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2008 National Planning Conference

Las Vegas, NV
May 1st, 2008

Good morning. I’m delighted to be here, although I’m not entirely sure that a session on Las Vegas is the ideal way to close this conference – it might have been a better as a way to welcome you all here on Monday than as a way to say goodbye on Thursday – so it could have set you up for what you were about to wallow in. Then again, maybe there is something to be said for reflecting on Las Vegas now, after you have all presumably begun to digest it. It was good to see that there have been a few workshop sessions devoted to the city during the week, although I do still sense as I look at the program a certain ambivalence on the part of the APA regarding this choice of location, as if the APA wanted to be absolutely sure that members understood that being <strong>in</strong> Las Vegas did not mean being <strong>of</strong> Las Vegas. While having tens of thousands of urban planners gather in Las Vegas is not quite the same as if, say, a convention of temperance advocates were meeting here, I’m sure a lot of you still feel that there is some discordance between this group and what it stands for, and the place in which you are meeting, and what we are accustomed to believing that it stands for.

So it can appear to be paradoxical that all of us are here – urbanists gathering in the ultimate non-urban city, in other words. I do have to say, however, that you have been beaten to it by the Urban Land Institute, which met in Las Vegas in the fall of 2003. Now I know that the ULI is really an association of real-estate developers, who are not supposed to know better, while planners are. In any event, if we can hold off for a moment pondering the question of whether this is or is not a real city, I do understand these feelings about Las Vegas. When I made my first visit to this city about thirty years ago – it was 1977, I believe – I did it as a day trip from Los Angeles, where I was spending about a week working on a couple of stories for _The New York Times_, where I was then employed. I flew back to L.A. very late at night, and I remember thinking as my return flight approached LAX that this was the first time I have ever felt that arriving in L.A. was a return to the real world.

In 1977, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s _Learning from Las Vegas_ was five years old. Las Vegas was a very different city from the one in which we now sit. I did not bring a power point today because I think most of you have the images in your mind of what I might call the three generations of Las Vegas. The first is pre-Venturi and Scott Brown – the early Las Vegas, in some ways a more conventional urban place than history gives it credit for being, sort of like so many other small cities in the western United States except there was a lot more neon. It was a city with streets, a city in which the buildings gathered together to make a town, flat and dense, with the mountains and desert a vista and a backdrop. There are a few tiny, tired remnants left of this downtown, and of course another thing that makes it more like other places is the unfortunate fact that Las Vegas considers its downtown a problem, not to say even an embarrassment. I think Las Vegas wishes the downtown would just evaporate. The notion that there is a value to a traditional core, either on its own terms as a model for density and pedestrian-oriented development, or as a source of the grounding that the presence of history can provide, doesn’t fly in this city. The one thing that Las Vegas does not do well at is thinking of itself in historical terms – anything that promotes looking back is by definition unwelcome in this city, and that may be its major difference from other American cities, most of which some time ago began to give up on the sense that the future is an unfettered good. In Las Vegas, people still believe that – that things only get better, that they only get bigger, and that by getting bigger they definitely get better. If you think that way, the past is only a nuisance, not a source of enrichment – a burden, almost an albatross. Making it new, and tossing away the old, was part and parcel of the American urban planning ethos for a very, very long time. And I think it still is the ethos in Las Vegas, even if nowhere else.

But I am getting ahead of the story. The second generation Las Vegas, which is the one Scott Brown and Venturi wrote about, of course, emerged at a time when this uncritical embrace of the new and willingness to throw away the old prevailed almost everywhere in this country. The Las Vegas that was created in the years following World War II as the downtown sprawled out onto the Strip, then, like the old Las Vegas of downtown, has more in common with other cities of its time than we tend to believe. The Las Vegas Strip, we might say, is like other postwar American cities, only more so.

