Which building is better, the duck or the ornamented shed? More importantly, what kind of architecture does the average American prefer? In their landmark 1972 publication Learning From Las Vegas, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi probed these questions by turning their back on paternalistic modernism in favor of the glowing, overtly kitsch, and symbolic Mecca of the Las Vegas strip. From a chance encounter during a meeting in the Library of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania and shared trips to the strip to critically shaping a new generation of architects, discover the hidden details of the romance and city that defined postmodernism in this latest episode from 99% Invisible.
Following a clandestine interaction following a meeting to discuss the destruction of the 1890 Library of Fine Arts at the University of Pensilvania—where Scott Brown and Venturi taught—the pair discovered their shared interest in the historic and ornamental. Both were fond of decorative architecture and soon began sharing research and even teaching alongside one another. After relocating from the University of Pennsylvania to Berkley, Scott Brown stumbled upon the neon sea of the Las Vegas strip. “‘Is this love or is this hate?” Scott Brown remembers asking herself. “Las Vegas was a place people voted for with their feet…hey went there in droves.” In 1966, she invited Venturi for a visit.
The pair spent four days taking pictures, driving the strip and, ultimately, falling in love. Scott Brown would eventually propose to Venturi and move back to the east coast where they would both take up positions at Yale. Still enamored with the city, Scott Brown and Venturi planned a twelve-week-long studio in Las Vegas where they made notes, conducted interviews, drew maps, took photos, walked the strip, and attended casino openings.
Scott Brown and Venturi compiled the work of their student’s with the help of teaching assistant Steven Izenour in 1972 to form the seminal Learning from Las Vegas. Their book asked architects to step down from their corporate towers and consider the everyday places people enjoy, to embrace Main Street instead of the Champs-Élysées.
Perhaps the most famous inclusion in the publications was the discussion of the duck and the ornamented shed—a building symbolic of its program constructed by a modernist block that required signage to express its meaning. Venturi and Scott Brown wanted to make buildings legible. Thus, not every structure needed a sign or symbolic form but desperately needed to communicate beyond the impotent glazed modernist tower filling American cities.
While the book was a call to arms for the following postmodern movement, Scott Brown has noted that Learning from Las Vegas is less about the strip itself and more about critically engaging the everyday. But, perhaps we could say the book is as much about architecture as it is about love.
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How can we plan a better city? The answer has confounded architects and urban planners since the birth of the industrial city. One attempt at answering came in the form of a spectacular modernist proposal outside of Amsterdam called the Bijlmermeer. And, as a new two-part episode by 99% Invisible reveals, it failed miserably.