Not Learning From Learning From Las Vegas

The exhibition What We Learned at Yale and the 3-day symposium Architecture After Las Vegas prompted a predictable degree of puffery from those media-friendly, Po-Mo apologists over at FAT.  Sean Griffiths review in Building Design was generally a list of names of the people who attended and a conclusion which appears to suggest that the text has finally won some sort of victory over Brutalism on its home turf. The piece by Charles Holland at least grasps the significance of the book as a hugely influential model for ordering and presenting architectural research. Both however failed to take a critical look at how the architect’s take their research and extrapolate an architectural style from it.

The main reason they do this is by failing to learn the lessons of Las Vegas itself. Since the book was published the city has changed fundamentally. If they had done so they may have realised that, Venturi Scott Brown’s aesethetic approach was a dead-end and that Learning from Las Vegas, far from finally being a building block for an aesthetic approach was in fact a cul-de-sac in this regard and only worthwhile as a methodology. In doing so, the two architects perpetuate the myth of Venturi and Scott Brown as a pair of social revolutionaries and that architecture which is extrapolated from commercial signage or building types is somehow ‘of the people’ more than buildings produced under a modernist agenda which speaks to our highest aspirations. They don’t look at the lessons of Las Vegas, and from this we must conclude that although this is the subject of the book which they both love so ardently, they may not have actually been there.

Because if you go to Las Vegas – and everyone in the world should – you will find that the Las Vegas which Venturi and Scott Brown describe, is, apart from a couple of sites downtown and some signs in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard, is all gone. The signs of Las Vegas – so important to Learning from Las Vegas are museum pieces. Beautiful gorgeous, sumptuous museum pieces but museum pieces. The decorated sheds are no more, their hulking forms long since bull-dozed. Caesar’s Palace and the Palms casino’s still exist but not in the manner which Venturi and Scott Brown documented them. Why should this be? Partly for the reasons, which the couple toegerhter with Steven Izenour explain the slow merging between sign and building – the evelution of the themed hotel. The relationship between shed and sign was seen as ultimately unsatisfactory by the casino owner and by the visitor. The commercial imperative of the Strip outweighs all however.

Since Steve Wynn arrived in Las Vegas the Venturi Scott Brown model has been inverted. His first venture Treasure Island – now branded Ti – certainly did fit into their model but since then he has confounded the architectural academics view of the city. As they have made quite clear, the believe that “Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas is irrelevant.” And yet how can this be? How can a man who dominated the very city they documented only some two decades later be ‘irrelevant’? How can the man who built, the Mirage, the Bellagio, the Wynn and the Encore, the man who revitalised the city suddenly act as such a turn-off to two architects who found the place such pure aphrodisiac?

Steve Wynn had very different ideas about culture compared to the Yale professors. It was Roger Thomas, Steve Wynn’s designer  who invited Andy Warhol to interview Wynn first. Warhol later made a gold picture of Wynn from a polaroid he took during the interview. So far so very Pop but Thomas later got Wynn interested in art himself. “People envision Las Vegas as a place where a craps dealer talking to a hooker about a gambler. I don’t think they want to allow us membership in the real world, the normal world,” Thomas has said. From his encouragement at the end of the 1990s, Steve Wynn spent so much time buying art from Sotheby’s that rumours circulated he wanted to buy it. In 1999 he bought Seurat’s Paysage, L’Île de la Grande-Jatte for $35.2 million. He became obsessed with Picasso. He created the Picasso restaurant at the Bellagio, designed by Picasso’s son and studded with some of the painter’s finest work.

Steve Wynn brought high art to Las Vegas and thereby inverted the expected flow between low brow and high culture that Venturi and Scott Brown had created. They had posited a Vegas where ‘the little people’ disported themselves. Architects could then extract the symbolism of this commercial activity and use it to their own ends. When Wynn started building hotels, he did so in his own luxury brand of Modernism rather than the manner ‘discovered’ and later prescribed by Venturi Scott Brown. His signature, in gold is all that adorns the chocolate glass facade.

An egoist Wynn may be but  he is no elitist. He’s there to sell people a vision of luxury – to create the ultimate holiday destination a place where people feel so stimulated visually that they lose all sense and gamble. But it shows that the concepts of high art and low art that Venturi Scott Brown thought they could circumvent are easily twisted back in the same direction. Their reading is built upon an utterly naive vision of capitalist architectural production, which sees the architect in an aloof, detached position, rather than utterly embedded within it. An understandable mistake given their own positions when writing Learning from Las Vegas. Indeed, one should be very wary of believing the idea that they were somehow mavericks. Denise Scott Brown may not have won a Pritzker and the partnership may not have won the RIBA Gold Medal but their selected works show them to have had a great deal of influence particularly within American academia, never mind the art world and civic government. What kind of mavericks would be let near the National Gallery in London?

But it is Las Vegas that prompts these remarks and and it is Las Vegas that is the most revealing. Visiting it today, one wonders, why did they chose here? Even if we accept the academics definition of ‘the little people’, why should we extrapolate an architectural strategy from ‘the little people’ at play? Why is the Las Vegas Strip a more significant model to extract an aesthetic approach than say the people at work or at home? Today, just as it was yesterday, the commercial model of Las Vegas is to provide a world far removed from the quotidian experience. It is a fantastic fun-filled, place that provides laughs as much as occasional confusion and despair. (Especially towards the end of a week long trip!) The commercial approach is to bring people in, give them cheap hotel rooms, stun them with spectacle and then get them gambling and losing money. Why would this be a good model for a quotidian urban experience? Las Vegas is part of an international capitalist system. It has its role. It’s not a nirvana, a portal into the soul of the common man.

Holland and Griffiths also fail to realise that the Las Vegas has expanded since Learning from Las Vegas was written. Since writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson picked over the city’s entrails to define how the American Dream died, the town has become a city. We need to look to the work of art crtic Dave Hickey to identify the unique cultural life here, one which confounds the Venturi Scott Brown’s approach. Hickey’s wife, the astonishingly named Libby Lumpkin, was the first curator of Steve Wynn’s gallery at the Bellagio. Prompted by this unique cultural insight and his own arrant disposition, Hickey developed the thesis that museums ought to be privately funded. Paraphrasing Thomas Paine, he says governments should deal with our wickedness, not our pleasures. He subsequently extrapolated the argument that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on a direct, one-to-one relationship between the viewer and the image. Once we allow meaning to figure into a work’s value, we become slaves to institutions that are in the business of mediating this meaning to the masses. He singles out universities for special opprobrium. It’s a contentious view but one which shows how the city has rebelled against the role allotted to it within art academic discourse.

Learning from Las Vegas remains an interesting historical document of a moment in Las Vegas’s fascinating history. It also stands as important model on how to collect and assimilate architectural research, which as Charles Holland points out, many other architecture books have built upon, but his idea that Nothing is more laughable than the idea of Venturi Scott Brown are social revolutionaries is laughable. In Learning from Las Vegas we find a constructed concept of the ‘little people’ and a self-conscious relationship between that body and the bourgeois academic architect. This is why the book has been generally sidelined as a model for architectural production, although it has become a means of framing research.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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2 Responses to Not Learning From Learning From Las Vegas

  1. Great article. I have been thinking along similar lines for years.

  2. waua says:

    It’s interesting how easy it is to become locked into one’s own theoretical model. And how one then often attempt to reshape the world to fit the model rather than the other way round.

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