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Learning from Las Vegas - Connecting with symbolism in architecture
“Robert Venturi exploded onto architectural scene in 1966 with a radical call to arms in Complexity and Contradiction. Further accolades and outrage ensued in 1972 when Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour analyzed the Las Vegas Strip as an archetype in Learning from Las Vegas. The views of Venturi and Scott Brown have influenced worldwide for nearly half a century. Pluralism and multiculturalism; symbolism and iconography; popular culture and everyday landscape; generic building and electronic communication are among the many ideas they championed.” (Architecture as signs and systems)
In the words of Denise Scott Brown, the book Learning from Las Vegas is a “treatise on symbolism in architecture.” Las Vegas is analyzed as a phenomenon of architectural communication. The ‘Strip’ is architecture of communication over space, achieved through style and signs. This is a unique condition in comparison to "enclosed space," which architects are more familiar with. Value of symbolism and allusion in architecture of vast space and speed are evidenced through the Strip. Hence, Las Vegas is not the subject of the book. The symbolism of architectural form is. Venturi has described in the Las Vegas study the victory of symbolism-space over forms-in-space.
Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour feel that this allusion is lacking in present-day (late 70s) Modern architecture. They argue that spatial relationships are created through symbols rather than forms. Their theory is articulated through this exploration of the Vegas terrain, where architecture is seen as symbol in space rather than form in space.
The book is divided into two distinct parts. Part I provides a basic overview of Las Vegas as well as an analysis of individual issues regarding the Strip, lighting, signs, and order. It is a culmination of library and field research gathered by three professors and thirteen students from the Yale School of Art and Architecture. Part II contains the synthesis of their data applied to symbolism in architecture and the iconography of urban sprawl.
Learning-from-what's-around-you has remained an overarching theme for Venturi and Scott Brown. Scott brown drew her influences from her South-African background and the pop culture prevalent in those times. She says, “Seeing how African artists confronted that theme was important for me growing up. The clash of cultures in South Africa, although politically terrible, was artistically exciting and invigorating. African folk artists' interpretations of Western artifacts had unbounded vitality. They were much more interesting than the Western artists' responses to African cultures. African folk art that incorporated Western images was decried by the purists, but I found it fascinating. It prepared me for the impurity of Las Vegas.” (Architecture as signs and systems)
Why Las Vegas?
Venturi et al. upheld a "both/and" acceptance of "high" and popular culture. Learning from Las Vegas was not an anti-Modernist diatribe: indeed, the authors clearly stated that "Because we have criticized Modern architecture, it is proper here to state our intense admiration of its early period when its founders, sensitive to their own times, proclaimed the right revolution. Our argument lies mainly with the irrelevant and distorted prolongation of that old revolution today."
His main concern is really for the myopic adoration of great modern architecture, and the extreme under appreciation of commercial architecture. In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi et al. vehemently attack the world science futurist metaphysic, the megastructuralist mystique and their overdependence on a space-age, futurist, or science-fiction technology parallels the machine aestheticism of the 1920s and approaches its ultimate mannerism. They are, unlike the architecture of the 1920s, artistically a dead-end and socially a cop-out whereas for Venturi et al., Las Vegas could offer that lesson in architectural symbolism and communication that was a break with Modernism's heroism and individualism with its according to Venturi et al.-misguided, inappropriate and largely implicit symbolism of industrialism.
He cites Le Corbusier's infamous desire to knock down all of Paris and rebuild it again as exactly the sort of attitude he fears from architects. Venturi champions architecture based on style and image, on folk or vernacular construction, and "architecture without architects." This vernacular style should be, by historical precedent, absolutely laden with signs and symbols from other eras and our own, it should mix high and low art, the sacred and the putrefying, for this he says is our natural language.
Challenges the architect to take a nonjudgmental stand in studying new space order
Study capitalist, commercial
vernacular architecture of America
Learn to infuse high/ low culture, the fine/crude art, persuasion/ communication into our buildings
Focus on symbolism and its virtues in the social and cultural fabric (architecture as a communication over space versus form in space)
What does the book say?
Aesthetics and order in Las Vegas
Vegas is studied as heightened example of architectural persuasion with a combination of forms, styles, both architecture and landscape, where the strip embodies the difficulty of inclusion rather than the easy unity in exclusion.
First, [aesthetic sensations] may be produced by the treatment of walls, proportions of windows, the relation of wall-space to window-space.
Secondly, the treatment of the exterior of a building as a whole is aesthetically significant, its contrasts of block against block.
Thirdly, there is the effect of our senses of the treatment of the interior, the sequence of rooms...."
What defines the symbolic spaces and places of Las Vegas - the super-hotels of The Strip, the casino-belt of Fremont Street - is pure environmental power, manifested as colored light. The effectiveness with which space is defined is overwhelming, the creation of virtual volumes without apparent structure is endemic, and the variety and ingenuity of the lighting techniques is worth studying.
One of the most interesting things about boring architecture is the inherent amount of contradictory messages given by commercial designs and urban sprawl. There is a contrast between the two types of order on the Las Vegas Strip: the obvious visual order of the street elements and the difficult visual order of the buildings and signs. The zone of the highway is a shared order. The zone off the highway is an individual order. The elements of the highway are civic. The buildings and signs are private.
The book the individual elements of panorama, front, side, entrance, parking, oasis, foliage, sculpture, sign, and interior.
