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Exhibition review: 'Las Vegas Studio: Images From the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown' at MOCA-PDC

March 30, 2010 |  8:30 pm

Vegasnugget The photographs on display in "Las Vegas Studio: Images From the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown" have been rescued, in essence, from the cutting-room floor. It just happens to be one of the richest, most revelatory cutting-room floors in architectural history.

The exhibition, at the Museum of Contemporary Art's branch at the Pacific Design Center through June 20, features images drawn from the trip that architects Venturi and Scott Brown took with a dozen or so Yale students to Las Vegas in 1968, the year after they were married.

The journey was fodder for the groundbreaking book they would publish in 1972, together with their young associate Steven Izenour, as "Learning From Las Vegas." The now-canonical book helped accelerate the profession's move away from the self-importance of postwar modern architecture and toward a new interest in ornament, history and, perhaps above all, a pop sensibility.

That part of the story -- how these architects mined the parking lots and neon-lighted architecture of Las Vegas for some early scholarly jewels of architecture's post-modern phase  -- is well known.  But the show's organizers, European curators Martino Stierli and Hilar Stadler and MOCA's Philipp Kaiser, are also determined to dust off part of the photographic record that we've never seen before: images that Venturi and Scott Brown and their students used to help them understand the city's car culture and energetic horizontal sprawl but left out of the book.

The discard pile, in this case, becomes the inspiration.

What the show makes clear is that their Las Vegas breakthrough was possible only because Venturi and Scott Brown were willing to take the city on its own terms -- to find inspiration in what was already there instead of in what might be created by a series of grand, utopian gestures.

Vegasbig At the beginning of the exhibition is a pair of photographs -- one of Venturi by Scott Brown and the other of Scott Brown by Venturi -- sharpened by that sensibility. The first shows Venturi with his back to the camera, wearing a black suit, and posing on the desert outskirts of the city, looking toward the Strip.

Scott Brown has framed the image so that he looks like a monument himself. But the picture is also sweetly ironic; it clearly wants to undercut the very idea of monumentality  -- or at least to suggest that in a truly American city like Las Vegas, anything (or anyone) can qualify as a monument.

The second picture in the pair shows Scott Brown, hands on hips, in the same spot but directly facing the camera. Her level, open gaze suggests the frankness and optimism that marked the architects' project in Las Vegas.

Other images are snapshots in the fullest sense of the word. They record not only architectural subject matter -- marquees, fountains and parking lots in slanting, early-morning and late-afternoon light -- but also enthusiasm about the act of looking.

What comes across in these photographs is an almost overpowering sense not only of freedom and discovery but also of innocence -- although the innocence may well have been at least partly strategic, an element of the architects' self-mythologizing impulse. Still, Las Vegas in these pictures seems remarkably light on its feet, unburdened by the elaborate, elephantine casino-hotel complexes that now line the Strip.Vegasday

And the architects themselves seem entirely free of jaded, world-weary attitude that has closed off so many schools of architecture from the wider world in recent years. I found myself thinking throughout the show of Charles and Ray Eames, whose films from the era are filled with a similarly bighearted intelligence.

"Las Vegas Studio" is modestly scaled. It includes several dozen photographs arranged on two walls -- daytime pictures on one side and nighttime images on another -- plus a small number of movies shot by Venturi's and Scott Brown's students and, in the center of the gallery, mock-ups and early editions of "Learning From Las Vegas."

Frankly, it could use more room. A bigger canvas might have allowed the curators to draw clearer connections between the research the students were doing and the way Las Vegas and other Western cities developed in the decades following World War II.

In particular, the role that Los Angeles played in the courtship between Las Vegas and these architects is only hinted at. On their way to Las Vegas in 1968, Venturi and Scott Brown and their students spent four days in and around L.A.; among other stops, they visited Disneyland and paid a visit to the studio of Ed Ruscha, whose deadpan artistic sensibility and approach to recording the urban landscape -- in books such as "Some Los Angeles Apartments" and "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" -- helped set the tone for "Learning From Las Vegas."

Scott Brown, who taught at UCLA between 1965 and 1967, has said that Los Angeles could easily have been the subject matter for both the class and the book, but that Las Vegas offered a "distilled" version of the themes the architects wanted to pursue.

Other clear influences on the way Venturi and Scott Brown approached Las Vegas were the architect Charles Moore, whose essay on West Coast urbanism, "You Have to Pay for the Public Life," appeared in the Yale journal Perspecta in 1965, and the British architectural historian Reyner Banham. Perhaps the clearest influence of all was the writer Tom Wolfe -- in particular his frothy Esquire magazine essay of 1964, "Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can't hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!!"Vegassm

That connection alone is enough to make you think that an entire exhibition could be mounted on the relationship between punctuation and architectural attitude. Taking a cue from Wolfe, in those days Venturi and Scott Brown brought to architecture the same willfully naive energy that a well-placed exclamation point brings to a sentence.

You can also imagine a roomful of material here on the younger architects whose careers were shaped by their exposure to "Learning From Las Vegas." The excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition does include some material in that vein.

In a conversation with Peter Fischli and Hans Ulrich Obrist, architect Rem Koolhaas says that the book taught him that perhaps after the end of modernism and utopian city-planning "you could no longer write manifestos, but that you could write about cities as if they themselves were a manifesto.... Or, the discovery of a city is a manifesto."

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos: From top, Fremont Street, Las Vegas 1968; Studies of Billboards, office of Venturi and Rauch Architects, Philadelphia 1968; Las Vegas Strip 1966; Stardust Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas 1968. Credit: all photos Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates Philadelphia.