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Signs of the times: Learning from Las Vegas returns

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The facsimile edition of Learning from Las Vegas, by Jane Drew Prize winner Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour, is long overdue 

A facsimile of the first, lavish (14” x 11” full colour) edition of Learning From Las Vegas has appeared, and very wonderful it is too for aficionados who couldn’t shell out the current price tag for an original ($4000+) and knew the chances of a reprint were slim. 

The Venturis had long resisted re-publication of this first edition, favouring the scaled-down but amped-up second edition from 1977, ostensibly on the grounds of design and cost (this was smaller, supposedly more ‘user friendly’, more direct, more orientated to students … ), but also out of irritation. A doctoral level dissection of the difficulty can be found in Aron Vinegar’s book I Am a Monument (2008).

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Lflv reissue redesign as2

A facsimile of the first, lavish (14” x 11” full colour) edition of Learning From Las Vegas. Image courtesy of MIT Press

LFLV was problematic even before original publication in 1972. Vincent Scully had advised against it. Within the intimacies of the triangle with Louis Kahn, Scully had previously championed Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture but wrote a preface, later ditched, that hardly mentioned Vegas at all. LFLV was Bob Venturi’s break out, and over time it has become clear that his new wife, Denise Scott Brown, was a major player.

Tom Wolfe’s essay ‘Las Vegas (What?) LAS VEGAS (Can’t Hear You … Too Noisy) … LAS VEGAS!!!’ (published in Esquire in 1964) is its journalistic predecessor. That salvo of new journalism had as an opening paragraph onomatopoeic ‘hernias’ (the sound apparently emanating from a craps table at 3am) and Las Vegas boasting signs soaring ‘in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless’. 

‘After all, the Las Vegas Strip was a “street” of “houses” (albeit huge ones) run by “families” (!) and clearly “almost” all right’

At the time, Venturi’s concern may have been a more genteel, neoclassical appreciation of style, but he didn’t mind if it was stonework or studwork; his architecture was predicated on signs and symbols. Vegas presented the apotheosis of such an approach. If he was right, it was likely the new Rome. For an architect who had sat beneath Kahn’s giant Piranesi, this was quite a move. It would be disingenuous to say Scott Brown was the driver, but she had a background with greater social and planning emphasis (Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses) and she worked up the pedagogy. Basically they were doing what all ambitious newlyweds do; pooling their resources.

So Venturi the Rome scholar, Scott Brown fresh from ‘pop’ London, with Steven Izenour (who had been her student at Penn and was their teaching assistant at Yale), with 13 students, visited Vegas in 1968. 

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The architecture of Venturi and Scott Brown was predicated on signs and symbols with Las Vegas representing the apotheosis of such an approach. Image courtesy of MIT Press

And they did some work. But Vegas itself only occupies a third of the original volume; the first 60 pages. This is followed by a second part of critical, bite-sized polemics, while the third, pp111-88, showcases the actual work of Venturi and Rauch.

Sounding the trumpets, massaging the multi-media jamboree of Las Vegas in book form was always going to be a struggle. Presenting Las Vegas brochures, advertising, amateur film and ephemera as serious was new to MIT Press (out-takes were published as Las Vegas Studio in 2008). The designer, dyed in the wool Muriel Cooper, took her cue from Complexity and Contradiction, and established a brave Modernist template and typeface. The Venturis saw this as ‘one irony too far’. Feeling their baby in danger of being enfeebled, there were tortuous arguments, the media was, after all, the message. It’s Cooper who now waves from the grave.

In a fresh preface, Scott Brown recalls the rows. They didn’t like the acres of white space or the tiny titling and footnoting. Cooper’s template was tyrannical. She even regrets that the lovely Tanya was masked by the semi-transparent glassine dust jacket emblazoned with Bauhaus script (Cooper originally wanted to bubble wrap her, DSB says she wanted her blatant). Hence that first edition became an ‘ugly duckling’.