That’s certainly what Venturi and Scott Brown were trying to say. The Las Vegas Strip, they wrote at the very beginning of their book, “is the archetype of the commercial strip, the phenomenon at its most intense.” In other words, Las Vegas did what almost every other city in the country did in the years when the automobile was on the ascendant and far too few people thought of the effect that highway building and the mindset that accompanies it would have on urban and regional planning. Las Vegas, like so many other cities, saw its old center as something to be used up and thrown away, like a paper towel. How much more exciting it felt back then to move out to that new world of wide boulevards and open vistas. That new world of the strip seemed all about movement, in fact, about movement and excitement. Beside it, the downtown seemed static, and dull.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the only difference between the Las Vegas Strip and the commercial strips everywhere else was that Las Vegas had more neon; if that were true, then Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi would have had a fairly short book. I just want to start by keeping in mind that their basic point was that the Las Vegas Strip, for all its unusual qualities, was really a basic American commercial strip, blown up to vast scale, metastasized, if you will, and then blown up still more to accommodate to its unusual program, the program of casinos and luxury and nightlife. Was there any real difference between a Bob Evans on a roadside strip in Ohio, and the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas? Well, the Stardust is bigger, brighter, and a lot more fun to look at, but both are designed to communicate to the automobile, both are ordinary buildings that get their meaning as much from signage as from anything specific about their architectural form, and both are designed to accommodate to a new kind of city that is oriented toward the automobile and replaces traditional streets with wide, car-filled avenues. What Venturi and Scott Brown were trying to tell us about the Las Vegas Strip was that it was the American commercial strip on steroids.

I suppose if they had left it at that everyone would have considered the book to be moderately interesting, but not all that important, and it certainly wouldn’t have shaken people up as it did. What really got people going wasn’t just their saying that the Las Vegas Strip embodied qualities that we see everywhere – it was the way they went on from there to say that the strip did its job very well, that it was genuinely important, that it was worthy of study more than scorn, and, indeed, that maybe it was even pretty good.

I think it’s hard to capture now how scandalizing that was in the early nineteen seventies, when modernism was only beginning to be challenged, and a rather conventional, or certainly more limited, taste culture reigned. If you were a serious and cultivated person you weren’t supposed to think that popular culture could produce works of art and architecture worth taking seriously. There is an amusing moment in the book in which Venturi and Scott Brown make mention of Bernard Rudofsky’s famous book and exhibition, “Architecture Without Architects,” that hailed the vernacular architecture of primitive societies. “Architects who can accept the lessons of primitive vernacular architecture….do not easily acknowledge the validity of the commercial vernacular…I.M. Pei will never be happy on Route 66,” they wrote.

You know, we all think of the sixties as a time of great upheaval, which of course it was, and of the seventies as post-revolutionary, but it is worth remembering here that modernism came through the turmoil of the sixties more intact than you would expect. It wasn’t attacked as a symbol of a ruling elite, ready to be torn apart like the corporation or R.O.T.C. or Wall Street. In fact, modernism rather successfully survived the culture wars of the nineteen sixties, largely by returning, or pretending to return, to its social origins in Europe much earlier in the twentieth century. You may remember a lot of talk about social responsibility in those days – talk, I must say, that I would give a lot to hear again now, but that is another story – anyway, everyone talked about housing and community centers and co-operatives and community gardens, and there was relatively little attention paid to the fact that much of this worthy stuff was happening in rather harsh, neo-Brutalist surroundings that you would think were better suited to the politics that people were working against, not the politics they were trying to support. The only real explanation I can offer for this, besides the fact that modernism of course did have a genuine legacy of social responsibility, is that in the sixties and seventies we were a less sophisticated society in terms of visual literacy. I really don’t think the average person then was as interested in art and architecture and cities and any aspect of design as people are now. And so there was a conventional taste culture that was shared by all kinds of people who were sophisticated about many things, but not particularly about architecture, and relatively conventional views predominated.

