The 1968 Learning from Las Vegas Studio Revisited
“How often does a 22-year-old kid get to share a credit with Piranesi?”By Stephanie Salomon and Steve Kroeter, Designers & Books December 19, 2013
In the fall of 1968, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, assisted by Steven Izenour, taught a third-year studio course at the Yale School of Architecture called “Learning from Las Vegas, or Form Analysis as Design Research.” That class would give rise to a famous book of the same name, first published in 1972, and would also influence future architectural education methods. The class, which traveled to Las Vegas to analyze a new type of American city, had a huge impact on its 13 students (nine in architecture, two in urban planning, and two in graphic design) who undertook a true collaborative adventure with their three instructors. In connection with an interview conducted with Denise Scott Brown earlier this year, publishing in January 2014, Designers & Books corresponded with five of the students—45 years after the class—about their memories of the studio, and the publication of the book. Here are some highlights of what they said.
Ronald Filson, FAAR, FAIA, Dean and Professor Emeritus of Tulane University’s School of Architecture:
I was in the unique position of working at MLTW/Moore Turnbull the summer before the studio. The office was just across the street from the A&A building and I remember Charles Moore escorting Bob Venturi (aka “The Vent”) through the office a couple of times. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was, for me and many others, the most significant influence in architecture in a long time. I found there to be a lot of similarities between Bob and Chuck’s writing and work. Steve Izenour also worked at Moore/Turnbull that summer and he and I and others would often carry on against the heroic form-givers around us . This became a big source of amusement that summer. I'm not sure whether Bob and Denise specifically recruited Steve to be the graduate assistant or if Charles Moore assigned him to the studio. It was clear to me that “Learning from Las Vegas” was going to be the most important thing around that fall and I asked Steve to be sure to get me in the studio. I may have threatened bodily harm. He did register me for the studio.
I was put on the “Signs” team with Martha Wagner, a graphic design student. I thought this would be a great part of the studio and was very excited about it. We did a series of drawings and schedules that tried to explain the role of signage and graphic symbols in the new frontier of strip architecture. Our excitement with the studio encouraged Dan Scully and me to make a proposaI for the Rome Prize. We titled it “From Las Vegas to Rome.” We were successful and found our lives changed by the experience at the American Academy in Rome.
We did a few drawings that only a crazed third-year student with too little sleep could produce. The “entire strip in words” was a transcription of every word of every sign along the strip. [illus. .28, p. 30] I can’t believe the number of hours that I spent slumped over a film-editing machine extracting from the documentary filming of the “Ed Ruscha” strips. This was done with an old-fashioned lettering template, a relic even then. I tried to assemble the words in a way that revealed their importance. I also did the drawing that was labeled “the physiognomy of a sign.” [illus. 68, p. 67] It showed how the Stardust sign divided its formal and content roles. My favorite claim to fame was the collage of the Pantheon with casino signs superimposed on the temple front. How often does a 22-year-old kid get to share a credit with Piranesi?
The introduction that Bob and Denise gave at the beginning was so comprehensive and thorough my mind was reeling. The workload that Denise laid out made it seem that we had just arrived at Paris Island for Marine boot camp. The LA portion of the trip was amazing. We met with Esther McCoy, Ed Ruscha, and many others to try to understand the conceptual underpinnings of our work. This was my first trip to LA although I ended up teaching at UCLA from 1974 until 1980.
When we got to Las Vegas a lot was going on. Denise’s assigned workload left little time for anything but work but somehow a few of us managed to waste a little time at blackjack. I went with maybe $40 of spending money and somehow managed to stay afloat for the time we there. Our progress meetings with Bob and Denise were intense and really kept up group enthusiasm. Somehow I wangled my way on the helicopter that we used for aerial work and despite a fear of heights remember hanging over the side photographing the largest casino signs up close. Another fond memory is the opening of the Circus Circus Casino, and another was representing the group on a television interview that Bob and Denise set up. I think I was chosen because I had the shortest hair and loudest American flag tie.
Charles Korn, New York:
I decided to sign up for the Las Vegas studio because Denise, Bob, and Steve were a deeply engaging team. I liked their presentation. And the metaphor of Las Vegas and the opportunity to learn there together with them and other Yalies did not leave me with hesitation or ambivalence. I was enthusiastic and ready to lock and load.
