On the morning of January 10, 1969, thirteen graduate students gathered inside Yale’s Art and Architecture Building to give their final presentations in a studio led by the married architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. The students had spent the previous semester studying the urban design of Las Vegas, including a ten-day visit to the city during which they sketched hotel façades, measured nighttime illumination levels on the Strip, and crashed the opening gala for the Circus Circus Casino while wearing thrift-shop formal wear.
The agenda for the day stretched for more than eleven hours, with presentations on each of the studio’s dozen research categories, several short films (one of them shot from a helicopter borrowed from Howard Hughes), and breaks for lunch and dinner. The experts who assembled to discuss the results—the jury, in art- and architecture-school parlance—included the prominent Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully (whose son, Daniel, was a student in the studio) and the writer Tom Wolfe, whose 1964 Esquire essay “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” was an inspiration for Scott Brown and Venturi.
The following week, Venturi wrote a letter of thanks to some of the jurors, alluding to some of the raised eyebrows that he and Scott Brown encountered while bringing a close study of billboards and casino layouts into the architectural academy: “We think it went well in general,” he told them, “but I am still a little unbelieving that some people can’t understand we just wanted to look at Las Vegas in a dead-pan way which is also a poetic way of long standing.”
The book that emerged from this research, “Learning from Las Vegas,” published by M.I.T. Press in the fall of 1972 and credited to Scott Brown, Venturi, and their teaching assistant Steven Izenour, turned fifty last year. While it remains among the four or five most influential books on twentieth-century American urban form—alongside Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), Rem Koolhaas’s “Delirious New York” (1978), and Mike Davis’s “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” (1990)—it has also never quite outrun the critique that Venturi identified in that letter, a criticism that begins with suspicion of the idea that Las Vegas could ever be a subject worthy of serious architectural study.
The Times review of “Learning from Las Vegas,” by Roger Jellinek, carried the following headline: “In Praise (!) of Las Vegas.” Certainly, the conventional wisdom by that point saw Las Vegas and cities like it—and urban sprawl generally—as a scourge. (The Times had used a nearly identical headline, “In Praise (!) of Los Angeles,” less than a year earlier, for Jellinek’s review of Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”) The architect and critic Peter Blake’s widely read 1964 book, “God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America's Landscape,” saw evidence in the postwar commercial strip, with its jumble of gas stations and drive-ins, of “the decline, fall and subsequent disintegration of urban civilization in the United States.” The German philosopher Theodor Adorno made a similar argument (in similarly apocalyptic prose) in an essay called “The Schema of Mass Culture”: “The neon sentences which hang over our cities and outshine the natural light of the night with their own are comets presaging the natural disaster of society, its frozen death.”
Scott Brown and Venturi were certainly comfortable staking out a contrarian position; it was then, and long remained, their go-to move. “Learning from Las Vegas” prompted just the kind of polarized reaction they were aiming for. It dominated discussion within architectural circles and won praise from younger critics, like Paul Goldberger, who wrote in the Times that “the Venturis,” as they were sometimes called in those days, had, by giving Las Vegas so much attention, “infuriated other architects, fascinated students and made themselves perhaps the most controversial figures in American architecture today.” The book also reached an audience of general-interest readers, for whom it explained changes in American cities which were increasingly difficult to ignore but hadn’t yet been framed in such an engaging way. The book’s first run of two thousand copies quickly sold out, and it has stayed in print ever since.
But did “Learning from Las Vegas”—and the Yale studio that inspired it—really set out to praise the architecture and urbanism of the Strip? Or was it meant instead as a cautionary tale about sprawl, a phenomenon that could be seen at its “purest and most intense,” as the authors put it, in Las Vegas? The answer is both—and neither. What struck me when I went back to reread the book is how deliberately it works to collapse the distance, and therefore the distinction, between enthusiasm and skepticism, and ultimately between documentation and critique. Above all, “Learning from Las Vegas” argues for a curious and open-minded anti-utopianism, for understanding cities as they are rather than how planners wish they might be—and then using that knowledge, systematically and patiently won, as the basis for new architecture. “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect,” the authors wrote. “Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things.”
Robert Venturi à la Magritte on the Las Vegas Strip, 1966.Photograph by Denise Scott Brown / Courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, Inc.
