How Robert Venturi Helped Turn Las Vegas Into America’s Architecture
The pioneering postmodern architect died on Thursday at the age of 93.
."Venturi, Scott Brown Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania."
In 1968, an unusual group of people attended the gala opening of the Circus Circus hotel and casino in Las Vegas: a Yale class of graduate architecture students, led by professors Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. They had come to Las Vegas not to gamble but to learn. “Yale Professor Will Praise Strip for $8,925,” a local paper announced the day of their arrival, having learned about Venturi’s request for a study grant at city hall.
Why would anyone think they had come to praise the Strip? They could have just as easily come to bury it. “Serious architects still tend to regard exterior decoration as dishonest,” cultural critic Tom Wolfe wrote. “Electric tubing is still gauche.” Las Vegas was very different from what was taught in architecture departments such as at Yale, where students learned modernism: buildings as boxes, bare, without any decoration.
The Yale academics, however, did not plan to trash the Strip. Venturi already had a name as one of modernism’s most vocal critics, having published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), an attack on the purism and simplicity of modernist architecture, in which he irreverently adapted modernist founding father Mies van der Rohe’s maxim “Less is more“ to “Less is a bore.”
Scott Brown was following her interest in pop culture, influenced by Richard Hamilton, who challenged fine art traditions with his art collage assembled from advertisements, including a bodybuilder holding a Tootsie Pop.
“We can learn…from Las Vegas as have other artists from their own profane and stylistic sources,” Scott Brown and Venturi wrote. The architect pair would draw from Las Vegas casinos like Pop artist Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s soup cans. The research expedition and subsequent book had the bold title Learning from Las Vegas.
What did they learn? A city like Las Vegas, they argued, managed to communicate messages faster and further than, for instance, in Rome. Signs were the new arches and neon the new mosaics for the age of the car. They wrote, “The mechanical movement of neon lights is quicker than mosaic glitter, which depends on the passage of the sun and the pace of the observer; and the intensity of light on the Strip as well as the tempo of its movement is greater to accommodate the greater spaces, greater speeds and greater impacts that our technology permits and our sensibilities respond to.”
The Las Vegas roadside sign, such as the Stardust sign, communicated at multiple speeds and distances. The lower part, the “information” white board, has specific information to change at will, visible from up close. The upper part, the stardust cloud with the large logo, has the permanent “heraldry” visible from afar. They dissected the roadside sign with the rigor of an art historian analyzing a Roman temple front.
Even buildings in Las Vegas had evolved to become pure communication, such as the Golden Nugget: “Like the agglomeration of chapels in a Roman church and the stylistic sequence of piers in a Gothic cathedral, the Golden Nugget casino has evolved over 30 years from a building with a sign on it to a totally sign-covered building.”
Scott Brown and Venturi classified buildings in two opposing semiotic types: the “duck” and the “decorated shed.” Ducks—a coinage derived from a Long Island duck egg store shaped like a duck—communicated meaning through their form. Venturi mocked Modern architecture by classifying it as a duck, since it appropriated industrial aesthetics, mimicking airplanes, cruise liners, and grain silos. But modernist architects never explicitly claimed their use of this reference: they built ducks in denial.
Whereas only the elite, who had a learned appreciation for it, would understand the abstract meaning of modernist buildings, everyone could understand Las Vegas’s references to “our great commonplaces or old clichés.” The uncomplicated references made the Strip into an immersive environment for everybody. Scott Brown and Venturi lauded Las Vegas’s “inclusion and allusion” aspects: “the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role: for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesar's palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa…”
However, like their fellow Pop artists, Scott Brown and Venturi also came under fire for their association with commercialism. In 1972, The Princetonian wrote of Venturi, an alum, “Many critics claim that [he], by implication, advocates the sentiments that produce vernacular architecture — cheap (perhaps hazardous) construction, pollution, waste of material and land, lack of architectural heritage, and disregard for human needs.” According to architectural critic Vincent Scully, Venturi had become “the most controversial architect in America.”
But Learning from Las Vegas had massive implications. Scott Brown and Venturi’s book identified Las Vegas as the city of postmodernism. Postmodern architects around the world happily learned from Las Vegas resorts’ playful and lavish quotations from the past and other places. “America has become Las Vegasized,” declared Time at the peak of postmodernism in the 1990s, two decades after the book’s publication. Thanks to Robert Venturi, elite architects would no longer flinch at a faux column or architrave.