Still Learning from Denise Scott Brown

Learning from Las Vegas—the book that taught architects, urban planners, and generations of students to look at the everyday landscape, “the ugly and the ordinary” as a springboard for authentic building in contemporary times—recently passed 40 years since its first appearance.

The book was the outcome of a studio Venturi and Scott Brown taught at the Yale School of Architecture in 1968 called “Learning from Las Vegas, or Form Analysis as Design Research,” which took a group of students to Las Vegas to investigate and analyze the city’s structure. The studio left an indelible mark on participating students. Designers & Books spoke with several of them. Among their comments: “That studio was fundamental in the formation/justification of my architecture” (Daniel V. Scully); “Denise Scott Brown in particular really drove us to have the highest standards in our research and documentation” (Peter Hoyt); “My connection with Bob and Denise was easily the most significant teacher/student relationship that I ever had in the architectural realm” (Douglas Southworth).

Designers and Books spent an afternoon with Denise Scott Brown at the suburban Philadelphia home she shares with her husband, Robert Venturi, talking with her about what went into making Learning from Las Vegas, her thoughts about the book’s significance today, new writing, and what she’s working on next.

Designers & Books: When did you first visit Las Vegas? And did it occur to you at that time that Las Vegas was a city that offered lessons to be learned?

Denise Scott Brown: It was April 1965. I’d seen pictures of Las Vegas and heard debate in planning school on the emerging automobile cities of the Southwest. I went west to see them and for five or six other reasons including, in the case of Las Vegas, an early love affair with neon.

At four years old I was taken out at night for the first time to see Johannesburg’s 50-year jubilee celebration. To me the neon was fairyland. That same year, my grandparents returned from a trip to the New York World’s Fair and the tinsel toys they brought us from Coney Island sealed it.

A family visit to London at year’s end brought fairy-tale scenes, more beautiful than beautiful, in store windows on Oxford Street and a huge moving Santa in Selfridges. My father’s passion for parks and family fun places was shared by us kids as we grew, but by the early 1950s when they finally got to Las Vegas, I had left home for London. However, I saw their movies of The Strip.

D&B: It sounds as if it were part of your destiny.

DSB: Perhaps, but there were other influences. I was told as a child by a loved art teacher that you could not be creative unless you learned from what was around you. This was long before architecture school but my mother, who had studied architecture, loved to “look around.” We would go with her on walks of discovery in the veld and on car rides to see houses in the surrounding suburbs. Sepia photos of her childhood and youth in the wilderness of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) were in our house. One marked “Mother in the ‘kitchen’” showed my grandmother cooking outdoors on an open fire in a three-legged iron pot of the type used by Africans countrywide.

These family patterns from Europe and Africa accompanied my childhood, and the cultural clashes they embodied (unlike the country’s dreadful political clashes) were galvanizing for our sensibilities. Following my teacher, I questioned why English landscapes should be our model. Why did Africa have to look like Surrey to be beautiful? To me the veld and the kraals of rural Africans were deeply beautiful, but I became interested too in how migrants to the city adapted their crafts to their lives in Johannesburg—how beadwork, for example, which traditionally decorated bodies and covered gourds, was applied to soda pop bottles. Of course this was frowned upon by purists.

These concerns were easily transferred to Las Vegas. I first saw The Strip against a very clear blue sky. People who hate it show pictures of it at night, but I love to look at it by day. And on that day its pure, bright colors and crisply etched outlines brought to my mind the Acropolis as it might have looked when they painted its marble. (Ironically, both Athens and Las Vegas are now dulled by pollution.) I felt a shiver. Was it hate or love? I didn't know. It didn’t matter. Something said, “This is key—it will be important to you.”

I visited as well because social scientists in urban planning at Penn—William Wheaton, Herbert Gans, and others—scolded us architects for our aesthetic arrogance. “How many architect-designed spaces did you ever see full of people?” they asked, adding, “Why don’t you visit places where people go and try to understand the reasons?”

In January 1965, I left the University of Pennsylvania to teach at UC Berkeley. I visited cities across the country on my way and in April journeyed to Las Vegas. A chic new Strip hotel, The Dunes, gave me faculty rates—eight dollars a night. Reporting this in a letter to colleagues, I joked, “Could Las Vegas be educational?”

D&B: What did you do when you got to Las Vegas the first time?

DSB: I looked and photographed. I documented the “view from the road” on foot and by car, and shot The Strip from a raised eye level through the front window of the early morning bus that took workers to the casinos. In August 1965 I moved to Los Angeles to help start a new school of architecture at UCLA and to set up its initial program, in urban design.

During my first year in California I photographed assiduously, particularly in Los Angeles, but by November 1966 when I invited Bob to visit, I had, if memory serves, been in Las Vegas four times. I asked him to lecture at UCLA, be on a jury for my students, and see LA and Las Vegas with me. I felt that he was the only one at Penn who would be excited by what I was discovering.

D&B: Did you have any idea how you would be using any of these photographs?

DSB: By the time Bob arrived I’d decided to teach my second studio at UCLA on Las Vegas. My first had been on the Santa Monica coastline where Muscle Beach is. For the urban design program we had chosen an unusual way of teaching, designed to open students’ eyes to the city as well as engage them in urban sociology, economics, transportation, land use planning, and other disciplines of urbanism. All coursework was given within studio, faculty members from various UCLA schools had joint appointments in studio, and the main vehicle of teaching was discussion of issues brought up by the studio problem. We hoped this method would help students grasp the types of knowledge and collaboration skills they would need in practice, yet encourage them to remain designers.

I learned my teaching methods in planning school. Unlike architecture studios then, planning studios called for work in teams and small groups, usually on one shared project. Studio was a journey of discovery where the teacher was a player-coach, the students eager researchers and designers, and the topic one that fascinated them all. “Learning from Las Vegas” was run as such a studio. Its long popularity shows that architects find its methods help them think and learn about design. But architectural researchers tell us that it has changed the structure and substance of their work too. Traditionally the architecture PhD trained researchers in structures and architectural historians, but Learning from Las Vegas turned around the culture of research, in the same way as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture overturned that of architecture. Both have remained in print since they were published.

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