My point is to say that if Venturi and Scott Brown’s argument seems tame, almost too familiar, today, it didn’t seem that way when it was new. Remember, when _Learning from Las Vegas_ was published as an outgrowth of a study done by a design studio Venturi and Scott Brown taught at Yale, Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale, where they had taught the Las Vegas studio, was barely nine years old. That modernist icon was only five years old in 1968, which is the year Venturi and Scott Brown actually whisked the students out of New Haven for a few days in Las Vegas. In those days the taste culture that I referred to a moment ago believed, if nothing else, that architects knew what was good, and that Las Vegas was not it. The commercial vernacular was not it. Roadside anything was not it. Pretty much anything not designed by an architect was not it, since this was not a time that had a huge amount of interest in, or respect for, the vernacular.

And that, I think, is the other part of the reason this book so upset people. Venturi and Scott Brown had the audacity to say that ordinary buildings, ordinary buildings _that were not even designed by architects_, might be okay, and were certainly worth looking at seriously. Let that argument go too far and architects wouldn’t have jobs, or so many people in the profession thought. The book was treated as if it were nothing less than a subversive manifesto, as if Venturi and Scott Brown wrote it to do to architecture what Karl Marx in _Das Kapital_ wanted to do to capitalism.

Now, as I said, it all looks kind of mild. The authors state that the Yale students changed the title of the studio, which had been “Learning From Las Vegas: Form Analysis as Design Research” to “Learning from Las Vegas: The Great Proletarian Cultural Locomotive,” proving that they had rather more of a lighthearted wit than Venturi, but also that nobody was taking any of this with the seriousness that the critics did when they suggested that writing sympathetically about Las Vegas was a threat to every value we hold dear in design and planning. Even Venturi and Scott Brown, who could be a bit too ponderous about all of the things they were studying and analyzing, didn’t think that they were trying to turn the world upside down. They were just applying a fairly rigorous set of analytical tools to a place that most architects and planners had considered so beneath contempt that they wouldn’t pay attention to it at all, let alone analyze it with care and some degree of moderate sympathy, which I think is a fair way to describe Venturi and Scott Brown’s attitude.

Let me give you a few of their observations about the Las Vegas Strip. Actually, some of the section headings tell the story in themselves: “Symbol in Space Before Form in Space: Las Vegas as a Communications System,” for example, within which Venturi and Scott Brown said “the architecture of styles and signs is anti-spatial; it is an architecture of communication over space….But it is for a new scale of landscape. The philosophical associations of the old eclecticism evoked subtle and complex meanings to be savored in the docile spaces of a traditional landscape. The commercial persuasion of roadside eclecticism provokes bold impact in the vast and complex setting of a new landscape of big spaces, high speeds and complex programs. Styles and signs make connections among many elements, far apart and seen fast.”

Or “The Architecture of Persuasion,” in which they contrast the casino with a Middle Eastern bazaar, which has no signs because you are so close to the merchandise itself, which is a sign. When you are farther from the merchandise, as in the parking lot of the A&P, signs are needed. And on the Las Vegas Strip, signs become even more important. In their words: “The sign is more important than the architecture. This is reflected in the proprietor’s budget: The sign at the front is a vulgar extravaganza; the building in the back, a modest necessity. The architecture is what is cheap.”

Then, even more sacrilegious, “From Rome to Las Vegas,” in which they say that “Visiting Las Vegas in the mid-1960’s was like visiting Rome in the late 1940’s” – which is to say, the discovery of a new world. In Rome, Americans who knew only a world of sprawl discovered the piazza and pedestrian scale. “Las Vegas is to the Strip what Rome is to the piazza,” they write. “On the other hand, Las Vegas was built in a day.”

The most important part of the book, I think, wasn’t the part that was directly about Las Vegas, but the invention of the terms “duck,” meaning a building whose shape connotes its meaning, and “decorated shed,” which is a plain building to which ornament, signs, and so forth have been applied. The history of architecture is a story more of decorated sheds than of ducks, they tell us, and they are happy about that, because they believe that it is in the ability to make ordinary things, and to make them somewhat better, that the best hope of architecture lies. Making ordinary things better – as opposed to making only special things intended to distract us from the everyday – that was maybe the most radical thing of all in this book, and an idea that goes far beyond just the Las Vegas Strip.

