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Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

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For Denise Scott Brown, photography was a way of isolating an idea, a moment, and a way of learning from everyday landscapes.

Sam Jacob on Venturi Scott Brown’s Las Vegas photography collection Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Edited by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli. Chicago University Press, 2009, 193pp, £35. www.press.uchicago.edu

For Denise Scott Brown, photography was a way of isolating an idea, a moment, and a way of learning from everyday landscapes. Scott Brown and her partner – and husband – Robert Venturi’s extensive archive of Las Vegas snapshots forms the basis of the book Las Vegas Studio.

In 1968, while the rest of the student world was in revolt against the military-industrial complex, Scott Brown and Venturi took their class of Yale students to Las Vegas. Away from, as The Doors put it, the ‘blood on the streets in the town of New Haven’, they headed into the unbridled terrain of dirty capitalism. Among the casinos, parking lots and neon-lit cheap thrills, they set to work applying the academic rigour and precision usually reserved for high cultural sites. Through a close study of Vegas’ amplification of contemporary urban phenomena, they hoped to glimpse the reality of the modern city.

They drew, photographed, and filmed Vegas, analysing the iconography of casino signs, the experience of driving, and the ways in which traditional ideas of urbanism had been warped by the commerciality of the strip. These studies were first presented as a student research project, which was then distilled into a publication, Learning from Las Vegas (MIT Press, 1972). It was a serious, stunning, beautiful, esoteric, yet immensely readable project that drove a pop sensibility deep into the heart of architecture. It was a polemic derived from the everyday landscape, and it transformed how we might think about architecture and planning.

What it radically proposed was that architects and planners might learn from the bottom-up, vulgar phenomenon of Vegas. And that looking at this extreme example might help them figure out the ways that contemporary architecture and urbanism actually worked – rather than the ways they would like it to work.

As well as redefining what we might look at, Learning from Las Vegas redefined how we might look. The academic studio’s research techniques used photography and film as tools, not only as a way of illustrating ideas but as fundamental to a new understanding of urbanism.

The techniques were an extension of Scott Brown’s own method of photography, which she practiced in South Africa, England, and then across America. Under her direction, the studio took thousands of photographs. A
few became iconic images through their use in Learning from Las Vegas, but the rest were stored in an archive at the back of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates’ (VSBA) office, in cardboard boxes and slide trays. It’s this stuff that we see in the book, and in the accompanying exhibition, now on show at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt.

The book presents the images beautifully. They are no longer documentary photos, but super-sexy images of mid-century Americana. Their casual framing becomes artful. In doing this, it transforms the content of the images, delaminates them from their polemic, from the very reason they were taken. Presented here, they seem so seductive that it’s hard to think beyond their overwhelming beauty. While the book celebrates the Learning from Las Vegas project, it has the strange effect of defusing its architectural argument. It’s not without irony that this Las Vegas studio – itself an exercise in learning from the vulgar, popular landscape – should be revisited in such a refined, high-art manner.

The value of Learning From Las Vegas is not only in its own particular conclusion, but in its consequences for architecture and implications for research. This is briefly touched on in a meandering discussion between Rem Koolhaas (who acknowledges the deep debt his publishing projects owe to Venturi and Scott Brown), the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artist Peter Fischli. In other texts, editor and curator Martino Stierli sets out the context of the studio’s activities, and Stanislaus von Moos, a critic with a long and close relationship with the work of VSBA, discusses the firm’s built projects.

Perhaps most striking is the absence of the voice of Scott Brown and Venturi to illuminate what they were doing and how they were doing it. This absence of mention of the mechanisms, tactics and intentions of the studio is frustrating.

What we do get is a glimpse behind the curtain of a significant moment in architectural history. Here we can see a moment before the studio’s work became a fixed cultural point, still full of the thrill of discovery and pregnant with possibility. It suggests we might be able to rewind architectural culture, so that we might replay it to speculate on alternative presents, free from the partisan debates of previous generations.

Resume A welcome trip back to the strip – but where are Robert and Denise?

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