The Yale School of Architecture was bubbling with activity this weekend as it hosted the “Architecture after Las Vegas” symposium. The event looked back on the 1968 Yale Las Vegas Studio, which revolutionized architectural thought by studying neon signs, roadside billboards, advertisements and other forms of communicative architecture that defined America’s landscape at the time.
Among the speakers at the event were two of the studio’s three professors, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, who won the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1991. The couple, who are both professional and romantic partners, sat down with Staff Reporter Amir Sharif last Sunday afternoon to discuss the weekend, their work and the continuation of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.
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Q How have you been enjoying your stay at Yale so far?
A Denise Scott Brown: It’s been very intense, multi-layered and really wonderful. The reception from people here — that is everyone, at all levels — has been very warm and, as I called it, nurturing for us.
Q Coming back to Yale today, what kind of differences do you see between when you were here on the 1960s and what’s going on now?
A DSB: It’s very difficult to say whether we’ve noticed changes because it’s been such a quick look in. The atmosphere when we were here in the ’60s was very fraught: This building [Rudolph Hall] burned, there was a lot of dissension — lots of racial dissension — even violence. There’s none of that as far as I can see. People seem happy here.
Q Last night at the closing of the symposium professor Stanislaus von Moos joked that he didn’t put the word “learning” in the title of the event because the symposium wasn’t about learning. But, speaking seriously, did you learn anything from the symposium?
A Robert Venturi: We learned that it’s very nice that we have been so understood and appreciated for what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years.
DSB: We’ve been given this gift. People have reflected back to us our lives — they’ve taught us about the chronology, reminded us of its dates and they’ve also interpreted it. And we’ve extended ourselves greatly by hearing their interpretations.
Q Listening to you throughout this symposium, I’ve heard you repeat many times the idea of impropriety, of having to be a little bit naughty, and it’s very difficult to dissociate this from Las Vegas. Did the spirit of Sin City influence you, or was this something that already existed within you and drew you to Las Vegas?
A DSB: The second.
RV: We should emphasize that the whole gambling aspect of Las Vegas was incidental. We really weren’t interested in that element. What we were learning was about the city that connected not so much with space but with communication.
Q You mentioned this morning that some critics have called you ‘sinful architects’ because of association with Las Vegas and that you resent this title. What is it that irks you about being called ‘sinful architects?’
A DSB:We’re real straight-arrow American types. We don’t gamble. He’s a Quaker. We are looking at human behavior, and sometimes we’ll have to say [as a society] we’ve judged too arrogantly. We’ve not allowed people the right to have their own values. Even these rather extreme values we have to look at and understand.
Q I think that’s a very common theme throughout the symposium and your work. How do you remain non-judgmental?
A DSB: Well eventually you must judge. All art, all action involves judgment. You shouldn’t rush to judgment; you should keep things fluid in your mind so you can come to the best judgment. But in the end you must judge or you can’t make.
Q In your keynote address, you said that we sometimes have to consider the ugly and unpleasant in order to arrive at a more sensitive understanding of what’s going on around us. Looking back on the work that you’ve done, is there anything that still strikes you as unpleasant or ugly?
A RV: No. Naturally you look back at your work and some works are better than other works.
DSB: One of the original examples is [the Allan Memorial Art Museum] at Oberlin College. The proportions there, the connections of it look gross, but then you get up close and you see they’ve been refined. Something can be beautiful in an ugly way. That’s what we think of that building. Yes it’s ugly, but it’s also beautiful.
Q I’ve read in other interviews you’ve done that you work in Philadelphia partially because it helps you “be global,” and that you reject the idea of moving to New York because it would localize your point of view. How has Philadelphia helped you maintain an international perspective?
A DSB: Well first of all it’s got a good airport and it’s very near, so we can fly wherever we need to go. Also, New York is very attractive and there’s something to do every night; we would lose our concentration. We used to say, “Being in Philadelphia is like being in East Germany: nothing happens and you can do your work.”
Q Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring architecture students?
A DSB: Architecture is a difficult career. You probably shouldn’t be an architect unless you absolutely have to because it’s a hard career, you will never earn very much, you’ll work long hours, it’s not up to you when you work, and it can be very heartbreaking when everything you want to do you find you can’t do.
ARV: You have to be very dedicated.
DSB: If you’re not drawing all day and doodling plans, don’t do it. But if you do, give it everything you’ve got.