Winter 1999

Big book, little buildings

In its first edition, this seminal book was a groundbreaking collision between architecture and graphic design, emphasising 'image' over 'form'

In 1972, when Learning From Las Vegas was first published, its large format and work-in-progress appearance could have been easily dismissed as part of the discipline’s lazy drift toward paper architecture or self-conscious ironic iconoclasm. But in fact the book was critical of both. In retrospect it is one of the key works of postmodernism.

“We shall emphasise image – image over process or form – in asserting that architecture depends in its perception and creation on past experience and emotional association and that these symbolic and representational elements may often be contradictory to the form, structure and program with which they combine in the same building.”

Learning from Las Vegas began as a student project at Yale School of Art and Architecture in the autumn of 1968. The project brief began with the following statement.

“Passing through Las Vegas is Route 91, the archetype of the commercial strip, the phenomenon at its purest and most intense. We believe a careful documentation and analysis of its physical form is as important to architects and urbanist today as were the studies of medieval Europe and ancient Rome and Greece to earlier generations”.

The project was based on the developing recognition of the importance of popular culture in academic institutions and the project team’s belief that Modernist architecture had reached a dead end. Since this time Learning from Las Vegas has become a standard text for the architectural student. The original large-format (360x275mm) edition was soon replaced by a smaller one. In the first edition, the authors carried their argument through the integration of illustration and widely spaced text, imaginatively designed by Muriel Cooper. Cooper used an IBM “golfball” typewriter to set the text in Composer Univers for the camera-ready artwork. The clear, didactic, combination of diagram, sketch and photograph have great narrative clarity (Cooper later set up a “Visible Language” workshop in the architecture department at MIT).
Thirteen students took part in the original project including two graphic designers. The book is full of references to the important lessons architecture could derive from graphic design.

“On route 66 the billboards mark the way through the vast spaces beyond urban sprawl. But these spatial characteristics of form, position, and orientation are secondary to their symbolic function. Along the highway, advertising Tanya via graphics and anatomy, like advertising the victories of Constantine via inscriptions and bas reliefs, is more important than identifying the space”.

The book’s premise and methodology are now so firmly embedded in design culture that its influences are found everywhere from David Carsons’ Fotografiks to typefaces such as Template Gothic. Five years ago Ed Fella at CalArts was setting a similar project for new students entering the postgraduate graphic design programme, based on route 91. The section called “Studio Notes“ show how a tutor can teach from the city of Las Vegas.

This book represents the application and development of ideas developed in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (MIT Press 1965). Here the architect reassessed the aesthetics of Baroque architecture in terms of the pleasure and entertainment that resulted from the contrapuntal massing of forms and light, the illogical relation of exterior to interior and the similarly capricious use of scale in the motifs of Baroque buildings. Learning From Las Vegas exposed the difference between modern life and Modernism. Despite the efforts of architects and planners, modern life was messy, demotic, diverse and above all textually rich. Modernism was doctrinaire and symbolically autistic. By re-assessing unfashionable Classicism and unacceptable commercialism, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour made the ephemeral, transient and arcane a respectable source of inspiration to a generation trapped in the inherently contradictory aesthetics of Miesian form summed up by the phrase “less is more”.

Learning from Las Vegas helped shift the basis for design away from form and toward language, a notion clearly signalled in a subtitle added to later editions of the book: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. The authors were clearly indebted to Pop Art and the new interest in semiology - as can be seen from the diagrams. This book took a 1968 sensibility and applied it to form in a way that anticipated the graphic design preoccupations of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a concern for a narrative design, whether the dialogue be that of popular culture, academic historicism or Deconstructionivism. The author’s key inspiration was in treating a subject, formerly regarded as an aesthetic pariah – the Strip – with a high degree of seriousness, as Roland Barthes had done in Mythologies. From this they derived the distinction between a duck (most Modern Movement architecture), and a decorated shed, which emerged as the major trope of early postmodernism. Learning From Las Vegas demonstrated how to use popular culture as a basis for design rather than as a reference point for art. As Peter Hall noted in “Electric Ghosts” (AIGA Journal no. 2 vol. 17 Cult and Culture), “the book gave architectural legitimacy to the gaudy signs and commercially driven form of the gambling town…

It is hard to overestimate the effects that such positions had on subsequent designs. Yet at the time architecture was more interested in re-exploring the past (the Architectural Review for example did not review the first edition of Learning From Las Vegas) the design world was still dominated by the influence of Pop or Rock aesthetics. Yet over the next five years, both architecture and design went through a profound change from the Modern to the postmodern, which in the period 1976-1989 was certainly predicated on the assumptions about meaning and narrative so clearly articulated in Learning from Las Vegas.

David Heathcote, lecturer, Liverpool school of art and design

First published in Eye no. 34 vol. 9 1999

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.