Scott Brown and Venturi first visited Las Vegas together in November of 1966, a year before they were married. The trip was her idea. A young widow from South Africa, Scott Brown had begun teaching at U.C.L.A.’s new School of Architecture and Urban Planning after earning a master’s degree from and serving on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where she and Venturi met. At first, she thought that Los Angeles might make the most useful laboratory for studying the emerging urbanism of car-centric cities—for employing the analytical method that she self-deprecatingly called “town watching”—before realizing that Las Vegas offered a petri dish of more manageable size. “We rode around from casino to casino, dazed by the desert sun and dazzled by the signs, both loving and hating what we saw,” she recalled. “We were jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins.”
As is often the case when architects travel—especially architects who write—the jolt wasn’t simply a reaction to what they saw. It was also an electrifying realization that what they were seeing might be material, fodder for a potent follow-up to Venturi’s influential first book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” (That book, published in 1966, argued that modern architecture, by stripping away references to earlier landmarks or design movements, had drained new buildings of nuance and verve in favor of “prim dreams of pure order.” It also looked ahead to some of the preoccupations of the Yale studio by asking, in a reference to the American city-making of the era, “Is not Main Street almost all right?”) What if the pair mined their ambivalence about Las Vegas, that feeling of “both loving and hating what we saw,” for insights about the state of the postwar American city?
The trip formed the basis for a 1968 Architectural Forum essay by Scott Brown and Venturi, titled “A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas,” which gave rise to the studio and a formal book proposal. Scott Brown later suggested that “Learning from Las Vegas” wasn’t really about Las Vegas but instead about the broader “symbolism of architectural form,” and there is something to that notion. The book is preoccupied with the ways in which vernacular architecture in Las Vegas and places like it had begun to respond to the dominance of the car—and with how travelling by car through cities affects our understanding of speed, distance, and the information conveyed by signs of all kinds. “Is the sign the building or is the building the sign?” the authors ask. “These relationships, and combinations between signs and buildings, between architecture and symbolism, between form and meaning, between driver and the roadside are deeply relevant to architecture today and have been discussed at length by several writers. But they have not been studied in detail or as an overall system.”
Most architecture students over the years have read the shorter second edition of the book, a paperback published in 1977, but the 1972 large-format hardcover version is the livelier and more revealing document, if also the more contentious editorial product. It is divided into three parts. The first largely reproduces the Architectural Forum essay and includes a close study of the Strip’s architecture, signage, and street furniture. The second provides an analysis of how trends visible in Las Vegas relate to larger developments in architecture and urbanism. This section is anchored by a tribute to “ugly and ordinary” architecture, including a now famous distinction between buildings that are “ducks,” which is to say, commercial structures that take the shape of what they’re selling—a Mexican-food shop in Los Angeles resembling a giant tamale, for example—and those that are “decorated sheds,” or expediently made buildings that gain energy from signage and ornament. In short, the duck is a symbol; the decorated shed applies symbols to a more conventional architectural frame.
Many late-modern buildings, in Venturi and Scott Brown’s view, had become by the nineteen-sixties a species of duck, their flat roofs and spare geometry existing primarily to advertise their architectural loyalties—to sell stale International Style tamales, as it were. (As Ada Louise Huxtable put it in reviewing “Learning from Las Vegas” for The New York Review of Books, “The modern building has rejected decoration only to become one big decorative object in itself.”) Scott Brown and Venturi much preferred the decorated shed, in no small part because of the high-low frisson produced when sophisticated architects mixed straightforward design choices with ironic and over-scaled ones, as they themselves would do for the rest of their career.
The final third of the book is made up of a survey of design projects in the office of Venturi and Rauch (as their firm was then known), from 1965 to 1971. This section, whose advertorial tone will be familiar to regular readers of architecture monographs, was removed for the second edition. That edition also introduced an entirely different approach to graphic design. Scott Brown and Venturi clashed from the start with the head designer at M.I.T. Press, Muriel Cooper, who worked in the so-called Swiss style and had overseen a mammoth 1969 survey of the Bauhaus by Hans Wingler.
