Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1966. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1966. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Although small in absolute size, Las Vegas Studio fit nicely into the second-floor exhibition space at MOCA PDC. It provided an experience that could be hot and cool, intense and reflective, engaged and “deadpan,” to borrow an adjective appropriated by the Venturi and Scott Brown studio from the chatter surrounding the contemporary work of Edward Ruscha. Ruscha’s concertina foldout photo series Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1965) suggests a key element of the studio’s own working methodology.6 After about an hour alone here, much of it spent watching and rewatching extended sequences of slides and the studio’s quartet of films, I began to feel a palpable sense of excitement. Partly, I’m sure, this must have been a resurgence of my own initial excitement at reading the book, and of being swept up in the power of its visual presentation (sumptuously designed by Muriel Cooper at MIT Press).7 But I’m sure it also reflected a sense of the excitement that Venturi and Scott Brown’s students must have felt at participating in what had to have been, if not the conscious birth of something called “post-modernism,” one hell of an amazing field trip.

What the immediate experience of the installation did not provide was much of a sense of context, either historical or architectural. That was supplied rather by the accompanying publication, which framed a sizable selection of evocative and informative (and often pictorially stunning) archival images with three critical and reflective texts: “Las Vegas Studio,” by Martino Stierli; a conversation between Stierli, Rem Koolhaas, and Hans Ulrich Obrist entitled “Flaneurs in Automobiles” (I found Koolhaas’s critical and historical comments here especially cogent and insightful); and a brief but incisive essay, “Tableaux,” by Stanislaus von Moos. All three of these texts raise issues of considerable importance as regards the hotly contested questions surrounding the identification and taxonomy of various architectural postmodernisms, and their relation to the theory and practice of the Venturi Scott Brown studio, beginning even prior to the publication of Learning from Las Vegas.

The image of Las Vegas evoked by Venturi and Scott Brown, has by now itself become an object of historical analysis, “archaeological” reconstruction, or (for the gamblers among us) perhaps even of nostalgia. Although the kinesthetic experience of the Strip that they describe was brilliantly re-constructed through a clever interpenetration of text and image, both in the first edition of the book and in the recent show, it is, to a large extent, already a journey through a ghost town, inhabited by the likes of Andy Williams, Flip Wilson, the Lennon Sisters, and “Mr. Dull Guy” Jackie Vernon.8 Three of the iconic hotels at the heart of the analysis are themselves no more: the Stardust, which closed in November 2006 and was imploded in March 2007;9the Dunes, likewise imploded and replaced by the Bellagio; and the Aladdin, now Planet Hollywood. Indeed, so much of the Strip has been reconstructed, reconfigured, and explosively expanded that its iconic representations today are more likely the Luxor and New York, New York rather than the Riviera or the Tropicana. Of the architectural “old guard” celebrated by Venturi and Scott Brown, only Caesars Palace has both grown in size and retained its presence–as perhaps befits its self-aggrandizing imperial theme. (Compare, for example, the Aladdin, whose 1001 Nights theme was evanescent and inherently transient by contrast, and whose delicate evocation of Scheherazade has been replaced by the aggressiveness of contemporary Holly-world.10)

As if to finally seal the fate of Venturi and Scott Brown’s shimmering desert mirage, the equally iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (designed by Betty Whitehead Willis and installed in 1959) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on its 50th anniversary in 2009, and described by the National Park Service in its check-box characterization as a “property…associated with events that have made a significant contribution to broad patterns of our history.”11 Its architectural classification is given as “Exaggerated Modern/Googie,”12 what we might term now as something like “retro-futuristic.” It’s easy to imagine George and Jane Jetson zooming past with Elroy, Judy, and dog in tow, out for a family vacation in the Southwest’s desert entertainment mecca.

Footnotes

  1. Ibid., 25-27. Prior to their arrival in Las Vegas, Venturi, Scott Brown, and the research studio participants stopped briefly in Los Angeles, where they visited Disneyland as well as Ruscha’s studio.
  2. Ibid., 17. Ironically, both Venturi and Scott Brown disparaged this design strategy as overly modernist. The design of the revised paperback edition of 1977 was considerably more understated.
  3. All these acts and performers are referenced in the Learning from Las Vegas photos. Perhaps the most ghostly image of all is that of Sharon Harvey, a Hollywood starlet of negligible achievement, whose billboard appearance as “Miss Tanya” was immortalized on the book’s iconic cover.
  4. For a video record of this event, see http://www. metacafe.com/watch/933947/ stardust_casino_implosion/ (accessed July 23, 2010).
  5. Stadler and Stierli, 169. See Rem Koolhaas’s discussion of the issue of “mirage” versus “reality.
  6. http://www.nps.gov/nr/ feature/weekly_feature/ weekly_features/LasVegas Sign.pdf (accessed July 23, 2010).
  7. “Googie” is in fact an architectural term; for a brief synopsis, see Ibid., Section 8, 2.
Further Reading