Fifty Years of “Learning from Las Vegas”

On the morning of January 10, 1969, thirteen graduate students gathered inside Yale’s Art and Architecture Building to give their final presentations in a studio led by the married architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. The students had spent the previous semester studying the urban design of Las Vegas, including a ten-day visit to the city during which they sketched hotel façades, measured nighttime illumination levels on the Strip, and crashed the opening gala for the Circus Circus Casino while wearing thrift-shop formal wear.

The agenda for the day stretched for more than eleven hours, with presentations on each of the studio’s dozen research categories, several short films (one of them shot from a helicopter borrowed from Howard Hughes), and breaks for lunch and dinner. The experts who assembled to discuss the results—the jury, in art- and architecture-school parlance—included the prominent Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully (whose son, Daniel, was a student in the studio) and the writer Tom Wolfe, whose 1964 Esquire essay “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” was an inspiration for Scott Brown and Venturi.

The following week, Venturi wrote a letter of thanks to some of the jurors, alluding to some of the raised eyebrows that he and Scott Brown encountered while bringing a close study of billboards and casino layouts into the architectural academy: “We think it went well in general,” he told them, “but I am still a little unbelieving that some people can’t understand we just wanted to look at Las Vegas in a dead-pan way which is also a poetic way of long standing.”

The book that emerged from this research, “Learning from Las Vegas,” published by M.I.T. Press in the fall of 1972 and credited to Scott Brown, Venturi, and their teaching assistant Steven Izenour, turned fifty last year. While it remains among the four or five most influential books on twentieth-century American urban form—alongside Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), Rem Koolhaas’s “Delirious New York” (1978), and Mike Davis’s “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” (1990)—it has also never quite outrun the critique that Venturi identified in that letter, a criticism that begins with suspicion of the idea that Las Vegas could ever be a subject worthy of serious architectural study.

The Times review of “Learning from Las Vegas,” by Roger Jellinek, carried the following headline: “In Praise (!) of Las Vegas.” Certainly, the conventional wisdom by that point saw Las Vegas and cities like it—and urban sprawl generally—as a scourge. (The Times had used a nearly identical headline, “In Praise (!) of Los Angeles,” less than a year earlier, for Jellinek’s review of Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”) The architect and critic Peter Blake’s widely read 1964 book, “God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape,” saw evidence in the postwar commercial strip, with its jumble of gas stations and drive-ins, of “the decline, fall and subsequent disintegration of urban civilization in the United States.” The German philosopher Theodor Adorno made a similar argument (in similarly apocalyptic prose) in an essay called “The Schema of Mass Culture”: “The neon sentences which hang over our cities and outshine the natural light of the night with their own are comets presaging the natural disaster of society, its frozen death.”

Scott Brown and Venturi were certainly comfortable staking out a contrarian position; it was then, and long remained, their go-to move. “Learning from Las Vegas” prompted just the kind of polarized reaction they were aiming for. It dominated discussion within architectural circles and won praise from younger critics, like Paul Goldberger, who wrote in the Times that “the Venturis,” as they were sometimes called in those days, had, by giving Las Vegas so much attention, “infuriated other architects, fascinated students and made themselves perhaps the most controversial figures in American architecture today.” The book also reached an audience of general-interest readers, for whom it explained changes in American cities which were increasingly difficult to ignore but hadn’t yet been framed in such an engaging way. The book’s first run of two thousand copies quickly sold out, and it has stayed in print ever since.

But did “Learning from Las Vegas”—and the Yale studio that inspired it—really set out to praise the architecture and urbanism of the Strip? Or was it meant instead as a cautionary tale about sprawl, a phenomenon that could be seen at its “purest and most intense,” as the authors put it, in Las Vegas? The answer is both—and neither. What struck me when I went back to reread the book is how deliberately it works to collapse the distance, and therefore the distinction, between enthusiasm and skepticism, and ultimately between documentation and critique. Above all, “Learning from Las Vegas” argues for a curious and open-minded anti-utopianism, for understanding cities as they are rather than how planners wish they might be—and then using that knowledge, systematically and patiently won, as the basis for new architecture. “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect,” the authors wrote. “Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things.”