For this, Venturi and Scott Brown were accused of having a cynical take on the world, attacked for what was mistaken for an acceptance of mediocrity. Their own rhetoric didn’t help that, because they took more than a little delight in running around calling things they liked “ugly and ordinary,” which was their positive label, and things they didn’t like “heroic and original,” which to them was a term of disapproval. But if you can put that slightly coy, slightly ironic ugly and ordinary business aside, there is actually something rather earnest about their take on things, because it is based on a belief that it is only in the everyday that we can make things better – that escaping from the architecture of the everyday by means of a few great and transcendent buildings isn’t going to work, in the end, because that becomes an excuse to ignore our everyday surroundings, and let them simply get worse and worse. By accepting the world we can improve it more than we can by rejecting, or denying, its realities – that, put in what I have to admit are more touchy-feely terms than Venturi and Scott Brown used, is actually their message. Starting with an acceptance of what is there, not with an ideal that bears no relation to what is there, and as a consequence of that caring about the everyday, and caring about urban wholes.

The other reason I think the message of _Learning from Las Vegas_ has real importance today has to do with something only hinted at in the text, which is the beginning of Venturi and Scott Brown’s notion of the connection between architecture and electronic media. When the sign matters more than space, and it seems to operate like decoration applied to fairly conventional structures, you are really setting up a situation that exists all the time in our day of electronic media, computer graphics, and so forth. After they wrote _Learning from Las Vegas_, Venturi and Scott Brown delved much more into the question of the building as embellished by electronic media, and the shifting connection between virtual space and real space, but all of these things were prefigured in the Las Vegas book, where their observations about the signs essentially defining the urban space mark, for me, a kind of beginning of the connection between architecture and electronic media.

You can see this in the original edition of the Las Vegas book, which contains a portfolio of Venturi’s architectural work, which was omitted from the second edition, the one now in print. It includes what I think is one of the great unbuilt buildings of our time, one that has been almost forgotten— Venturi’s prizewinning entry in a competition in 1967 for the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame. He proposed what he called the "Bill-Ding-Board," a shed-like exhibition structure set behind an immense electronic signboard that was to rise to twice the building’s height. The signboard would continuously project images of classic football plays, while the interior would contain a display of football relics and more projections of film on the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Venturi maintained that this was an electronic version of the painted ceilings of Baroque churches.

Today, we talk about how cyberspace is changing the nature of built space, but this project, designed thirty-four years ago, is the first instance I know of in which an architect said, in effect, that the information is the building. Frank Gehry would never dream of doing such a thing. It’s more in the line of Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, say, who have built a career on the creation of projects that blur the distinction between media and architecture, and who use technology to create new kinds of spatial perceptions. Venturi was there first. The technology wasn’t really even ready for his idea in 1967. He envisioned making his electronic football plays with two hundred thousand light bulbs. Today, his billboard would be a vast LCD screen.

So Venturi and Scott Brown were way ahead of their time, both in their perceptions and in their own designs. What makes _Learning from Las Vegas_ seem now like a book from another era is that the Las Vegas they were writing about, which I’ve called the second generation Las Vegas, is now of course completely gone. Venturi and Scott Brown envisioned this, too, or at least some of it. In a chapter called “Change and Permanence on the Strip,” they write that “The rate of obsolescence of a sign seems to be nearer to that of an automobile than that of a building,” observing that competitive pressures keep pushing for bigger and bigger signs, and to be noticed, you have to keep growing so as not to be blocked by the competition. What they did not envision was that the buildings behind the signs would also change as much as they have, that they would explode in scale in the third Las Vegas generation to become high-rises, or agglomerations of high-rises, not expanded versions of motels, as they once were. The unbelievable gigantism of the third generation of hotels is such that they are really too big to be any longer relatively neutral buildings behind enormous signs – the buildings have become the signs, just as we have here, where the Paris is a sign of one kind, and the Venetian down the road a sign of another; the New York is a very obvious sign, as is the Luxor, the glass pyramid.