Much of Cooper’s design for the first edition of “Learning from Las Vegas” follows the modernist playbook to a T, with sans-serif typefaces, an unyielding five-column grid, and oceans of white space in which both text and undersized images swim. As Scott Brown later put it, “That our argument against Late Modern was couched in Late Modern graphics conveyed, to say the least, a mixed message—‘one irony too far,’ I said. We argued mightily with Muriel.”
At the same time, perhaps overcompensating for her reputation, Cooper also proposed an initial cover design, later modified, which included a bubble-wrap slip cover and was crowded with large text, busy to the point of being shouty. For Scott Brown and Venturi, this choice was altogether too much on the nose. “The cover as designed is absolutely unacceptable: leaving out questions of good or bad design, it is inappropriate,” they wrote, in a letter to Michael Connelly, the M.I.T. Press editorial director. “This is a serious study with a serious text and deserves a digniﬁed conventional image. The shock must come from the contents inside the book.”
As Aron Vinegar notes in his excellent 2008 history, “I Am a Monument: On Learning from Las Vegas,” “Scott Brown was convinced that Cooper had given them a ‘Duck.’ Cooper was sure that that was what they wanted all along.” Scott Brown and Venturi persuaded Connelly to let them design the second edition themselves. Among other changes, this “small, cheap, readable” edition, in Scott Brown’s words, added a subtitle (“The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form”) and featured a serif typeface, Baskerville, along with a discreet, even boring, cover. It also saw a bigger role, or at least more prominent credit, for Scott Brown: it included a preface signed only by her, and it removed the first edition’s “Note on Authorship and Attribution,” which had carried just Venturi’s name.
Roger Conover, the longtime executive editor for art and architecture at M.I.T. Press, hoped for years to reprint the first edition, which had remained something of a cult favorite among graphic designers. Scott Brown and Venturi always refused. This changed in 2015, when Conover, nearing retirement, approached Scott Brown to make one final try, not only promising her the chance to write the introduction for what is now known as “the facsimile edition” but also to give her, as he put it, “the last word in the case of any editorial differences.” (Venturi’s health was fading by this point; he died in 2018.) She agreed, settling some scores with Muriel Cooper in an essay that she titled “The Tyranny of the Template: The Graphic Design of the First Edition of Learning from Las Vegas.”
Venturi’s use of the word “dead-pan” in his letter to the Yale jurors—“we just wanted to look at Las Vegas in a dead-pan way which is also a poetic way of long standing”—was perhaps the most significant clue about what he and Scott Brown expected from the book’s design: something that was coolly above the fray (even while admiring so much about the fray), that didn’t try quite so hard or bear the signs of coming from any theoretical camp. This also reveals something important about their sources of inspiration. The Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha, in particular, had by the mid-nineteen-sixties established an attentive but ostensibly nonjudgmental approach to photographing urban landscapes, including gas stations and apartment buildings, that Scott Brown would later refer to as “deadpanning.” The title of Ruscha’s best-known book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” from 1966, is itself part of this approach, suggesting that by including “every building” he is not choosing or critiquing, just documenting.
Members of the Learning from Las Vegas Studio in front of the Stardust, 1968.Photograph courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, Inc.
When the students in the Yale course travelled west to Las Vegas, they stopped off first in Los Angeles and visited Ruscha’s studio, where they would have had a chance to learn how he captured his images of Sunset Boulevard by attaching a 35-mm. camera to the hood of his Ford. (They also spent a day at Disneyland.) A photo montage in “Learning from Las Vegas” is labelled “The Ed Ruscha elevation,” and one of the short firms produced for the Yale studio was called “Deadpan Las Vegas (or Three Projector Deadpan).”
“He was very sweet,” Scott Brown told me over the phone, of the visit to Ruscha’s studio. “The students did what they did best—they brought a case of beer and drank it together.”
Several other artists had been mining a similar vein for nearly a decade. Bernd and Hilla Becher began photographing the abandoned industrial buildings of Germany’s Ruhr region in the late nineteen-fifties, presenting them in a detached black-and-white style, and later shot the steel mills of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, using the same technique. The actor and photographer Dennis Hopper took a well-known photo of a Standard Oil gas station in Los Angeles from inside a car, in the early sixties. In 1964, Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch and John R. Myer published “The View from the Road,” a book meant as a primer for the design of the rapidly expanding American highway network. The Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry first gained wide attention with a 1965 Melrose Avenue live-work studio for the graphic designer Lou Danziger, which was wrapped in plain stucco, aping the banal architecture around it.
