the largest gift of any kind to our then-very-young institution of approximately 100 uniformly bound volumes from the Royal Press. The gift consisted of a fine selection of works of 18th-century French science, philosophy and exploration, works that were "cutting edge" in their time and fit Franklin's aim for both useful and ornamental knowledge," said President Rodin.
The first director of design of Penn's architecture program, the Frenchman Paul Philippe Cret, was recruited from the Ecôle des Beaux Arts in Paris as a very young man, and established the Beaux-Arts curriculum at Penn which formed the basis of architectural education here for the next 50 years.
Penn's French Institute for Culture & Technology was created in 1992 as a joint initiative between the French Government--through the French Embassy in Washington--and Penn. Penn's is one of 15 interdisciplinary centers in the U.S. to receive funding from the French Government to support such actions that strengthen the presence of French language and culture on American campuses.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 19, January 23, 2001