Learning from Las Vegas & the Demise of Utopian Architecture

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

            And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.  Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that.  Our energy would prevail.  There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs.  We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave….

            So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971

This has been a technical studio.  We re evolving new tools:  analytical tools for understanding new space and form, and graphic tools for representing them.  Don’t bug us for lack of social concern; we are trying to train ourselves to offer socially relevant skills.

– Student Notes, “Commercial Values and Commercial Methods,” Learning from Las Vegas, 1972

[Las Vegas] is already beginning to fade, as energy becomes more expensive and the architecture less inventive.  It won’t blow away in the night, but you begin to wish it might, because it will never make noble ruins, and it will never discover how to fade away gracefully.

– Reynar Banham, Scenes in America Deserta, 1982

The first time I visited Las Vegas was on business.  It also happened to be my birthday.  Coworkers, family and friends made much of this seemingly fortuitous coincidence; slyly congratulating me on the cosmic conspiracy that sent a young New York twenty-something to a city famous for sun and sin on business on his birthday.  “Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”  In truth, not only was this my first time visiting Las Vegas, but it was also the first time that I would travel west of Cleveland; the first time that I would experience, even if only in derivative form, the great deserts of the American Southwest.

My immediate impressions of the city, however, fell significantly short of my, in retrospect, extremely exaggerated expectations.  Everything in Vegas is staged, but the staging can be somewhat hackneyed and corny, and the place seems more suited to extras than to “stars” of even the lowest caliber.  Thus, one checks in only to walk inevitably through a casino on one’s way to the elevator that will bring him/her to his/her room; the Las Vegas casino is equally inevitably filled by the same middle aged and elderly individuals that one will encounter in any casino, glued to various bleeping, blinking and boisterous machines, into which they feed money with a religious fervor that far exceeds that with which even the most evangelical devotee deposits dollars into the parishioner’s cap.

The casinos are purposefully labyrinthian; perpetually self-seeming and immense, so that visitors will get lost in a Versailles-like Hall of Mirrors of slot machines, blackjack tables and roulette, until they resign themselves to liquidating whatever is left of their meager assets.  Compared to the Escher-like interiors of the hotel-casinos, the strip is a pretty straightforward affair – two rows of gaudy structures facing one another along a broad multi-lane highway.  The first thing any visitor to Las Vegas who hasn’t rented a car learns is that the city is not designed for pedestrian traffic, and that, rather, the entire city is scaled to the automobile; the second thing they learn is that, beyond the strip is a veritable wasteland of less-and-less reputable establishments and increasingly low-income dwellings, baked and battered beneath the brutal desert sun.

Finally, the city is perhaps one of the best examples of a monoculture.  If you are relatively uninterested in gambling, drinking or lounge-shows, then Las Vegas leaves little for entertainment.  In the end, I left Las Vegas with little to leave in this exceptional city of excess, except for the dim memory of one of the most uneventful birthdays I have ever had, surrounded by strangers with whom it would have been hard to sympathize, and in whose company I found little comfort, much less interest, all in the midst of a foreboding desert isolation, the beauty of which was significantly marred by the brilliant lights of the Bellagio sign outside my hotel window; any excited anticipation I might have felt on entering the city was eclipsed by that of leaving it, and returning to my native New York.

These were my impressions of Las Vegas, years before I ever entered architecture school, much less read Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s little book on the city; I am sad to say that little has changed.  In fact, my relationship with Learning from Las Vegas is not dissimilar to my relationship with the city behind the book.  Like Las Vegas, I felt great anticipation in picking it up, as if I were entering a world of indulgent taboos, broken; liberation from staid arguments about “Architecture” with a big “A,” and towards a vindication and/or celebration of popular architectural forms.  However, on setting aside Venturi and Scott Brown’s book, I felt that taboos had not been transcended, rather they had been reinforced, I felt the dissatisfied unease of a broken promise – there was nothing either revolutionary or radical about this work – in fact it seemed less a celebration of popular architectural styles than that of commonness, in the most derogatory fashion; elitist, egotistical, uninteresting.

At the time, I couldn’t quite place my malcontent, perhaps because I didn’t known enough about architecture, or the history of the era; but now I know what it is about this little book that is so disappointing – it represents a fundamental renunciation of imagination and idealism in architecture, and it is widely celebrated for doing so.  By reducing architecture to a system of symbolic tinkering, Venturi and Scott Brown essentially eviscerated the utopian aspirations of radical practice.  They reduced architecture to its meanest form, hypocritically labeling architectural utopianism “elitist” and towing the common line of the ephemeral Nixonian “silent majority;” all the while, turning the objectifying lens of anthropological “otherness” upon the very subjects that they extolled for their “commonness.”