My task was the broad responsibility for the history of Las Vegas and its growth. Also to meet with elected officials like the mayor and others who held political responsibility for the town’s zoning and other issues relating to urban density, etc. I enjoyed meeting and interviewing them. All meetings with Denise and those occasions when Bob joined us were memorable because they encouraged, demanded, cajoled, and supported us in their unique style.
Daniel V. Scully, Scully Architects, Keene, NH:
What made me sign up for the studio? I was already very moved by some of “The Vent’s” small and very powerful early houses. He was the Man, the man who continued that great Philadelphia School tradition that included Furness, Sullivan, and through to Louis Kahn.
It was an era when you had to make choices: The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Charlie Moore or Bob Venturi? Tough maybe, but clear choices. It was about the Highway. It involved automobiles—I had no choice—it was the meat of my own obsessions.
In Las Vegas I was one of two assigned to “Buildings as Communication Systems.” How did the shape, the form, the skin of the building communicate? What values did it communicate, and how? Perhaps most interesting were the times we saw a layering of imagery, layered one upon the next generation of meaning, layered upon the past. The layering of history, in a place with essentially no depth of history, led Ron Filson and I to a look at the truly multi-generational layering of images and meaning in Rome. We spent the year following the LLV Studio at the American Academy in Rome on a thesis project entitled “Las Vegas to Rome.”
I remember clearly realizing the great depth of informative analysis Denise, as city planner, organized into the studio; and that Bob, as architect, probably learned all he needed to by a few trips up and down The Strip.
Douglas Southworth, Architect, Lummi Island, WA:
As an undergraduate architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley, I happened to read Bob Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. I found it to be the most interesting book that I had read on the subject of architecture to date. In addition, Steve Izenour, a fellow Master's class student and a good friend of mine encouraged me to sign up for the studio.
My assignment was to come up with a Nolli map of Las Vegas. [illus. 19–20, pp. 24–25; illus. 30, p. 31]. I vaguely remember “volunteering” to do “Illumination levels on the Strip” [illus 23, p. 27] and the Ed Ruscha elevation of The Strip [illus 33, pp. 32–33]
The three most memorable events were meeting with Ed Ruscha at his studio in Los Angeles; visiting the Young Electric Sign Co. in Las Vegas; and attending the grand opening of the Circus Circus Casino.
My reaction to the book when it came out (short-sighted in retrospect) was that it should have been three books. So much so that I had my copy taken apart and rebound into three separate books. I still own my “split- apart” copy.
Shortly after graduation I went to work for Venturi and Rauch building an architectural model for their entry in the Yale Mathematics Building Competition. A few years later I returned to the firm and worked there full-time for a while. My connection with Bob and Denise was easily the most significant teacher/student relationship that I ever had in the architectural realm.
Peter Hoyt, architect, AIA emeritus, Cincinnati, OH:
I ended up being responsible for the drawings used in the exhibit and the book in the categories of hotels, motels, casinos, gas stations, and wedding chapels. I also did a lot of the photography and the mounting of photos and drawings on the boards used in the exhibit and ultimately the book. They are the ones in color where plans and sections are compared in a rigorous way as Denise Scott Brown always wanted.
Denise in particular really drove us to have the highest standards in our research and documentation. She had her eye on the prize, the exhibit and book, and knew it would be memorable. It sounds like we did not have much fun but that is not correct; the studio was lucky to have two great leaders and they understood students so we had a great balance. When we went to Las Vegas we did lots of crazy stunts, like crashing the opening of Circus Circus Casino in costumes from the local thrift shops. The trip to LA featured tours of great LA sites, meetings with Esther McCoy, and even a trip to Disneyland (a very big deal in 1967!).
When the book came out several years later I was blown away, thanks to the work of Steve Izenour especially. Denise Scott Brown was so focused on the details, so it was not surprising.
This project was one of the most memorable parts of my Yale education. I think in particular that Denise Scott Brown should have been honored for her work by the Pritzker Committee as she was essential to all Bob’s work as an intellectual and creative partner, but that is another story.
Illustration and page numbers refer to the second edition of Learning from Las Vegas (1977, The MIT Press).
For kind assistance in contacting former students of the 1968 studio course we are grateful to Jean F. Sielaff, Senior Administrative Assistant to the Dean, Yale School of Architecture. We also thank the students who graciously shared their reflections: Ronald Filson, Peter Hoyt, Charles Korn, Daniel Scully, and Douglas Southworth. The other students in the course were Ralph Carlson, Tony Farmer, Glen Hodges, John Kranz, Peter Schlaifer, Peter Schmitt, Martha Wagner, and Tony Zunino.