In 1968, Robert Venturi took a team of Yale architecture students to Las Vegas, and Learning from Las Vegas 1977, is the delayed outcome. Robert Venturi and Scott Brown claimed that Las Vegas of the 1960s, is a city that put “symbols in space before form in space,” that taught them about communication in architecture as a function and element of architecture. It was an attempt to unravel what Venturi perceived as a weak point in architectural thinking. In doubt that the topography of a city has ever been described so imaginatively, as well as the conventional land?use maps, and street maps, Mr. Venturi presents aerial photography, maps of undeveloped land, of asphalt parking areas, of traffic intensity. He charts the distribution of wedding chapels, churches, auto rental agencies and food stores. He maps the ceremonial spaces and shows how public spaces extend indoors and outdoors. He maps the distribution of commercial signs and road signs; one map presents, he assures us, every written word that can be seen from the road through the main Strip. There is a map showing the varying in tensity of illumination along the Strip. There is a composite panorama of both sides of the Strip, and a film sequence of it taken from a moving car. There are comparative studies of the Strip’s street “furniture” and of the key elements of the motels and gas stations. The presentation is some times strained (a case could be made for an accompanying videotape), but the effect is radically interesting, for this description forces us to acknowledge a complex order of forms that we usually choose to ignore.
Above all, literally, there is the order in the signs of Las Vegas. For Mr. Venturi, Las Vegas is a city of “communication over space.” The signs of Las Vegas are often taller and certainly more prominent than the buildings whose functions they advertise, because they are designed to be read at 60 miles an hour. Mr. Venturi describes Las Vegas as a giant auto piazza defined by its own version of triumphal arches and spires. That the signs advertise an “oasis” of gambling and glamour is of no more concern to Mr. Venturi than the fact that a Gothic cathedral’s west front or the mosaic interior decor of a Byzantine basilica advertises a religion—what matters to him is the acceptance of signs as an appropriate element of architecture.
“Allusion and comment; on the past or present or on our great commonplaces or old clichés, and inclusion of the every day in the environment, sacred and profane— these are what are lacking in present?day modern architecture.” In a refreshingly blunt polemic Mr. Venturi argues that the suppression of decoration in favour of spatial and structural expressionism has resulted in grandiose abstraction; modernist buildings are “too architectural.”