‘For the Venturis there was no death in Vegas. It was time to clamber aboard the “great proletarian cultural locomotive”’

Poring over this fresh release with some glee, I got the sense that while they were righteously determined, Bob and Denise were not always right, at least in hindsight. Grappling with this great volume is rather more enjoyable than the subsequent little blue book. How bold it was, and how clear it is now! The Venturis may not have enjoyed the imposition of that megastructural grid (or any megastructure at all), but that layout works. These days Bauhaus script could hardly be damned per se, and in this layout there is, perhaps paradoxically, space. Bob’s sketches leap off the page. Ruscha rip-offs are accurate Ruscha rip-offs. There’s all that advertising and kitsch so inconvenient to the second edition, and somehow, as you savour the conflict of interests, more vitriol too. The reduced second edition certainly put lead in our pencils, but the original, with the quality of an organised scrapbook, is more inviting. Meanwhile, there is always the possibility that this pleasure is the consequence of ‘good’ design, which brings a chuckle.

Their polemic against the heroic and original would not have been funny at the time, especially for Paul Rudolph. It still feels uncomfortable to quote Crawford Manor as ‘a skilful building by a skilful architect’ while damning it. Rudolph’s buildings had faults, a consequence of the argument, not the fact. Meanwhile the plea for the ugly and ordinary, in the context of Las Vegas, looks highly persuasive (even if the consequences were a little arcane). However, in up-ending conventional wisdom and riding that ’60s zeitgeist, the Venturis do appear as messianic as those they attacked. It was a case of ‘all against the tastemakers!’ 

The actual work of Venturi and Rauch, totally excised from the second edition (it had found widespread publication elsewhere by 1977) glows fresh as a daisy. The Yale Mathematics Building proposal, a seminal piece of ordinariness; and Fire Station No 4, a total pop sensation; fit in just right. Even better, the Trubek and Wislocki houses, one supposedly ‘complex and contradictory’, the other ‘ugly and ordinary’, are suddenly representative of a polemical shift from ‘housing’ to ‘houses’; a suddenly homey, contextual line of thinking with a big nod to Jane Jacobs. After all, the Las Vegas Strip was a ‘street’ of ‘houses’ (albeit huge ones) run by ‘families’ (!) and clearly only ‘almost’ all right. The relentless rebuttal of Faustian principle can also be read as feminist criticism; out went silly architectural macho ‘ducks’ (Donald!) and in came ‘decorated sheds’. They were playing with fire. Philip Johnson is quoted decrying their Brighton Beach Housing competition entry of 1968 as ‘ugly’ (and not in a good way) three times, and when it came to that decision, conspicuously it’s the developer who supported the Venturi Rauch scheme. Further exposition of their clashes with the powers that be in this section are hilarious.

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 In Learning from Las Vegas, the billboards and casinos of the city were controversially deemed worthy of architectural attention. Images courtesy of MIT Press

Le Corbusier’s last testimony reads ‘in life it is necessary above all to act’. Modernists were apt to use words forcefully even if they were poetic (and Le Corbusier wrote more of them than anybody else). Bob and Denise, so versed in nuance and TS Eliot, used them self-consciously, critically and inventively. Here, even La Tourette became Latourette. Noting the difference between denotation and connotation, out went the act, and in came the word. Browsing this first edition is like raving on L-C’s grave, with Et in Arcadia ego binned. 

For the Venturis there was no death in Vegas. It was time to clamber aboard the ‘great proletarian cultural locomotive’. ‘Main street is almost alright’, ‘billboards are almost alright’ represented a classically liberal anti-authoritarian stance. We can see innocence now; who could have predicted where the tracks might lead, or anticipate psychopaths taking over the controls? But this was the Venturis’ recognition and approval of a newly complex order. It was certainly not an ideological quest in the name of laissez-faire corporate exploitation. By the time corporations were exploiting Las Vegas – in the ’90s (with megastructures shouting ‘Shoppus till you Droppus’) – the Venturis had reversed gear.

So (if this isn’t a contradiction) buy it! At a fraction of the price, this is one of the books of the 20th century; funny, clever, exciting, colourful, sumptuous, and a battlefield. We are grateful that Scott Brown relented, and now we can all get our hands on one.

Learning from Las Vegas, facsimile edition

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour

MIT Press, £70, ISBN-9780262036962