The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour: Learning From Las Vegas (1972)

A book review by Ruth Burrows

Learning From Las Vegas is a poignant title for this book, instantly both surprising and thought provoking, it instills a pattern of thought in the reader that can be charted throughout the entire book. Upon first receiving the book, I indeed questioned what could possibly be ‘learnt’ from Las Vegas, this city of neon, clutter and excess. This perhaps displays how today (when we have witnessed a return to a multitude of styles and a vernacular language within architecture) the on-the-surface design values of the commercial strip or urban sprawl are both unapparent in popular culture and contradictory to the other widely esteemed models advocated in architectural education.

From my point of view and upon first glance, Las Vegas can be seen as over-the-top, tacky, incredibly commercial and even anti-architectural, so it was a shock to me when I began to understand what the city had to offer an architectural student in terms of design values. In this respect, one of the most important things I took from reading the text is that obscure places sometimes hold timely lessons (if you apply rigor and context to what you are studying), and that we should all be encouraged to look at situations with this in mind.

The book was written in late 1960’s America, at a time when the projected progressive, socialist aims of Modern Architecture were deemed a failure and massive housing blocks built only twenty years earlier as part of award winning schemes were being demolished. There was a need for something new and, within this context, Venturi’s approach can be easily rooted. Just as the Modern Movement was a reaction to Nineteenth Century Eclecticism, Post-Modernism was a reaction to Modernism. Each offered a strong critique of what had come before it, and provided a model almost antithetical to its predecessor – in this example we can chart a progression from adornment and symbolism, to purity of expression through form, to adornment and symbolism again.

Yet obviously, Post-Modernism had contemporary factors to add into the mix, including the car as King and the power of Commercialism. Venturi, as one of the godfathers of Post-Modernist thought in architecture, sought to discredit the work of the Modern Movement by placing value upon things the Modernists hated: historical and existing ‘everyday’ buildings that were explicitly symbolic. He went further and cited how our human need for symbolism and association in architecture is an anthropological one:

We are not free from the forms of the past, nor from the availability of these forms as typological models, but that if we assume we are free, we have lost control over a very active sector of our imagination and of our power to communicate with others…. (Alan Colquhoun)

I agree with Venturi’s stance that symbolism is indeed very important to our sense of civilization, but he then went on to discuss how Modernist Architecture did use symbolism and ornament, albeit unknowingly. This is a tad confusing, and makes me feel that the discussion of symbolism’s vital nature is irrelevant if you cannot escape reference and symbolism even if you try to. With the desire to accept and endorse commercial architecture and mixed styles, Venturi chose the most prominent, amplified example he could find in order to both shock and scintillate the reader into agreeing with him. Las Vegas was an excellent choice to exemplify the opinions that he already expressed in the predecessor to this book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

It was 1968 when all three authors were teaching at Yale and decided to send students from a research
and design studio to Las Vegas in order to help them document and analyse the city: “An aim of this studio will be, through open minded and non-judgmental investigation, to come to understand this new form and to begin to evolve techniques for its handling”. With this in mind, what is lacking in the book for me, is a more detailed documentation of how they set about investigating the city - which would in turn help the reader understand the progression of thought in the book (that is otherwise a series of opinions far removed from their genesis).

Having said that, it could be suggested that the ‘documentation’ is inferred through the photographs taken and the maps and charts drawn - Scott Brown saw photography as a way of isolating an idea, and in this sense the graphic tools used fit the bullet pointed style within which the book is written. The book amounts to an impressive portrayal of the Strip and a clearly illustrated set of theories from the authors. Venturi endeavored to instill a notion of appreciation and logic to the structure of the Strip. He described obvious, everyday landscapes whilst managing to provoke wonder and admiration at the same time. He beautifully and acutely developed a comparison between the market seller’s powers of persuasion and the huge signs that adorn the windows of the supermarket… both, in their own way, communicating to a prospective customer. He stated that, in times of car orientated movement and vast speed; the architecture of the supermarket is a valid response that deserves analysis and I totally agreethat this side of his argument is revolutionary.

However he also, more provocatively, charts the A&P (supermarket) car park as an historic progression from the vast formal spaces of Versailles. This intends to shock the reader into some kind of agreement, yet it is a little too over-the-top for my taste and displays the thin line between the ideas contained within the book that are stark and irrefutable, and those looser ideas that get a little annoying. He suggests that the apparent disorder of the Strip is also misread, because Las Vegas simply is not designed by ‘experts’ to be aesthetically beautiful from a static viewpoint (this is why photographs or mapping do not do the experience of the Strip justice). He states that the structure of the Strip is not found in the obvious places and consists of 3 message systems; signs, physiognomic form and locational expression. These systems have been tailored to vehicular travel and provide their own rhythm to the environment, and it is privately owned architecture that disrupts this rhythm. This
argument is very clever, but may also be seen as tenuous.

Referring to architecture in general, he goes on to say that applied ornament has been given a bad name by 19th century architecture, which I agree with. Decoration had become more and more ridiculous and lacking in thought or program. But in a way, the further you step away from the purity of an orthodox movement, the more stylized and ‘pantomime’ it becomes because it begins to rely on the association of form as an object, rather than signifying its place in time. I think this is a ‘problem’ with the reference to any architectural movement ‘after its time’; it gets added to an already heaving melting pot
of styles, where it can be bastardized.

Finally, I would like to talk about the Duck and the Decorated Shed; metaphors Venturi devised himself in order to identify two conflicting ways in which form can convey meaning, and to inform his critique of existing buildings. Initially, Venturi suggests that both these styles are present in Las Vegas and are equally acceptable, but later in the book, under the subtitle Against Ducks, or Ugly and Ordinary over Heroic and Original, Venturi conflicts the terms in order to display what the book is for, and what it is against. Here, the Duck is said to be ‘Heroic and Original’, symbolically implicit, connotative and abstract, and
therefore impoverished through its rejection of ornament. The Decorated Shed is the opposite: Ugly and Ordinary, explicitly symbolic, denotative and familiar and therefore, even though Sheds may be seen as too humble a form for architects, Decorated Sheds are enriched through their layers of meaning. He states that connotative architecture is dry, irresponsible and irrelevant in a time when architecture should embrace iconography and mixed media in a world of fast pace and commercialism. (He also suggests that the work of his firm is both Ugly and Ordinary, which could display how his advocacies are more taste driven than first thought, and contain self-interested motives).

To summarize, I think the quotation that sums this book up is:
“Learning to really look at a place and question how we look, is a way of becoming revolutionary”.
Within this phrase is advice that can transcend any architectural movement. It clearly conveys the rejection of simply starting afresh with a Utopia that is disconnected with both its existing situation and historical reference. It promotes empiricism, which inherently looks for good and bad, and new, in situations and adds that the ‘tear it down and start again’ Le Corbusian mentality is just obvious, easy and unsustainable.

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