How Robert Venturi helped transform Las Vegas into America’s architecture

. “Venturi, Scott Brown Collection, 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 architecture students led by Professors Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. They came to Las Vegas not to play but to study. “Yale Professor will be praising Strip for $ 8,925,” a local newspaper announced the day she arrived after hearing of Venturi’s application for a scholarship at City Hall.

Why would anyone think they came to praise the strip? You might as well have come to bury it. “Reputable architects still tend to view outdoor décor as dishonest,” wrote cultural critic Tom Wolfe. “Electric hoses are still gauche.” Las Vegas was very different from what was taught in architecture departments like Yale, where students learned modernity: buildings as boxes, bare, without decoration.

However, the Yale academics had no intention of destroying the strip. Venturi had already made a name for itself as one of the most vocal critics of modernism after publishing Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), an attack on the purism and simplicity of modernist architecture by promoting the maxim “Less is more” Less is boring. “

Scott Brown followed her interest in pop culture, influenced by Richard Hamilton, who challenged art traditions with his art collage compiled from ads, including a bodybuilder with a tootsie pop.

“We can … learn from Las Vegas, as can other artists from their own profane and stylistic sources,” wrote Scott Brown and Venturi. The architect couple drew from casinos in Las Vegas how pop artist Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s soup cans. The research expedition and the book that followed was boldly titled Learning from Las Vegas.

What did you learn? A city like Las Vegas, they argued, has managed to communicate messages faster and further than, for example, 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 faster than mosaic glitter, depending on the passage of the sun and the pace of the viewer. and the intensity of the light on the strip and the pace of its movement are greater to accommodate the larger spaces, higher speeds, and greater impacts our technology allows and to which our sensitivities respond. “

The Las Vegas street sign, like the Stardust sign, communicated at multiple speeds and distances. The lower part, the white information board, contains specific information that can be changed at will and is visible up close. In the upper part, the stardust cloud with the large logo, the permanent “heraldry” is visible from afar. They dissected the street sign with the rigor of an art historian analyzing a Roman temple front.

Even buildings in Las Vegas had evolved into pure communication, such as the Golden Nugget: “Like the cluster of chapels in a Roman church and the stylistic sequence of pillars in a Gothic cathedral, the Golden Nugget Casino has extended over 30 years from one year on upgraded building with a sign to a building fully covered with signs. “

Scott Brown and Venturi classified buildings into two opposite semiotic types: the “duck” and the “decorated shed”. Ducks – a coin from a duck egg shop on Long Island in the shape of a duck – conveyed meaning through their shape. Venturi mocked modern architecture by classifying it as a duck for appropriating industrial aesthetics, mimicking airplanes, cruise ships, and grain elevators. But modernist architects have never specifically claimed to use this reference: they built ducks in denial.

While only the elite with a learned appreciation for them would understand the abstract meanings of modernist buildings, anyone could understand Las Vegas’ references to “our great platitudes or old clichés.” The straightforward references made the Strip a fascinating setting for everyone. Scott Brown and Venturi praised Las Vegas’ aspects of “inclusion and allusion”: “The ability to put the visitor in a new role: For three days you can meet a centurion in Caesar’s palace, a ranger at the border or a jet setter Introducing the Frontier Riviera instead of a Des Moines, Iowa salesman … “

Like their fellow pop artists, Scott Brown and Venturi came under fire for their ties to commerce. In 1972 the Princetonian wrote of Venturi, an alum: “Many critics say so [he]implicitly advocates the sentiments native architecture evoke – cheap (possibly dangerous) building, pollution, waste of materials and land, lack of architectural heritage, and disregard for human needs. “According to architecture critic Vincent Scully, Venturi was” the most controversial architect in America “.

But learning from Las Vegas had a massive impact. Scott Brown and Venturi’s book identified Las Vegas as the city of postmodernism. Postmodern architects around the world happily learned from the Las Vegas resorts’ playful and lavish quotes from the past and other locations. “America has become Las Vegas,” Time said at the height of postmodernism in the 1990s, two decades after the book was published. Thanks to Robert Venturi, elite architects would no longer shy away from an artificial column or architrave.

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