Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update

Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote their famous book, Learning from Las Vegas forty years ago. The book had two well-known ideas:  they divided buildings into either decorated sheds (those  that relied on ornamentation to communicate function) and ducklings (those that communicated their meaning by their physical form and they proposed that the architecture of Las Vegas  was meant to be seen by cars traveling by at 35-40 miles per hour.

I was in Las Vegas recently and I decided to reassess these ideas while there.

1. The decorated shed/duckling dichotomy is still valuable for considering architecture. But we now know that some buildings lie (the New York casino is not really New York). Also, a great many building simply have nothing to say. The curse of many buildings and neighborhoods is that they are dull. Or ugly. The fact that they are trying to say something is irrelevant.

2.  The architecture of the suburban strip may be meant to be observed at 35 miles per hour, but suburban traffic means that these speeds are rarely achieved. The architecture of the big box store behind acres of parking is immediately recognizable. But the slower speeds diminish their impact.

3.  In Las Vegas, new development eliminates the big setback from the street. The buildings now closely hug the sidewalk. So the very urban form the authors were celebrating, the conditions that facilitated the ability to appreciate commercial strips are no longer there.

4. Commercial strip architecture, essentially born in the post war era, is now old and feels dated. It’s not something new and trendy, if under appreciated. It’s what our parents like. It’s time for a new idiom to be born.

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