Review

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

Museum of Contemporary Art at the Pacific Design Center
Los Angeles, CA
Glenn Harcourt

Let me begin with a brief personal anecdote. When I first read Learning from Las Vegas, about a year after it was published in 1972,1 I was an undergraduate art history major for whom architectural history meant poring over the magisterial work of Alberti and Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. It didn’t mean hanging out at Caesars Palace or along Fremont Street, advocating for “decorated sheds” or teasing out the communicative strategies behind the “Tanya” billboard. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour changed all that. By legitimating for me the act of “[l]earning from the existing landscape,”2 by which Venturi and Scott Brown meant the commercial vernacular of the suburban strip as exemplified for them by “The” paradigmatic Las Vegas Strip, they seemed to open the world of academic discourse onto the world of my immediate and lived experience. For a lower middle class kid struggling to find an intellectual place at a fancy Ivy League university, this was definitely a very big deal. It was like running a two-lane blacktop from my hyper-Levittown suburban housing development in northern Virginia, with its identical little brick tract homes and its burgeoning tacky strip malls, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and right up to the driveway of Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, the apotheosis of the modernist house as “a machine for living in.”

As it turns out, Learning from Las Vegas was a big deal for a lot of other students of the built environment as well. The book has been celebrated and derided, among other things, as one of the foundational documents of Postmodernism, as a gentle if insistent cri de coeur for a new populist architecture, and as a vindication of the “degraded” landscape (unjustly) stigmatized by Peter Blake in his brilliant 1964 polemic God’s Own Junkyard.3

Installation view of "Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown" at the Moca Pacific Design Center, March 21–June 20, 2010. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Installation view of Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the Moca Pacific Design Center, March 21–June 20, 2010. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Now, as the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication looms on the horizon, that celebration has been formalized in a beautifully mounted traveling show recently on view at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center Gallery, Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and accompanied by a equally handsome publication under the same title, edited by exhibition curators Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli in collaboration with Peter Fischli.4

The show itself, which was comprised virtually in its entirety of artifacts drawn from the Venturi and Scott Brown Archives, used a variety of media–walls of photos and supergraphic charts reproduced in the original book, an endlessly repeating slide presentation, and four films–to create something of the experience of the 1968 Yale University research studio whose work formed the backbone of the analysis eventually embodied in Learning from Las Vegas, as well as the excitement of the initial public presentation of their research, which took place at the Yale School of Architecture on January 10, 1969. Indeed, the slides, films, and supergraphics in the MOCA PDC show were all employed at that presentation, which had generated sufficient pre-event buzz to draw the attention of such luminaries as the Yale art historian Vincent Scully (an early and staunch Venturi advocate), the architect Morris Lapidus (whose designs include the flamboyant Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach), and the writer Tom Wolfe. Not bad for a class project, although the critical reaction drawn by the students and their mentors was decidedly mixed.5

Footnotes

  1. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas
  2. Ibid., 3. This and subsequent citations are to the revised paperback edition of 1977.
  3. Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964).
  4. The exhibition was organized by the Museum im Bellpark in Kriens, Switzerland. Its next stop is the Graham Foundation in Chicago (October 28, 2010-February 12, 2011.). The accompanying exhibition catalog is distributed by the University of Chicago Press (ISBN: 978- 3-85881-717-4). Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli, eds., Las Vegas Studio Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (Zurich: Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess AG, 2008).
  5. See Venturi’s comments, quoted in Stadler and Stierli, 15.
Further Reading