Continuing Education: Las Vegas Studio at MOCA-PDC

The 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven captures the original form of the Las Vegas Strip on film: the elaborate neon, the intimate lounges, the Rat Pack performances and black tie clientele. The special features of the film’s DVD include interviews with cocktail waitresses who worked at the Sands, Flamingo, Sahara, Desert Inn and Dunes casinos during the period of the movie, nostalgically reflecting on this lost era in light of what Las Vegas has come to mean today.  Inevitably, these women express their reservations about the larger scale, the commercial attitudes and the touristic focus now characteristic of the Strip; all were in agreement that the past Las Vegas was preferable to the present.

Trailer for Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

Now on view at MOCA- Pacific Design Center is Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, which includes photographs, diagrams and films from the architects’ 1968 project that ultimately resulted in the book Learning from Las Vegas (1972).  The Las Vegas of these images is essentially the Las Vegas preferred by the casino cocktail waitresses; as Christopher Hawthorne describes in his review of Las Vegas Studio,

“What comes across in these photographs is an almost overpowering sense not only of freedom and discovery but also of innocence — although the innocence may well have been at least partly strategic, an element of the architects’ self-mythologizing impulse. Still, Las Vegas in these pictures seems remarkably light on its feet, unburdened by the elaborate, elephantine casino-hotel complexes that now line the Strip.” (Culture Monster 3.30.2010)

Experiencing the exhibition, or even just the catalog, Hawthorne’s point is clearly taken; the photographs are stunning.  Intended as a formal study, Learning from Las Vegas presented the illustrative photographs in an empirical manner. Ed Ruscha’s books, including Every Building on the Sunset Strip and Twentysix Gasoline Stations, were explicitly referenced as sources of inspiration for the project in terms of providing objective views of commercial buildings. The second, most common edition of the book was created with the intention of being affordable to students.  Consequently, the photographs and diagrams were primarily small black and white images with limited contrast; a small number were printed in muted colors in order to minimize printing costs.

Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown installation view, MOCA, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles

Walking into the MOCA space, the vibrancy and clarity of the archive is shocking to any eye accustomed to the way these images were presented in the book.  The majority of the exhibition is hung salon style, across a single wall, adding to the overwhelming impact.  Within individual images, the hues are noticeably warm, even among the few photographs that had the benefit of being printed as full pages or in color. The rosy tint of Caesars Palace Signs and Statuary could not had been inferred from the image’s stark counterpart seen in Learning from Las Vegas; the book’s text never suggested the sky might be shockingly orange behind an image of the Stardust Casino as it was being defined as a “decorated shed.”  Learning from Las Vegas communicated its intricate arguments through relatively banal, objective images, but from the original photographs we see exactly how romanced the architects were by the Strip; indeed,  Las Vegas was beautiful.

"Stardust Hotel and Casino, neon sign, Las Vegas," 1968, photo by students/instructors of the "Learning from Las Vegas Research Studio", © Venturi Scott Brown and Associates Philadelphia , image from moca.org.

The idea that the Las Vegas Strip had an aesthetic quality in the 1960s is now acceptable, thanks to a combination of Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s book and general nostalgia, as communicated by both Hawthorne and the Las Vegas cocktail waitresses. Since the Learning from Las Vegas project, the Strip has evolved substantially. Venturi and Scott Brown returned to Vegas in 1994 at the invitation of the BBC and determined that many of the elements from their initial study had changed:

“The Strip has seen a considerable reduction in the number and size of its signs and a parallel evolution from signography to scenography, or from the decorated shed to the duck. Vivid examples of the trend toward scenography include the MGM architectural lion’s head, the Luxor Hotel pyramid, the Excalibur castle, and, most vividly, the Mirage lake cum volcano and Treasure Island Caribbean town.” (“Las Vegas After its Classic Age”; published in Neon, Artcetera, Winter 1995-96; Republished in Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture by Robert Venturi. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996)

The change in architecture from the decorated shed so instrumental to Learning from Las Vegas, to its “duck” antithesis relates to Hawthorne’s assertion that the Strip has lost its lightness over the past 40 years.  While attending panel presentation “Ugly and Ordinary? Las Vegas Studio” at the Pacific Design Center a few weeks ago, I noticed a sense of disdain for the current state of the Strip; the only references to the contemporary Las Vegas during the discussion included a mention of “cultural slumming” by one of the panelists. Yet, to conclude “Las Vegas After its Classic Age,” Venturi and Scott Brown leave readers with only a question: “Would an analysis of our recent journey, from Las Vegas Strip to Las Vegas Boulevard, prove as instructive as the first for architecture?”

Although many dismiss the current Las Vegas Strip to be a large-scale, corporately owned shopping mall, reconsidering commercial, populist architecture is the mode of thought that characterized the original Learning from Las Vegas. The newer things to be learned may extend beyond architecture, but the prevalence of contemporary artists working with Las Vegas as a subject suggests the application of a critical eye to the Strip is still worthwhile. Dave Hickey writes in his essay “Deciding About Las Vegas,”

“…Vegas can’t be framed, only cropped. The worst snapshot can be the best photograph of Vegas because there is everything to see and, dauntingly, nothing much to look at there, except for people looking and people being looked at–and the setting for a thousand dramas. There is no ‘outside’ position. When you are in Vegas, you are onstage, in a theater in the round, a city-sized rococo stage setting, with a professional chorus. You and your fellow revelers are the actors, and as Warhol said, either everyone is a star or no one is.” (The Book on Vegas 27)

"Las Vegas," Lee Friedlander, 2002, gelatin-silver print, 16 x 20 in., image from artnet.com

The drama Hickey references in this essay from the early 2000s is similar to Venturi and Scott Brown’s reassessment of the Strip in 1994. Since that time, Las Vegas has continued to change, now progressing from the dramatic theming of the 90s era towards a de-theming brought on by the Wynn resort and CityCenter projects of recent years.  Since the 90s, contemporary artists ranging from Doug Aitken, Lee Friedlander and Thomas Struth to Olivo Barbieri, Liz Hickok, and Marc Dombrosky have worked with contemporary Las Vegas as a subject for consideration. Knowing this in tandem with the body of photographs and films in Las Vegas Studio demonstrates that the constant change of this city is what may offer the most to explore. Despite the accompanying appreciation for its beauty, nostalgia for “classic Vegas” is limiting when it prevents critical reflection on the present. Perhaps one of the most important modes of thought to learn from Las Vegas is the acceptance of changes that reflect the aspects of culture we otherwise refuse to see.