Signage and Communication over space
The architecture of the buildings which support the sign is purposefully ugly and boring. Each sign is different, yet they share certain traits; their location, size. Each sign possesses symbols borrowed from another era, and made its own. Venturi salutes this lack of innovation: What he calls "old words with new meanings" are, after all, more in line with clients' value systems.
Venturi speculates that modern designers have shunned symbols because they pervade our culture and thus are now debased themselves.
Locational signs, Heraldic signs, Physiognomic signs
“Ours is not an environment for heroic communication through pure architecture !”
Ugly and the Ordinary
Venturi draws the basic conclusion that all architecture is either what he calls a Decorated Shed or a Duck. "the $10,000 building with the $100,000 sign." He describes functional boring architecture, neutral to the point of being difficult to recall, but that carries a surface alive with appliqué ornamental symbols, the function of which is to evoke various emotional responses. This is historical architecture; the Renaissance is full of Decorated Sheds. The other type of architecture, the Duck, is a building that has so reduced itself in importance in comparison to its sign that it has actually become the sign. According to Venturi, most modern architecture are basically un-admitted Ducks. The real hypocrisy for Venturi was that "...modern architecture always demonstrated what it was by setting itself against what it wasn't." But a duck is a duck.
Venturi also emphasizes the ordinary architecture of the Strip's gas stations. He says, they are "tasteful, repetitive constructions meant to soothe and comfort. They offer the patron sculpture (the gas pumps) and a desert oasis (the Coke machines)." Amidst the many ducks, the ordinary and ugly architecture does not look ordinary anymore, it looks extraordinary. He likens Las Vegas to the Roman piazza. In Rome, every road leads to the inevitable piazza—a void in the congested city. In Vegas, every road leads to the Strip—a void with no focus, in an open, indefinite space. Only the scale has changed, from a space for pedestrians to one for automobiles. The Renaissance piazza was heavily ornamented with mixed-media symbols borrowed from other eras. Similarly, the billboards that line the highways of Vegas, inspired from the Roman triumphal arch, architecture as propaganda meant to be read at 55 m.p.h. Rome, every architect's pièce de resistance, is much closer to Vegas than to Mies. Venturi calls this critical associative process "From Rome to Vegas and back to Rome again."
"The Miami Beach Modern Hotel on a bleak stretch of highway in southern Delaware reminds jaded drivers of the welcome luxury of a tropical resort, persuading them, perhaps, to forgo the gracious plantation across the Virginal border called Motel Monticello. The real hotel in Miami alludes to the international stylishness of a Brazilian resort, which in turn derives from the International style of middle Corbusier. This evolution, from high source through middle source to low source took only thirty years. Today, the middle source is less interesting than its commercial adaptations. Roadside copies of [the high source] are more interesting than the real thing." Venturi repeatedly makes the distinction between architecture that looks interesting but is actually boring, and cheap and awful architecture that is actually interesting.
Still Learning From Las Vegas:
Learning from Las Vegas is still relevant in many ways, such as in its recognition of the relevance and significance of iconography and signage more than of space.
In the book, Venturi concludes: "Learning from popular culture does not remove the architect from his or her status in high culture. But it may alter high culture to make it more sympathetic to current needs. He suggests that the irony and the use of a joke to get to seriousness could be used as weapons of artists of non-authoritarian temperament in situations that do not agree with them and that architects who learn from their techniques need not reproduce the content or the superficiality of their messages. Interpretations of this kind of gentle architecture...can suggest sorrow, irony, love, satire, the human condition, or just happiness, rather than the necessity to buy soap or the promise of an orgy."
The order of the Strip includes" wrote Venturi et al., "it includes at all levels, from a mixture of seemingly incongruous land uses to the mixture of seemingly incongruous advertising media. The environment is high in vitality, which may be achieved by an “architecture of inclusion." Diversity and pluralism were ends in themselves: "We think the more directions that architecture takes at this point, the better." The alternative of a singular style, uniformity and order-the conventional architectural habits of thought-often resulted in an overwhelming "deadness that results from too great a preoccupation with tastefulness and total design." This meant that the architect and planner had to put aside their usual assumptions and even their professional taste culture. It was no good approaching Las Vegas with preconceived opinions: the architect had to suspend disbelief because, Venturi et al. argued, "withholding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgment more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything." One of the problems was that "Architects are out of the habit of looking non-judgmentally at the environment."
Furthermore, "We look backward at history and tradition to go forward; we can also look downward to go upward." Venturi et al. likens this approach as similar to the Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein who plundered popular culture such as the comic strip in order to rejuvenate fine art. Lichtenstein was still a fine artist making unique works of it, but the subject matter was popular in its source.
Within the analysis of Las Vegas, Venturi's real expertise comes out, as does his passion for chaotic and contradictory images in urban sprawl, a key of our architectural past.
The lesson from Las Vegas is one of challenging orthodoxies and changing our paradigms of what is visually and politically acceptable and desirable. The application of the lesson of Las Vegas was "Non-Plan," a proposal for the suspension of planning and to encourage a "plunge into heterogeneity" .
Learning from Las Vegas tackles issues of architecture that are often overlooked. While the city will always hold an identity of bright lights, rolling dice, and roaring laughter, there is indeed more to be learned from Las Vegas.
It is surprising how similar the outskirts of Las Vegas are today to so many other cities, but all developed within a very short time. From our own Paramatta road in Sydney to the Linking road in Mumbai, the commercial architecture makes its presence felt. The use of signage and the dynamics automobile centric architecture is in-escapable. As architects, we have to have a better understanding in order to be able to respond to it adequately.