In October 1968, when 13 students and three professors — Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour — from the Yale School of Architecture packed their bags to do research in Las Vegas, their peers were both shocked and amused. The idea of reviewing Sin City’s architecture was “unheard of” at the time, said current School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65.
But a three-day retrospective symposium held at the School of Architecture this past weekend, titled “Architecture after Las Vegas,” explored the Yale Las Vegas Studio’s long-lasting impact on the history of architecture and the study of cities four decades later. Venturi and Scott Brown’s keynote address Friday drew more than 450 guests; the paprika-carpeted pews of Rudolph Hall’s Hastings Hall were packed, along with four classrooms screening simulcasts of the address.
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“It’s very gratifying that young people today are interested in our work,” Scott Brown said to the audience. “There seems to be a revival of interest, and you’re part of it.”
The event began Thursday with an address by the organizer, architecture professor Stanislaus von Moos. The symposium used the studio’s work to contemplate both the architects’ impact and the intellectual cross-pollination among art, sociology, architecture and urban design, in addition to other fields, triggered by the studio’s findings.
“The ambition of the symposium was to discuss the architecture of mankind once we are in this world of commerce and tourism and mass communication and mass consumption,” von Moos said.
The Las Vegas studio’s study of what Scott Brown referred to as “the vulgar and the ordinary” was published in a book in 1972, titled “Learning from Las Vegas.” For the first time, academics were looking at so-called lowbrow, kitschy art, giving serious consideration to communicative architecture and informational ornaments, such as roadside billboards, neon signs and advertisements on building surfaces. These, Venturi and Scott Brown emphasized repeatedly throughout the symposium, are fundamental concepts in our “information age.”
“All classically trained architects were supposed to ignore [Las Vegas] because it ignored the rules of good architecture,” architecture professor Emmanuel Petit said. “But these guys said no.”
Stern, who had graduated from the School of Architecture just a few years before Venturi and Scott Brown’s Las Vegas odyssey, was called to join the jury assessing the studio’s findings, and though he said he was somewhat skeptical at first, he was eventually won over by the trip’s fruitful results.
“When I first heard about it I was a little shocked,” Stern said. “The idea of students going to Las Vegas — no one had really thought of it.”
Staying true to the nature of work by Venturi and Scott Brown, who referred to their time in Las Vegas as “grand fun and dangerously serious,” the weekend’s event mixed serious talks with cordial conversation among old friends.
“The martinis were great,” Petit said half-jokingly of the receptions that followed the days’ speeches.
The conference comprised five panels and lectures with architects from a variety of institutions, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Princeton University, University of Bologna and Ohio State University. Attendants also included artists, developers, urban designers and sociologists from around the country.
“What We Learned: The Yale Las Vegas Studio and the Work of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates,” a complementary exhibition on the Las Vegas studio and the work of Venturi and Scott Brown, is currently on display at the School of Architecture gallery. The exhibition ends Feb. 5.