Academic journal article Visible Language

Signs Taken for Wonders1

Academic journal article Visible Language

Signs Taken for Wonders1

Article excerpt


My essay reexamines Learning from Las Vegas semiotic presentation of architectural symbolism. First, I argue that the attempt to approach architectural symbols technically, outside their socioeconomic context, overlooks important aspects of signs' functioning. second, I use visual and verbal metaphors that designers and viewers apply to buildings to suggest that empathetic and embodied meanings are essential to architecture's symbolism. These kinds of meanings were vividly manifested in the "heroic and original" buildings that Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour dismiss.

___To look back at Learning from Las Vegas after thirty years evokes complex reactions. Unlike many other books of similar age, this one has never really left us. Its vigorous defense of architectural ornament, its equation of architecture with communication and its evocative labels "duck" and "decorated shed" all remain current. At the same time, to reduce the book to these familiar elements is to miss much of its richness and complexity. This brief text contains a firstrate study of urban morphology written in the context of mid-twentieth-century discussions of urban community and "imageability," an analysis of the role of ornament and symbolism in architecture and, building on these, a treatise on contemporary design.

Learning from Las Vegas was a milepost on two divergent roads, one leading to a populist celebration of architecture as it was, the other toward a highly theorized view of architecture as it ought to be. I vividly remember the excitement that greeted its publication (particularly of the widely disseminated, revised paperback edition) among those interested in the everyday landscape. In the climate of the 19703, the work was welcomed as a telling polemic against cultural hierarchies, an affirmation of popular culture, and a Whitmanian (or Ginsbergian) eelebration of the energy and messiness of American life and landscape. It is still known and read outside architecture on these terms.

Yet while Learning from Las Vegas seems to celebrate popular tastes, particularly in its angry defense of the culture of the "silent white majority," its message is not that straightforward. Remember that Las Vegas was only "almost all right" (a phrase Robert Venturi first used in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in the same way he used it in Learning from Las Vegas}} Venturi and his co-authors Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour never intended to cast aside cultural hierarchies, only to remodel them.3 just before the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas was published, Scott Brown took pains to emphasize "the agony in our acceptance of pop," declaring that "we are part of a high art, not a folk or popular art, tradition."'1 In Learning from Las Vegas Venturi and his colleagues claimed high-art status through an intricate, even convoluted, polemical game built around outsider and insider positions. They attacked modernists' insider aesthetics by appealing to outsiders' tastes, while their own declared immersion in popular aesthetics positioned them as the true insiders and their modernist targets as clueless outsiders. Thus they seized the high ground of high-art architecture by a surprise attack along the low road, using their pop-culture raw materials skeptically, instrumentally and ironically to define a new path for high art, as the Pop artists whom they admired had done.5

The ambivalence at the heart of the book-Scott Brown's "agony"-is encapsulated in the famous categorization of commercial buildings as ducks, in which "the architectural systems of space, structure and program are submerged and distorted by the overall symbolic form," or decorated sheds, where "systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them." Ducks, Venturi tells us, were named after the Long Island Duckling, a roadside food stand illustrated in Peter Blake's God's Own junkyard. …

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