Ooh la la, architectural decorations!

It is often said that genius goes unrecognized in its own time.

It is also often said that giants are unrecognized in their home towns.

And sure enough, both of these clichés surfaced as two world-renowned architects were honored in their home town Jan. 18.

Robert Venturi (Hon’80), one of the architects, invoked the first cliché. “Quite often, the greatest artists in history are not recognized in their time. This concerns me. But I see that we are still controversial, and this makes me feel better.”

His old friend Milton Shils offered the second enthusiastically. “It’s so nice to see Denise and her husband honored in Philadelphia,” he said, referring to Venturi’s wife, partner and fellow honoree Denise Scott Brown (GCP’60,GAr’65, Hon’94). “They’re recognized around the world, but never got their due in Philadelphia.”

And to underscore that stuff about being world famous, the person doing the honoring was François Bujong de l’Estang, French ambassador to the United States. He was in town to celebrate the 295th birthday of the first U.S. ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin — a celebration that included a visit to the university Franklin founded.

Bujong inducted Scott Brown and Venturi into l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, France’s national honor for outstanding artists and writers. The pair had recently completed a new provincial capital building in the southern French city of Toulouse that has been widely praised.

The ceremony took place, appropriately enough, in another widely-praised Venturi, Scott Brown project — Cafe 58 in the recently restored Irvine Auditorium. The crowd at the event — friends of the honorees, French and Italian diplomats, other architects and designers and the usual Penn dignitaries — were in high spirits, and the remarks at the ceremony included many humorous observations.

In noting that Venturi was being honored with a higher rank (commandeur) than Scott Brown (chevalier), Bujong offered some possible explanations, including that “typical French” concept, male chauvinism. And in citing the couple’s most influential book, he asked rhetorically, “What can an architect learn from Las Vegas?”

Scott Brown offered praise for President Emeritus Martin Meyerson and his wife Margy, both of whom were in attendance, as important influences on her approach to urbanism. And since it was his birthday, even Franklin got several mentions — in President Judith Rodin’s welcoming remarks, in Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Anne d’Harnoncourt’s reflection on his ties to virtually everything, and in Bujong’s noting that he too had been decorated by the French government.


Originally published on February 1, 2001