Roman soldier, Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, 1968. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Roman soldier, Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, 1968. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Almost needless to say, the city has metastasized. With a metro area population approaching 2,000,000, it is one of the fastestgrowing metropolitan agglomerations in the United States. The path of a contemporary automotive “flaneur” is no longer Las Vegas Boulevard (the Strip itself), let alone the oncepedestrian friendly Fremont Street running into downtown from the site of the old railroad station; it is rather I-15, whose elevated speed limit (assuming the traffic is moving more-orless at speed) is now matched by the scale and presence of the architecture, and along which a continuous procession of billboards is now articulated to engage the interest of passing motorists. As the park service describes:

” When the ‘Welcome’ sign was built in 1959, the closest hotel-casino was the Hacienda [1956-1996], which was a one-story rambling building on the site of the current Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. There was no Interstate 15 until the early 1970s and traffic from Los Angeles traveled along the Las Vegas Strip, which was then U.S. Highway 91.”13

Meanwhile, the architecture has evolved as well. The old-style “decorated sheds” with their flashily individualized facades subordinated to massive signage dominated by slick interplays of text and symbol have been increasingly marginalized and replaced by anonymous towers glowing golden in the sunlight, or theme park derived mini-megastructural “ducks” that can whisk us off in an instant to a faux Egypt, New York, or Paris.

The term “duck,” coined by Venturi himself in response to an image in Peter Blake’s Junkyard,14refers to a building that symbolizes its meaning (whether real or projected) in and through its own structure and appearance. Ultimately, Venturi sees such buildings as heroic and personal gestures, whether mini- or mega- in scale. A “decorated shed,” by way of contrast, is architecturally anonymous and impersonal, its form answering to simple structural constraints (in the Nevada desert, low ceilings to save money on air conditioning, for example) while its identity is established through decorative and symbolic add-ons. The magnificent old sign of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino (which appears in a number of exquisite exhibition photos reproduced as well in the catalog) was a perfect example.15

Although the vocabulary he employs is somewhat different, Koolhaas makes a similar point: “Venturi and Scott Brown discovered the lightness of Las Vegas and how architectural could be provisional. But in the meantime, this has become the heaviest, ugliest, harshest city in the world… Las Vegas as it is now is the opposite of the theories that they extracted from it.”16

Las Vegas Strip, 1966. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Las Vegas Strip, 1966. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Thus, the lessons to be learned from Learning from Las Vegas are now available only retrospectively, as history, or perhaps glimpsed sidelong at seventy miles per hour as the ghostly image of the skeletal framework within what has become a monstrous and transmogrified exterior. Likewise, the book itself has become embedded in the ongoing discourse surrounding Postmodernism, holding an ambiguous place within all the complexities and contradictions (to borrow one of Venturi’s own favorite critical phrases) inherent in that discourse.

What everybody can more or less agree on is: “What was at stake was thus not the city as it ought to be, but rather the city as it actually was.”17 What marked that position out as “post-modern,” at least in some sense, was its clearly stated opposition to the kind of idealized, moralizing, liberal-Utopian planning that was held to have shaped the city of high Modernism, for example in the theory, if not always in the practice, of Le Corbusier.

There are, however, at least a couple of problems inherent in this position. The first involves the notion of what in fact constituted “the city as it actually was.” Venturi and Scott Brown argue that “Las Vegas is analyzed here [i.e., in Learning from Las Vegas] only as a phenomenon of architectural communication,” irrespective of “[t]he morality of commercial advertising, gambling interests, or the competitive instinct.”18 Perhaps that is so, but such a disclaimer was hardly adequate to insulate their work from criticism arising from the ideological left. The redoubtable Frederic Jameson, for example, for whom Postmodernism itself constitutes “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” was fundamentally unimpressed by Venturi’s position. For him, it comprised at best “a kind of [ideologically suspect] aesthetic populism,” and at worst a more or less empty “populist rhetoric” that effectively, if unintentionally, valorized the hollow cultural productions of late industrial capitalism.19

Scott Brown was especially vociferous in rebutting this kind of attack, albeit often with (to my mind) the rather weak assertion that the Las Vegas analysis is keyed to “a sensitivity for marginalized subcultures and respect for their aesthetic preferences.” However, the issue of Postmodernism’s ideological status is not likely to be resolved any time soon, especially as, since the halcyon days of Learning from Las Vegas, the “fate” of Posmodernism has become increasingly entwined with that of globalization.

Footnotes

  1. Ibid., Section 7, 1.
  2. For the building in question– the so-called “Long Island Duckling,” a BQ joint shaped like a duck–see Stadler and Stierli, 59.
  3. The current sign, also spectacular in its way, is dwarfed by the massive hotel block that rises behind.
  4. Stadler and Stierli, 163.
  5. Ibid., 23.
  6. Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, 5-6.
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 2-3. Jameson’s evaluation of Venturi, both here and at other points in Postmodernism, is rather ambivalent; he acknowledges Venturi’s “influential” position, yet seems dismissive of his work as embodying a hollow structuralism. At this early moment of his analysis, the distinction that he draws between “quotation” and “incorporation” might fruitfully be applied both to Venturi’s theoretical position and to the actual design production of Venturi and Scott Brown’s firm, as I hope will become evident below.