By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
Published: December 22, 2009 in the New York Times
NEW HAVEN — When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown boarded a plane bound for Las Vegas in 1968 with a dozen of their Yale architecture students in tow, there were no multimillion-dollar water shows or pirate ships waiting for them. There were no van Goghs in the hotel galleries. Nor could residents of the city live in tilting condo towers designed by Helmut Jahn and shop in a mall by Daniel Libeskind. Whatever glamour Las Vegas had was all veneer.
The architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on a 1968 field trip to Las Vegas. Their explorations led them to an important book and a rethinking of vernacular architecture.
Mr. Venturi and Ms. Scott Brown, who had just married and would soon be business partners, were on a search for a way out of the dead end of postwar Modernism, whose early hopes had by then deteriorated into a dreary functionalism. The book they produced four years later, “Learning From Las Vegas,” was one of the last of the big architectural manifestos and a heartfelt embrace of American popular culture that would be hard to imagine anyone attempting today.
“What We Learned: The Yale Las Vegas Studio and the Work of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates,” which is on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery through Feb. 5, looks at the extensive research the architects did in Las Vegas, though it doesn’t place the results in a context that would allow you to reevaluate the impact the project had on a profession starved for a new way forward. Nor do you get a feel for the place Las Vegas held in the popular imagination four years after Tom Wolfe celebrated the city’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” in Esquire in 1964.
Still, it is a must-see for those who want to recapture momentarily the euphoric sense of discovery that came out of those early trips, as well as get a refresher course on their conclusions, which still have things to teach us.
The show includes roughly 100 photographs taken of Las Vegas, beginning with that first trip. A particularly sweet one shows Ms. Scott Brown with her feet firmly planted in the Nevada desert, her hands fixed on her hips and a defiant smile. Just beyond her is the Strip: a string of flimsy signs, isolated hotels and half-empty parking lots.
The two seem light years away from the architectural establishment back East, which was composed of academic types who once worshiped at the feet of Walter Gropius at Harvard, Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and Philip Johnson at the Museum of Modern Art. And the Strip suggests an alternate future unburdened by the weight of history. It is also a rejection of the strain of rationalism that runs back through Modern architecture to Haussmann’s Paris and the Renaissance.
Mr. Venturi and Ms. Scott Brown approached this world through the car windshield, like the British architectural critic and historian Reyner Banham — who wrote about Los Angeles around the same time — but their method was more analytical than historical. Los Angeles, they say in a short video made for the show, was not a “pure” enough distillation of what they were after: a philosophy of design that reflected the speed and messiness of life as it was coming to be lived. They wanted something “more concentrated and easier to study.”
A small drawing finds that kind of concentration, for example, in the organization of the typical casino sign, with the logo, surrounded by twinkling lights, located at the top so it can be seen from anywhere on the Strip. More detailed information is placed on a smaller sign lower down, so it can be read as the car approaches the parking lot entry.
Photographs of other signs speak to the impermanence of the life of the Strip: a campaign poster hanging off the side of a rusty pickup by the side of the road, the word “BIBLE” painted in capital letters on a horse trailer. The actual buildings, by comparison, look banal — like afterthoughts. The single white hotel tower of the Dunes casino, for example, seems a pathetic testament to a Modernism that has run its full course.
Such observations of real-world design are coupled with a detailed analysis of the urban fabric. A series of small photos, lined up to show the view from a car window along the entire length of the Strip, is inspired by a similar project about the Sunset Strip by the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha. In both, you get an overwhelming feeling of drift — a result of the horizontal rhythm of empty lots and cheap, low structures.
And the team also used more traditional analytical tools, like the 18th-century Nolli technique that maps out the elaborate pattern of solids and voids — the dense activity of the casinos and the emptiness of the parking lots, for example — that gave the Strip its unique character. Out of it, they hoped to create an architecture that reflected the conflicting needs and desires of normal people rather than one that conformed to rigid aesthetic rules.
Other parts of the show bounce around among the highlights of Mr. Venturi and Ms. Scott Brown’s architectural careers, including work completed before their Las Vegas trips. There is a poignant model of the Vanna Venturi House, which Mr. Venturi designed for his mother in the early ’60s and established him as both an architectural rebel and an original talent. A blend of Modernist and traditional vernacular references, it was a powerful reassertion of architecture’s symbolic function.
There’s also a personal favorite of mine: a wonderfully sinister design from 1988 for Euro Disney, never built, that shows cutout billboards of menacing-looking cartoon characters lined up on both sides of a seemingly endless roadway. It’s an image that blends fantasies about the open road with nightmares about the infantilization of American culture.
An aura of nostalgia pervades the show. Ms. Scott Brown is in her 70s, and Mr. Venturi will be 85 in June, and you feel that they are approaching the end of a long and rich joint career. The world, too, has moved on. The group of architects that dominate the profession today — many of whom were inspired by Mr. Venturi and Ms. Scott Brown’s work — are more interested in exploring architecture’s potential as a three-dimensional spatial experience than in its symbolic value. Some have even begun to mine late Modernism for new ideas about resisting the commercialization of public space.
What they have not found an answer for — and what Mr. Venturi and Ms. Scott Brown were remarkably attuned to — is the accelerating pace of contemporary society. When “Learning From Las Vegas” was published, we were all still getting used to a world of freeways and McDonald’s drive-throughs. Today commercial culture is more powerful and pervasive than ever. Las Vegas has become congested with high-end hospitality-and-retail malls, and urban fantasies just as outrageous, or more so, can be found all over the Middle East. China builds at a pace and on a scale that make postwar America seem quaint by comparison.
We may need these two architects as much now as ever.
“What We Learned” continues through Feb. 5 at the Yale University School of Architecture Gallery, corner of York and Chapel Streets, New Haven; www.architecture.yale.edu; holiday hours: (203) 432-2292.