Glenn Harcourt, intersection of I-15 and Desert Inn Road, Wynn Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, August 2009.

Glenn Harcourt, intersection of I-15 and Desert Inn Road, Wynn Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, August 2009.

If nothing else, we can see these programmatic statements, demonstrated with consummate skill in Learning from Las Vegas, elaborated and refined in the immense body of work produced over several decades by the firm of Robert Venturi Denise Scott Brown and Associates.28And it is also in this work that we can see how Venturi and Scott Brown have mapped out for themselves a distinct architectural Postmodernism. Espousing neither the Blade Runner-esque enclosed and reflective counter-city of John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel that Jameson takes as paradigmatic of late capitalism’s architectural logic, nor (usually) that of the Greco-Disney eclecticism of Michael Graves’s Disney Studio building in Burbank, nor the gestural heroics of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall,29they have developed a kind of easy-going neo-mannerism, which often shows an enormous sensitivity to the potential of subtle, as well as graphic, decoration, and increasingly complex systems of fenestration –all of which is already present in nuce, in the early project for the Guild House, a high-rise apartment development for the elderly, built in New Haven in the mid-1960s.30 For an exquisite local example, see the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) (1993-98), which is to my mind a design at once restrained and exuberant, an elegant and powerful anchor at the base of the biomedical section of the Westwood campus.31

Stardust Hotel And Casino. Las Vegas, 1968. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

Stardust Hotel And Casino. Las Vegas, 1968. © Venturi, Scott Brown And Associates, Inc., Philadelphia.

In some ways, works like the Gonda (Goldschmied) Center are a long way from Las Vegas. Yet in another, important way, perhaps they are not so far. In approaching both the UCLA commission and the Las Vegas research studio project, Venturi and Scott Brown have consciously embraced that “perversity” of looking backward into history to go forward into the future, of looking downward at the commercial vernacular to go upward into the studio. In essence, they have striven to embody in their work the enormously sympathetic historical understanding of artistic tradition that Venturi himself celebrated in his 1966 manifesto Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.32 And as such their approach is perfectly figured by a pair of photographs drawn from the Venturi and Scott Brown Archives.

Both photos are taken from roughly the same spot: a patch of sagebrush desert marked by the lone stone chimney of a long abandoned and destroyed house. The view is back toward the Strip in the distance. The Strip itself mostly appears as a white excrescence, a man-made film or crust spreading across the surface of the land; but at significant points, the Las Vegas “miracle” has already begun to rise up: the compact mass of Caesars Palace (which appears in only one of the photos) on the left, and on the right (dominating the Strip-scape) the Dunes with its hotel tower, its futuristic entrance, its iconic sign. Each photo is also marked by a single human presence, offset to the right and standing deep in the foreground. In one photo, the presence is that of Denise Scott Brown. Facing the camera, dressed casually in black skirt, long-sleeved navy top and low-heeled pumps, she stands rather brashly with feet apart and hands on hips. An intense and focused expression confronts the photographer/spectator, as if to say, “Here is the lesson, the apotheosis of the ugly and ordinary in American culture. Take from it what you can or will; but do not deride either its vivacity, or the simultaneous authenticity and fantasy of the self-representation it projects.”

The other photo is rather different in its affect. Here we see Venturi, standing in the desert and facing away from us, toward the Strip. Dressed in a conservative business suit, hands hanging at his sides, anonymous in his literal effacement, he has been compared to Magritte’s famous man in a suit and bowler carrying an umbrella. Yet in at least one important respect he strikes me as quite different. As incongruous as his presence might seem, as he stands alone in the middle of the desert, it also seems clear that he himself is not aware of, or even, as in the Magritte, indifferent to that incongruity. Rather he seems to stare at the city with what I would like to imagine is a look of wistful intensity. For he sees it both in its “deadpan” factuality and in its relationship to that tradition from which and through which we can again move–to quote the arch-modernist Le Corbusier, “vers une architecture”–towards a (new and vibrant) architecture.33Or, to quote Venturi himself in conclusion, an architecture founded on the realization that, contra Mies’s (in)famous dictum, “More is not less.”34

Footnotes

  1. For a useful survey through 2000, see David B. Brownlee and others, Out of the Ordinary: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates: Architecture/Urbanism/Design (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2001).
  2. Venturi Scott Brown and Associates have also had their share of Disney commissions, both realized and not. See Brownlee et al., 153-55, and figs. 244-51.
  3. For an extensive discussion of the Guild House Project and its implications for both design and theory, see Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, 87-103.
  4. Brownlee et al., figs. 150-53. The design builds on their earlier UCLA commission, the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Medical Research Laboratories (1986-91), figs. 146-49.
  5. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966).
  6. Ibid., 18-19. In his preface, Venturi develops his own theoretical position with respect to tradition through the juxtaposition of a series of quotations drawn from the critical writing of T.S. Eliot. Ironically, it is just the sort of “quotation” of past and, especially, popular sources practiced by Eliot and his compatriot Joyce that, for the Marxist Jameson, rules them both out of court as possible postmodern precursors.
  7. Ibid., 23.