The numerous inversions of the text bleed through its high-art references to the work of Ed Ruscha; its appropriation of images from Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard; its fundamental indifference to essential architectural issues and the unabashed arrogance that dominates a large part of the student notes appended to the “conclusions” of the studio, something clearly discernable in the “note” that appears at the beginning of this essay.  In the end, one leaves Learning from Las Vegas, with the distinct impression that, rather than documenting any radical new approach to architecture, it documents the debauched junket of a bunch of privileged and self-important children, in a city that they might have aestheticized, but ill understood; and which they explored only to the extent of their own pleasure.

It is both sad and telling that, in many respects, this book has become the architectural manifesto of its age.  Yet, insofar as it is representative of its time, it is only emblematic of the general rejection of social conscience that occurred throughout the 1970s and that continues, in many respects, today, unabated.  In fact, the symbolic emphasis of Learning from Las Vegas reproduces, in a somewhat diffuse fashion, a similar emphasis on cultural symbols in the work of Pop artists, like Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein; furthermore, the ultimate argument of Learning from Las Vegas can be summed up as a paraphrase of the conceptual artist Ad Reinhardt’s famous dictum, “Architecture is Architecture, and everything else is everything else.”  Yet, while architects might preen themselves on the belief that “architecture is the mother of all arts,” there is a fundamental difference between the social ramifications of art, and those of architecture.

While art is, in many respects, primarily an aesthetic venture, and only potentially (or ostensibly) a social act, the products of architecture are fundamentally social, enacted predominantly in the public sphere and directly effecting the lives of the individuals on which acts of architectural exegesis are imposed, by no other right than that of the financial patron.  In other words, while artists can choose the degree to which their work is public or private, and while patrons of the arts can choose to engage or ignore the works produced by artists; architects cannot arbitrarily constrict their “audiences,” nor can the majority of architectural detainees decide to ignore the places that they inhabit on any variety of levels.  Architecture, good or bad, imposes itself upon the public in unavoidable ways.

Thus, while the work of architects, both in terms of construction and demolition, and in terms of life-cycle maintenance, requires the majority of energy and a large part of material and labor expenditure today, that of the artist demands exponentially less; thus, while visitors to the many art institutions of the world might number (idealistically) into the hundreds of millions, the work of the architect effects billions globally daily, aesthetically, socially, culturally and economically.  Yet, while the importance of architecture (and meaningful architectural response) has significantly grown over the last century, the social conscience of the discipline has diminished.  Asserting its cultural imperative in terms of “art-as-art,” architecture has both avoided and ignored its societal imperative, much to the deprecation of architectural design, and to its ultimate cultural and social importance.

Yet, the deprecation of architecture as a meaningful form of cultural/social production cannot be laid entirely at the altar of Learning from Las Vegas.  As argued earlier, it was emblematic of a more pervasive retreat from idealism, and ultimately, from responsibility.  If the work of Venturi and Scott Brown represents a retreat into architectural semantics, then that of Peter Eisenman represents one into syntax and that of Aldo Rossi one into morphology; with the rise of Postmodernity in general, there was a recession of idealism, imagination and social conscience.  Today, this recession is mirrored in contemporary attempts to legitimate architectural production purely in terms of architectural discourse; to make of architecture a hermetically sealed continuum, innocuous to issues of social relevance, and immune from the cultural/social/environmental train-wreck that contemporary architectural practices precipitate[1].

More importantly, set adrift from its societal relevance, unmoored from its social function, and divorced from any conception of utopia, from any vision for a better future, from the idealism that might define its fundamental importance for future generations, architecture is forced to wallow within the aesthetic wasteland of its own pride; it is building monumental ruins to a civilization seen only retrospectively in terms of the immediate present; of taste and as singular image of its ultimate commercial munificence.  Thus, architecture ignores the fact that the future is not a matter of inevitability, it is something that is created by current actions, that even architectural symbolism is not a stagnant field of past and passé references, but is something that changes over time and periodically requires a new infusion of symbolic/lexical content; that by avoiding social engagement and suppressing imaginative visions of utopian futures, architecture awaits its death in the present, while ignoring the numerous possibilities that it refuses to envision, because it has lost any sense of sincere ingenuity, the aptitude for dreaming, much less inventing, alternative futures premised upon its inventions.  It has become little more than the pale image of a sterile art, forced to repeat its own symbolic death in the futures it refuses to create; conceptually castrated by its incestual desire to define itself only in terms of itself, and thus crippled, like the lamentable royal offspring of generations of architectural inbreeding.

[1] This trend is perhaps best exemplified in the recent publication of Patrik Schumacher’s voluminous and tedious The Autopoiesis of Architecture.

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