It was not as though these artists and architects suddenly lost their powers of judgment. But if “deadpanning” was a pose, it was a strategic and timely one. The most direct way for up-and-coming designers to separate themselves from the modernist generation was to reject the idea of heroic gestures, of remaking cities from the ground up. As Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli write in the introduction to “Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown,” “Venturi and Scott Brown’s approach was revolutionary precisely in its renunciation of the rhetoric of revolution in favor of focusing architectural thought and action on the here and now. . . . It is this insistence on the city as it actually is that is the lasting legacy of Learning from Las Vegas.”
Yet that legacy, in certain respects, is fading, even as Scott Brown herself, and the work that she did before teaming up with Venturi, has become the focus of new scholarship. (A symposium on her career and teaching methods, pegged to a new book of essays edited by Frida Grahn, will be held at the Yale School of Architecture on February 8th.) “Learning from Las Vegas” now finds itself, perhaps more so than at any time since its publication, out of step with the current tenor of architectural practice and criticism. According to Izzy Kornblatt, who is in the first year of a Ph.D. program in architectural history and theory at Yale, students now tend to know the book “only for its title and for the distinction it makes between ‘ducks’ and ‘decorated sheds.’ ” And it is precisely the book’s nonjudgmental framing, what younger architects might call its passivity, that is responsible for this attitude, particularly when it comes to the effects of unconstrained capitalism on city-making. Activism—in particular efforts to take on the climate crisis, racial inequities and exploitative labor practices—has returned to the fore in the profession, and for good reason. “To tear down Paris and begin again” is not so far, in spirit, from the current mood, even if the political goals of many young architects are quite different from those of the right-leaning Le Corbusier. An approach that begins with close observation and ends with highly literate if occasionally self-satisfied commentary on that observation—the Scott Brown and Venturi method—seems ill-equipped, these days, to change the world in all the depressingly vast ways that it needs changing. What good is town watching when the town is on fire?
This is not a new critique. The architectural historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri dismissed Scott Brown and Venturi for what he called their “facile ironies.” Yet those twenty-first-century readers tempted to brush off “Learning from Las Vegas” as a neutral travelogue risk missing the real power of its analysis—and the ways in which its approach might make today’s architecture of activism and political urgency sharper and more effective. We forget it now, perhaps because the effort was so entirely successful, but the book’s larger goals went far beyond understanding the quickly growing cities of the American West. Scott Brown and Venturi also wanted to accelerate a changing of the guard in architecture. In that sense, the smoke screen of non-judgment allowed them to plausibly claim a kind of “Who, me?” innocence as they worked to make room for their own generation to start running things.
After all, their frustration wasn’t with the revolutionary nature of the modernist project so much as with how it had grown stagnant and pleased with itself. As they write in the acknowledgments of “Learning from Las Vegas,” “Since we have criticized Modern architecture, it is proper here to state our intensive 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.”
It would be going too far to claim that “Learning Las Vegas” was organized fundamentally as a kind of Trojan horse, sneaking anti-establishment ideas (about, for example, all the ways that modernism and its leading practitioners had reached a dead end) into the academy in the guise of mere empiricism, of diagrams and measurement. But the book’s seeming impartiality does serve to disguise its cunning. The young architects of today, who have their own designs on upheaval—even if their goals are more urgent or politically ambitious than Scott Brown and Venturi’s—could learn a thing or two from the strategy that the couple and their students perfected a half century ago, not so much storming the barricades as walking calmly and determinedly around them, flashing a camera or sketch pad as a kind of all-access pass. The “right revolution” this time around, whether it’s founded on climate activism or an architecture of racial or economic justice, will only benefit from that kind of savvy. In more direct terms, some of the most exploitative and environmentally suspect examples of recent urban planning—see the recent World Cup host Qatar, for starters—still haven’t received anything near the level of analysis that “Learning from Las Vegas” brought to the Nevada desert. ♦