"DOING IT DEADPAN" Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas

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ABSTRACT

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas (1972) - a collection of the architects' studies of the Las Vegas Strip, a segment of U.S. Route 91 -is packed with information graphics. The designer Muriel Cooper conveys the vividness of the Strip to the reader by aerial photographs, snapshots, signage, diagrams, all manner of maps, plans, elevations, sections, heraldry, graphs, sketches, charts and lists. Viewed randomly or in succession, these elements visually reconstruct Las Vegas as the epitome of the commercial roadside environment rich with signs. Considered from this perspective, Learning from Las Vegas exemplifies what the statistician and information designer Edward Tufte refers to as "escaping the flatland [of two-dimensions] and enriching the density of data displays" so that those displays are compatible, to whatever extent possible, with our lived experiences.

__ In 1972 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour published Learning from Las Vegas, a collection of studies, designed by Scott Brown, and drawn from the architects' Yale studio seminar on the Las Vegas Strip in the fall of 1968.1 The book is packed with informational graphics: aerial photographs, snapshots, signage, diagrams, all manner of maps, plans, elevations, sections, heraldry, graphs, sketches, charts and lists. These graphic images-mostly influenced by media studies, sociology, urban studies and pop art-visually reconstruct Las Vegas as the epitome of the commercial roadside environment. According to the authors, the Las Vegas Strip spontaneously disclosed its own patterns of use and value. How to transfer the vivid disorderliness of the Strip -its semantic dimensionality-to, or transform into, the two dimensional format of a book was, however, a central problem for the authors.

Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour's initial intention was, in Scott Brown's words, to "do it deadpan," to allow Las Vegas to reveal itself and not to be upstaged by the design of the book.2 Nevertheless, the art director for MIT Press, Muriel Cooper, had a different idea of what form Learning from Las Vegas should take. And, as it turned out, Cooper's design sensibility was not to the authors' liking. The disagreement surrounding the first edition's design prompted the publication, in 1977; of Scott Brown's redesigned and revised edition of Learning from Las Vegas. The reformatted 1977 edition-its miniaturization, its random placement of images, its conventional typographic layout thoroughly dismantled Cooper's original design of Learning from Las Vegas and thus, I hope to demonstrate, rendered its visual form at odds with its textual content.

The potential visual potency of Learning from Las Vegas the manner in which either the 1972 edition or the revised and redesigned 1977 edition mobilize all kinds of informational devices to inculcate its audience-was nicely summed up in Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour's query: "How do you represent the strip as perceived by Mr. A rather than as a piece of geometry?"3 Cooper's response, made manifest in her lively design, envisions the intensity of the Las Vegas strip. Unlike Cooper, Scott Brown's response articulated in her redesign for the revised edition, which according to her is more in keeping with the authors' original intention of "doing it deadpan," attempts to maintain an aura of objectivity and a tone of scholarly dispassion. Scott Brown's design strategy of letting Las Vegas reveal itself through the uncolored presentation of data is in keeping with what the historians of science Lorainne Daston and Peter Galison have identified, in their "The Image of Objectivity" (1992), as the ideology of the nineteenth-century scientific atlas, a paradigm for scientific representation and mechanical documentation of nature.4

The nineteenth-century faith in objectivity, according to Galison, in his follow-up article "Judgment Against Objectivity" (1998), was contested by the advent of twentieth-century subjective judgment or "subjective evaluation. …