By becoming the signs themselves – by becoming themed architecture, which of course is what they are – the hotels of the third generation in Las Vegas have also become ducks, if I can go back to Venturi and Scott Brown’s nomenclature, and that is the really significant thing about this generation. That, in _Learning from Las Vegas_ terms, is the real change. No longer are the hotels decorated sheds. They are all ducks, in which the building is itself the sign, the shape of the building – whether it be with these fake French details and the Eiffel Tower out front, or any of the other themes – has become the icon in and of itself. Even the Bellagio is a kind of pastiche of details one is expected to associate with luxury, as the Venetian is a pastiche of details one is expected to associate with Venice. Of the Wynn, heaven only knows, but I think that, too, is a kind of duck, since all of that glitz is intended, like the Bellagio, to be a sign of luxury. The entire façade – and therefore the entire building – is a sign, a sign of opulence.

The Las Vegas of the second generation, the Las Vegas Venturi and Scott Brown came to study, is all but gone. Now I actually do regret that I didn’t bring some images, because when I looked back at some old photographs I was amazed to see how different it was, not so very long ago, and I should have brought them along. But if you were here as recently as the late 1980’s you would still have seen the Strip of that last generation that I am talking about. Some of what makes it so different is the amount of open space, of which there was a lot more than you would expect – parking lots, empty space, even golf courses adjacent to the Strip. But a lot of it is also the surprise at how many sections of the Strip were busy and crowded, signs jostling each other, buildings jostling each other – just all of it, the signs and the buildings both, pretty tiny by the standards of Las Vegas today.

The Las Vegas of the third generation isn’t only bigger than the Las Vegas of the second generation. It’s also more bombastic, and a lot less innocent. These are gargantuan machines, overwhelming in scale, in which theming has taken the place of signs. I would hardly be so naïve as to speak of the older Las Vegas as earnest, but there was something straightforward and basic about the way in which it simply did what it set out to do. You knew where you were, you knew what game all this neon was playing with you. Now, in these mammoth places with their disingenuous theming, you aren’t so sure what is going on.

I do think there is one thing that is amazing about the Strip right now, however, and it’s something that Venturi and Scott Brown failed to envision, so far as I know, and that nobody else really expected, either, which is the presence of all of those thousands of people out strolling the strip at night, sauntering from casino to casino like pilgrims wandering from church to church in Rome. Actually, maybe Venturi was onto something in comparing Las Vegas to Rome. But seriously, as I’m sure you’ve seen this week, every night, and if it isn’t too hot during the day as well, people walk up and down the Strip. Every casino is a tourist attraction, and people want to see as many of them as they can. There are so many people out on this road that was created only for cars that the city has had to build pedestrian bridges to cross it at critical intersections.

This is urbanism in spite of itself, we might say – urbanism in spite of the builders of every building showing total indifference to it. Now, I don’t want to conclude from this that people would truly rather walk and it is only because of the evil of General Motors and Toyota that we have sprawl. But it is true that if you give people something they want to see, and create a situation in which, for whatever reason, it is not particularly practical to use a car, and you make walking pleasurable and even exciting – well, then people will walk. The Strip is the ultimate example of the street that was not designed for walking, and people are walking on it – a lot of them, every day of the year. Paradoxically, the very system that was designed to accommodate to the users of cars in each hotel, the complicated system of ramps and drop-offs and valet parking and so forth – makes it impractical to use the car to drive from hotel to hotel, because you waste too much time going in and out of each of them. So you walk, and in doing so, you make Las Vegas’s anti-urbanism an urban experience after all.

