Feature

Exhibit of the week: Las Vegas Studio: Images From the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

The husband-and-wife architectural team's fascination with the squat buildings and billboards of Las Vegas eventually led to a treatise on how car culture changed America's urban landscape. 

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los AngelesThrough June 20

Las Vegas in the 1960s was a city of “vast parking lots speckled with classic cars, blue skies, and expanses of desert punctuated with block lettering,” said Rachel Wolff in TheDailyBeast.com. “In retrospect, it all seems very quaint and colorful.” But for most architects and urban planners of the era, the squat buildings and “billboards dripping with languid showgirls” were an affront. It took the husband-and-wife architectural team of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi to convince intellectuals that “Sin City had more to offer than just bright lights, dapper crooners, and Mafia goodfellas.” In 1968, the two took a trip to the desert with several of their students from Yale, returning with thousands of photographs of its signs, streets, and structures. A few years later they wrote a book, with Steven Izenour, called Learning From Las Vegas, “arguably the most significant treatise on form and function written in the last 50 years.”

Their ideas scandalized the architectural establishment, said Martin Filler in The New York Review of Books website. Liberal critics objected to the author’s seeming celebration of the “rampant commercialization of the public realm,” while conservative critics were appalled by its rejection of such traditional virtues as beauty and order. In many ways, “the controversy has never subsided.” Yet Learning From Las Vegas has proved to be a lasting analysis of how car culture changed America’s urban landscape. Now an exhibition at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art—comprising several dozen of Scott Brown and Venturi’s original photographs—lets us see the city as they first did. Las Vegas’ “dazzling signs” and structurally simple (but garishly decorated) buildings were, to them, not urban clutter but “manifestations of American pop vitality.”

These images have rarely been publicly displayed before, said Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times. Though never intended to be exhibited as independent works of art, quite a few turn out to be much more than snapshots. “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.” About the only thing that bothered me about this rich, revelatory exhibition was its size—far too small. A more generous selection would be needed to truly capture the “bighearted intelligence” that this remarkable couple has brought to both authorship and architecture.

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