Flashback Friday: Learning From Las Vegas (1972)

Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard in 1968-- the seeds of modern day Vegas were already planted.
Image from Learning From Las Vegas (1972)
In the autumn of 1968, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown decided to take a group of Yale students on an infamous field trip-- one that would lead them to Las Vegas. Equipped with cameras, both in hand and strapped to the hood of a rented Ford, the group studied and photographed every hotel, motel, sign, and gas station along the infamous Las Vegas strip. Their findings, assembled, archived, and analyzed in the landmark text four years later Learning From Las Vegas (1972) not only helped launch the Postmodern Architecture movement, but also brought a level of serious critical inquiry into the popular, spectactular and strange spatial landscape of Sin City.

It was Venturi and Scott Brown I was thinking of on my recent visit to Vegas. I have always had a fascination with the place, going back to family trips as a kid when we would roll through Vegas in my Dad's Volkswagen van en route to visiting relatives in Arizona. Playing carnival games at the Circus Circus hotel while my parents played slot machines, I fondly recall escaping for a short time into a fantasy world of windowless rooms, bright neon lit streets, 24 hour access, and all you can eat buffets. But while Vegas remains a place of play, it is rarely taken seriously as a cultural destination. It wasn't until I studied Learning From Las Vegas in an architecture seminar in grad school that I began to see the Vegas of my childhood memories in a completely new way. How incredible, I thought, it would be to create a field school in one of the most dynamic architectural environments of the planet. Indeed, what we see in Vegas is undoubtedly the synthesis of the "both/and" hallmark of contemporary postmodernism, a place to study where popular and high culture intersect and transform.

Below, I am sharing a fascinating 1984 interview with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown where they encourage audiences to see architecture as a kind of cultural symbolism and to aknowledge the complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity of the urban spaces they inhabit. Next time you find yourself in Las Vegas, remember to look and experience with new eyes.

The semiotics of postmodern architecture can be traced back to the early study of Las Vegas.
Image from Learning From Las Vegas (1972)
Las Vegas 2013-- a cacophony of visual and spatial stimuli
Image from my recent visit to Vegas.
Vegas remains a place of temporal fantasy, a new spectacle around every corner,
such as this pop-up wedding chapel.
Instagram image from my recent visit to Vegas.
Hotelier Steve Wynn paid $34 million at auction for Jeff Koons Tulips (2004),
It is now on public display in the lobby of the Wynn Hotel,  a fitting and symbolic
tribute to convergence of popular and high culture in Las Vegas.
Instagram image from my recent visit to Vegas.
Further Reading:

Culver, Lawrence. "Sin City or Suburban Crucible? Searching For Meanings in the New Las Vegas." Journal of Urban History 35(7): 1052-1058 (2009).

Hess, Alan and Robert Venturi. Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture. Chronicle Books, 1993.

Venturi, Robert et al. Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. MIT Press, 1977.