I haven’t said much about the rest of Las Vegas, and the way in which the extraordinary growth of this city’s casino and entertainment and tourist industry has fueled all kinds of other development – suburban communities, condominium towers, shopping malls, etc. I am not entirely sure how much there is to say about all of this beyond the point I made a few minutes ago about the Strip when it was first being built, which is that it was the same as what was happening in other American cities, only more so. Well, the rest of Las Vegas is also the same as what has been happening in other American cities, only more so. There is more of it, it is happening faster, and it is based on the belief that a place is only as good as the next thing it builds.

I have never believed that this was the kind of principle on which you can sustain a city forever, and I think Las Vegas is beginning to figure that out, as this place is proving that its real estate market is not entirely immune to the forces that have affected other places. But even if the market were not enforcing its will on the economy of Las Vegas, I don’t think that it is particularly healthy for a place to look only forward. A city that lives in the past, of course, is a dead city, but a city that lives only in the present and looks only to the future is living a more tenuous life than it thinks. It is shaky, built on shifting sands, and when the onward rush slows – when the music stops, so to speak – it has no place to go, and no idea what to do, or what its reason for being is.

This may be the only talk I have ever given on urbanism and cities in which I have not, I just realized, used the phrase “the public realm,” which most of the time when I talk about cities I am probably guilty of over-use, since to me it is the most important defining quality of cities – the sense that they consist mainly of a public realm, whether in the form of streets or squares or parks or civic buildings, and that the private buildings, however large and grand, defer to the public realm and fit into a pattern established by it. In a city, streets matter more than buildings, and the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In the suburbs, the opposite tends to be true, and private values take precedence over public ones.

I haven’t talked about that idea partly because I wanted to talk about Learning from Las Vegas, but also because after many years of coming here and thinking about this city, I’m still not entirely sure how conventional urban theory fits Las Vegas. After all, even if Las Vegas is like other cities only more so, that ‘more so’ is pretty intense, and it definitely makes a place that is different from others, and it definitely makes a place in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. There is an essence to this city, there is a character to it that could never be confused with anyplace else. That does, in the end, count for something.

And the Strip, as I said, is a public realm, in spite of itself, in spite of having been conceived with indifference to this idea. The Strip was created to get away from the conventional city, and yet the conventional city – well, not truly the conventional city, but let’s just say the idea of urbanism – caught up with it. I find this encouraging, that even as we pull away from cities in some ways, we come back to them, or re-create a facsimile of urban experience, in other ways.

Las Vegas was created to entertain, but entertainment has always been closely tied to the city. Even if the city grew up as a marketplace, it flourished as a center of culture and entertainment. Technology has threatened this role from time to time, beginning with the creation of recorded music making concerts less necessary, and with film making theater less necessary, and with television making film less necessary, and with the computer making all of them less necessary. But somehow the urban impulse continues, because we want to be physically together, in a place that excites and entertains and amuses us. Because technology frees us from having to be together in the ways we once did – we do not have to go downtown to shop, and many of us no longer have to go downtown to work – we go downtown by choice. We go to the city to be diverted. And indeed, today almost every older city is becoming more and more a place of culture and entertainment, less a place of manufacturing, more a place of service businesses and health and education and tourism and leisure. Every city is becoming more like Las Vegas, we might almost say. By that I don’t mean that every city will become Las Vegas, and I absolutely don’t mean to forgive this city’s obvious shortcomings. I don’t find a fifty-thousand room or whatever hotel amusing because it has a fake mansard roof.

But if we put that aside for a moment and try to understand the realities of Las Vegas now, as Venturi and Scott Brown helped us to see with a clear, unsentimental eye the realities of Las Vegas a generation ago, we see a place that really does show us much of what people want out of cities, and much of what will induce people who do not live an urban life to come to a city. They want grandeur, and excitement, and novelty, and stimulation. They want to come to a city for what they cannot get on the Internet. They want visual splendor, and they want surprise. And they want to see other people, and mill about with them, and even to feel a sense of common cause with them. It is not a bad set of things to want, and as we try to figure out how to provide these things in other places, and how to build cities that have the sustaining, nurturing qualities that this city undeniably lacks, we have to admit that we can still, even now, be learning from Las Vegas.

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