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In 1966, architect Robert Venturi shocked his profession by declaring, “Less is a bore.” That jolt to Miesian modernism was nothing compared to the publication of Learning from Las Vegas in 1972.
Coauthored by Venturi and Denise Scott Brown—still husband-and-wife partners in their Philadelphia firm—and their late colleague Steven Izenour, the book asserted that Las Vegas’s casinos and traffic patterns could be as instructive to architects as French cathedrals and Roman piazzas. (The Ohio Review deemed their now-classic text “dangerous.”)
Learning from Las Vegas grew out of a studio that its three authors taught at Yale in 1968. “Las Vegas Studio” brings together dozens of photos and five films that the architects and their 13 students made during a ten-day trip to the desert city. A few of Scott Brown’s earlier snapshots—studying Vegas was her idea—along with early 1970s pics, mock-ups of Learning from Las Vegas and several translated editions round out the exhibition.
For those familiar with Venturi and Scott Brown’s work, viewing “Las Vegas Studio” feels like winning the jackpot. Those who aren’t will glean little from the show about how the studio operated or why Learning from Las Vegas was significant, which is disappointing. (The catalog for the exhibition, which Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli curated with artist Peter Fischli for Switzerland’s Museum im Bellpark, addresses these issues.)
While some of the photos and charts on display were published in Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s book, many were not, and most visitors won’t have seen the films before. As documents of Las Vegas’s unique character, these works need little explanation. Las Vegas Deadpan (1968), shot by a camera attached to the hood of a Ford, must be one of the oldest examples of the now-clichéd pan down the Strip; Las Vegas Electric (1968) is a mesmerizing homage to the glowing signs of Fremont Street casinos. The studio reveals the contrast between the city’s nighttime magic and daytime dowdiness over and over, particularly in its photos of the Stardust (pictured), which put the architects and their students up for free.
The surprising amount of humor in “Las Vegas Studio” is one of its strengths. The students’ detailed taxonomy of casinos, which analyzes the buildings’ signage, interiors, parking and other features, identifies the Tropicana’s style as “Bauhaus Hawaiian.” Photos capture tourists posing with the gladiator statues outside Caesar’s Palace as well as Tail Pup, a Los Angeles hot-dog stand shaped like…a hot dog. An “Edward Ruscha” elevation of the Strip (1968) comes off as a tongue-in-cheek reference to artist Ruscha’s famous 1966 photo documentation Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s embrace of vernacular design and iconography helped usher in postmodernist architecture. It sucked. Still, “Las Vegas Studio” suggests more architects (and architecture exhibitions) could stand to lighten up—and look at the world as it is.