Robert Venturi à la Magritte on the Las Vegas Strip, 1966.Photograph by Denise Scott Brown / Courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, Inc. 

Scott Brown and Venturi first visited Las Vegas together in November of 1966, a year before they were married. The trip was her idea. A young widow from South Africa, Scott Brown had begun teaching at U.C.L.A.’s new School of Architecture and Urban Planning after earning a master’s degree from and serving on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where she and Venturi met. At first, she thought that Los Angeles might make the most useful laboratory for studying the emerging urbanism of car-centric cities—for employing the analytical method that she self-deprecatingly called “town watching”—before realizing that Las Vegas offered a petri dish of more manageable size. “We rode around from casino to casino, dazed by the desert sun and dazzled by the signs, both loving and hating what we saw,” she recalled. “We were jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins.”

As is often the case when architects travel—especially architects who write—the jolt wasn’t simply a reaction to what they saw. It was also an electrifying realization that what they were seeing might be material, fodder for a potent follow-up to Venturi’s influential first book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” (That book, published in 1966, argued that modern architecture, by stripping away references to earlier landmarks or design movements, had drained new buildings of nuance and verve in favor of “prim dreams of pure order.” It also looked ahead to some of the preoccupations of the Yale studio by asking, in a reference to the American city-making of the era, “Is not Main Street almost all right?”) What if the pair mined their ambivalence about Las Vegas, that feeling of “both loving and hating what we saw,” for insights about the state of the postwar American city?

The trip formed the basis for a 1968 Architectural Forum essay by Scott Brown and Venturi, titled “A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas,” which gave rise to the studio and a formal book proposal. Scott Brown later suggested that “Learning from Las Vegas” wasn’t really about Las Vegas but instead about the broader “symbolism of architectural form,” and there is something to that notion. The book is preoccupied with the ways in which vernacular architecture in Las Vegas and places like it had begun to respond to the dominance of the car—and with how travelling by car through cities affects our understanding of speed, distance, and the information conveyed by signs of all kinds. “Is the sign the building or is the building the sign?” the authors ask. “These relationships, and combinations between signs and buildings, between architecture and symbolism, between form and meaning, between driver and the roadside are deeply relevant to architecture today and have been discussed at length by several writers. But they have not been studied in detail or as an overall system.”

Most architecture students over the years have read the shorter second edition of the book, a paperback published in 1977, but the 1972 large-format hardcover version is the livelier and more revealing document, if also the more contentious editorial product. It is divided into three parts. The first largely reproduces the Architectural Forum essay and includes a close study of the Strip’s architecture, signage, and street furniture. The second provides an analysis of how trends visible in Las Vegas relate to larger developments in architecture and urbanism. This section is anchored by a tribute to “ugly and ordinary” architecture, including a now famous distinction between buildings that are “ducks,” which is to say, commercial structures that take the shape of what they’re selling—a Mexican-food shop in Los Angeles resembling a giant tamale, for example—and those that are “decorated sheds,” or expediently made buildings that gain energy from signage and ornament. In short, the duck is a symbol; the decorated shed applies symbols to a more conventional architectural frame.

Many late-modern buildings, in Venturi and Scott Brown’s view, had become by the nineteen-sixties a species of duck, their flat roofs and spare geometry existing primarily to advertise their architectural loyalties—to sell stale International Style tamales, as it were. (As Ada Louise Huxtable put it in reviewing “Learning from Las Vegas” for The New York Review of Books, “The modern building has rejected decoration only to become one big decorative object in itself.”) Scott Brown and Venturi much preferred the decorated shed, in no small part because of the high-low frisson produced when sophisticated architects mixed straightforward design choices with ironic and over-scaled ones, as they themselves would do for the rest of their career.

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