Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour

Learning from Las Vegas

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Life Architecture Review

Giving Them What They Want
The Venturi Influence

"In Changing times, paradox is good. Boring is Interesting and Ordinary is Extraordinary while Interesting is Boring and Extraordinary is Ordinary." The quote may sound a little like Zelda Fitzgerald, feeling sulky in 1926, but the words are from a leading avant-garde intellectual architect. Like many another practitioners, Robert Venturi of Philadelphia is wary of being caught trying to create beautiful buildings. He has instead led his growing band of followers through thickets of aphorisms on an extended safari into the great banal plastic jungle of popular taste.

Venturi and his partners, including his wife, Denise Scott Brown, mock today's leading architects, who believe themselves (with some justification) to be building handsome and practical modern buildings expressive of their purpose and our time. The Venturi faction believes these architects to be out of touch with today's true tastes and technology, living in a dream world of fancied-up functional buildings. The widely acclaimed new Boston City Hall is an example of them, says Venturi.

What the real people are pleased by in the way of buildings, in America's foil-wrapped, Saran-swaddled, neon-lighted, automatic-transmission democracy, according to the Venturi theory, is what the top architects despise.

And this turns out to be Las Vegas, with its strident avenue of flabby casinos and hotels slumped behind enormous electric signs--very exciting by night, is a little dull by day. A Venturi book, which will be published next month, is entitles Learning from Las Vegas (MIT Press). Venturi also cherishes the commonplace props that are found on the lawns of so many split-level subdivisions: wagon wheels, sculptural jockeys, carriage lamps, fancy house numbers, fragments of split-rail fences and mailboxes on erect chains. He says, "The automobile-oriented commercial architecture of urban sprawl" is "our source for a civic and residential architecture of meaning, viable now."

What is amounts to, of course, is pop art, belatedly welcomed into serious architecture. Just as Andy Warhol elevated the Campbell Soup can, so does Venturi propose to celebrate the commonplace supermarket. This leads him, like the pop painters, to walk a treacherous wire between primitive innocence and industrial vulgarity, relying on satire to balance himself. "Irony," he says, "may be the tool with which to confront and combine values in architecture for a pluralistic society and to accommodate the difference in values that arises between the architect and his clients."

He and his partners in the firm Venturi and Rauch performed this balancing act in a senior citizens' housing project in Philadelphia called Guild House. Their design has a deft architectural touch, but it also has a flavor of builder's borax. Perched on the roof originally was what appeared to be a large TV antenna but was really a fake, fabricated from aluminum tubing. According to Venturi, it was "an imitation of an abstract Lippold sculpture and a symbol for the elderly." The symbol has since fallen off--or maybe one of the more agile and self-respecting of the senior citizens climbed up to the roof and kicked it off.

Satire is less immediately apparent in the Venturi office's second most noted building, a quaint vacation house in an ocean beach community, one of those happily demoralized architectural collision areas. Venturi and his partners apparently decided that this house should fit into the party, maybe even lead it. The third most frequently mentioned job is a fire station in Columbus, Ind., a can of architectural soup if there ever was one.

The question whether irony is operable in architecture is up for proof now in a considerable building under construction for Yale University in New Haven. The site is appropriate for a demonstration by Venturi of pop architecture transmuted into art. It is on a street where town and gown meet, where the people and the academics mix. This also happens to be in an area where several of the more vivid of the expressionistic architects have erected buildings.

In drawings, the Venturi and Rauch design, which won a competition, seems to be deliberately unprepossessing, very well-mannered. It could even turn out to be merely a taut, elegant, restrained modern design, one of those acts of discretion that many competent contemporary architects can perform, unremarked by the public. If so, critics will claim, ironically, that irony is dead, that Venturi has run out of aesthetic gas. Elder architects will welcome him into the establishment for having outgrown some of his barbaric theories. But let's wait; there may yet be a kicker. I hope so. Anyone who sets out to beatify banality is an interesting type.

