Learning from Las Vegas | The Architect Who Turned the City into America’s Architecture

The pioneering postmodern architect, Robert Venturi, brought the glamour of Sin City to the masses

by Stefan Al
Oct 11 2018, 9:00pm

In 1968, an unusual group of people attended the gala opening of the Circus Circus hotel and casino in Las Vegas: a Yale class of graduate architecture students, led by professors Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. They had come to Las Vegas not to gamble but to learn. “Yale Professor Will Praise Strip for $8,925,” a local paper announced the day of their arrival, having learned about Venturi’s request for a study grant at city hall.

Why would anyone think they had come to praise the Strip? They could have just as easily come to bury it. “Serious architects still tend to regard exterior decoration as dishonest,” cultural critic Tom Wolfe wrote. “Electric tubing is still gauche.” Las Vegas was very different from what was taught in architecture departments such as at Yale, where students learned modernism: buildings as boxes, bare, without any decoration.

“He irreverently adapted modernist founding father Mies van der Rohe’s maxim “Less is more” to “Less is a bore””

The Yale academics, however, did not plan to trash the Strip. Venturi already had a name as one of modernism’s most vocal critics, having published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), an attack on the purism and simplicity of modernist architecture, in which he irreverently adapted modernist founding father Mies van der Rohe’s maxim “Less is more“ to “Less is a bore.”

Scott Brown was following her interest in pop culture, influenced by Richard Hamilton, who challenged fine art traditions with his art collage assembled from advertisements, including a bodybuilder holding a Tootsie Pop.

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