Walter McQuade
Fortune editor McQuade is on the N.Y. City Planning Commission

2005.10.14 13:57         From the original Learning from Las Vegas, p. 64:         We shall emphasize image--image over process or form--in asserting that architecture depends in its perception and creation on past experience and emotional association and that these symbolic and representational elements may often be contradictory to the form, structure, and program with which they combine in the same building. We shall survey this contradiction in its two main manifestations:         1. Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by a overall symbolic form. This kind of building-becoming-sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck-shaped drive-in, "The Long Island Duckling," illustrated in God's Own Junkyard by Peter Blake.                 2. Where systems and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them. This we call the decorated shed.         The duck is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols. We maintain that both kinds of architecture are valid--Chartres is a duck (although it is a decorated shed as well), and the Palazzo Farnese is a decorated shed--but we think that the duck is seldom relevant today, although it pervades Modern architecture.         - - - - -         You rarely hear that "We maintain that both kinds of architecture are valid," and it is certainly open to question as to whether "the duck is seldom relevant today." Prevalence (pervasiveness) harbors relevance by (at least) default, does it not? And note how nowhere in the 'original' terms of the duck and the decorated shed is the notion of "the decorated shed, as counterpoint to the duck, offered a way of achieving a just-as-appropriate response to need/accommodation without dedicating the building to that purpose in perpetuity" espoused. This "not in perpetuity" notion is subsequent interpolation of the duck and the decorated shed polemic and should not be attributed to V,SB&I.         Imagine the work of VSBA in complex contradiction to their own theory? When is Rome, I suppose.         Is the Columbus firehouse really contrary? I see the tower cum sign as double-functioning architecture. Does the sign "integral" to the tower really make the firehouse just a firehouse in perpetuity? You know, they don't make firehouses with towers now--there's not a function for them anymore. But then again, the notion of the decorated shed being a design methodology to accommodate adapted reuse is not what the decorated shed vs. duck argument is originally about.                 In the Football Hall of Fame, the integral electronic billboard is prefect for adapted reuse, just program the sign with new content.         "Oh dear, what are we going to do about the "carved-in" sign of the Seattle Art Museum if it's ever not a museum. God forbid that people should know that it's the quondam Seattle Art Museum." The decorated shed becomes the duck becomes the decorated duck?!         Is changing history the same as making history? I'd say the work of VSBA made history by their introduction of directions of architecture theory and practice other than the (then) status quo. Changing history is different and occurs in at least two different ways. History is changed when events are recorded and taught as history but are not really reflective of what actually happened, like the 'perversion' that Venturi feels happened to his theory, and inversely, history is changed when a discovery occurs that invalidates established certainties, like the discovery of there actually being two renditions of Piranesi's Ichnographia Campus Martius.                         2005.11.16 09:52         Anyone else watch AMERICAN EXPERIENCE - Las Vegas: An Unconventional History? I was surprised at how much I learned from this 3 hour program. It was like "Learning from the City of Antithesis" -- very "if it's no where else, it's here."         Sin City and Bust! Talk about having your cake and eating it too!         Do you think above-ground nuclear bomb testing will ever be revived for it's tourist attraction fall-out?         Did that veteran showgirl really say that Vegas during the disco era was the best?!? Gosh, you learn something new everyday.         I've never been to Las Vegas, but I've been wanting to go for years now. The odds of my ever getting there, however, are slim.                                 2005.11.16 10:32         The first 90 minutes are very worthwhile in that how Las Vegas started and continued to happen (against the odds) is presented clearly and engagingly. I never really knew how Las Vegas was like the exact opposite of all other American cities in that what was illegal everywhere else (including citizens) were, like magic almost, legal in Las Vegas. It's like "who was kidding who?" As if all other American cities were bastions of morality, even.         Las Vegas as capital of Native America?                         2007.07.12 11:06         You're misrepresenting when you say Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour were "excuded from the High Modernist cocktail party" and therefore bitter. Venturi a Rome Prize recipient, Complexity and Contradiction coming out of MoMA, Venturi and Scott Brown teaching at Penn and Yale, Learming from Las Vegas coming out of Yale. I'd say they were definitely guests at the "cocktail" party. The exclusion, you could say, came after Learning from Las Vegas was published (thus no bitterness before the publication, as you imply).         I did begin to re-read Part II of Learning from Las Vegas last night, and I agree with K. in that sarcasm isn't really the modus operandi. It may be too hard now-a-days to recognize the "Pop" sensibility of the critique--the whole mixture of high art and low art which was then something like sacrilege. Plus, the "in your face" stance (i.e., naming names rather than remaining cautiously abstract) was "just not supposed to be done."         For sure there is much taunting and ridicule within "the ugly and the ordinary," as there is always taunting and ridicule whenever an orthodoxy is questioned and critiqued, but the task was accomplished without much sarcasm at all.         You and others may well see sarcasm as an effect of "the ugly and the ordinary" critique, and I concur that that is one fair interpretation, but there is very little sarcasm within the actual text itself.                 It's probably also fair to say that most people that saw Venturi and Rauch's entry at Roma Interrotta saw sarcasm as well. But was "Pop" sensibility too often just confused for sarcasm? Does "Andy W" suggest more Andy Warhol rather than Andy Williams? Does Lennon suggest more John Lennon than the Lennon Sisters?                                 2007.07.12 12:41         sarcasm 1 : a keen or bitter taunt : a cutting gibe or rebuke often delivered in a tone of contempt or disgust         The overall tone of Part II of Learning from Las Vegas is not one of contempt or disgust.         For example: "Many people like suburia. This is a compelling reason for learning from Levittown. The ultimate irony is that although Modern architecture from the start has claimed a strong social basis for its philosophy, Modern architects have worked to keep formal and social concerns separate rather than together. In dismissing Levittown, Modern architects, who have characteristically promoted the role of the social sciences in architecture, reject whole sets of dominant social patterns because they do not like the architectural consequences of these patterns."         This sounds to me like solid critique rather than contempt or disgust. And the whole texts reads more of solid architectural (because the text really is so rich with just talking about architecture) critique then some sort of sarcastically based evil plot.




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