Learning from Las Vegas, Learning from Levittown

I’ve known about Robert Venturi for a number of years. I was accidentally exposed to the historical fact of Post Modernism being an architectural movement by a professor while I was studying art in College. I was flabbergasted. I had never thought all of what I knew up to that time as Post Modern had started in the U.S. as an outgrowth of architecture and the person who championed the idea was Robert Venturi. Now many can argue Post Modernism cannot be described as the result of any one person’s activities. There’s a lot of philosophers working prior to WW2 and after that could be called “Post Modern”. There are a number of film theorists, cultural critics, academics who could all be credited as helping evolve the ideas of Post Modernism. But being naive at that point in my life and believing in the ‘Modern’ tradition of Art History where things having a beginning, middle and end, crediting one person with Post Modernism made complete sense. And because I had never heard of Robert Venturi and had never once suspected Architecture might have been the first ‘medium’ to move in the direction of Post Modernism, I had to find out more.

Thank god there are Libraries on College campuses. I went to the Library, walked into the stacks and found the architecture section. I did some shelf reading of titles and authors and didn’t really do a good job of tracking down Robert Venturi, but the name and the mystique stuck with me for a very long time. Through my days as an undergraduate in College I knew eventually I had to find out more about this guy. Before I knew it, I had graduated and eventually got into Graduate School for more studying of Art. My first year as a Graduate student was okay, I let myself get sucked up into some political battles, but the big bright light of the year was Summer classes. Our little school conducted workshops in the summer and visiting professors are great in an art program. We had a guy from Kansas City teach a class on interactive multimedia and we were using cheap, and easy Apple Hypercard to learn the basics. What was even better was this fellow’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Post Modern (from Umberto Eco, to Stuart Malthroup) and his ability to recall things that were similar to one another. For this guy everything was kind of like one another. Whereas in philosophy and criticism, you dissect things based on their differences. Similarities and analogies and metaphors are what I’m all about so I really liked this guys approach to things. And when he did his slide lecture he didn’t just show us interactive multimedia. No, no, no. He gave us comparisons of things that had similarities to interactive multimedia which really opened up the possibilities of what could be created in an interactive format.

And then when we got on the topic of books, this guy brought up the name of an architect who produced a crazy book that was kind of a multimedia experience (for the time it was made in 1972 it was avant garde). It was Robert Venturi all over again. He had put together a book called “Learning from Las Vegas” which was the product of a study made of the architecture of Las Vegas (Fremont and the Strip). I didn’t know the details, all I saw was 3 slides at most showing diagrams and maps and anthropological photo studies of types of buildings. I had never seen anything like it. And I vaguely remembered the name: Robert Venturi. Once I recalled fully that his name had come up once before in a similarly startling fashion, I absolutely had to find out more about him. So I kept an eye out when I would visit used book stores and eventually one day in Charlottesville, VA I happened across a smallish book on Robert Venturi with some photos of buildings he had designed. And I had to say compared to other architecture books of the Modern or International style, Venturi’s buildings as buildings were not like other people’s buildings. They were enigmatic in a kind of subtle way. There may be a signature ‘style’ but I couldn’t find it and say in my mind “Oh that’s got to be a Robert Venturi building”. Which eventually piqued my curiosity so much I read the whole text of the book to find out more about this architect. I discovered a little bit about his background, where he studied and so forth. But I also found out publishing books was something he did every so often too. While he occasionally taught he wasn’t just an architecture professor or just a consultant. He was a real architect being commissioned to design things or propose projects. He was real and working and not just a theorist. And he was driven to write about architecture too. Very curious indeed.

But what about that crazy book, “Learning from Las Vegas”? It didn’t occur to me to really seek it out until I bought that used book and looked at the bibliography and found Venturi’s list of books up to that time. Everything in that used book seemed to point to the work “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” as the magnum opus of Robert Venturi. I made a point then to follow the rules of Modern Art History and start at the beginning. I may have been more interest in Las Vegas, but I had to know what proceeded Las Vegas. Eventually I found a copy of “Complexity and Contradiction” in the Library. It had a few thumbnail sized photos for examples, a few thumbnails sized illustrations but it was mostly text. It wasn’t very good reading, it was somewhat academic. I later found it was essentially a more complete fully worked up vision of his graduate Dissertation. But it was interesting in a few ways. He took historical examples of famous architecture and really paid more attention to the details of the buildings. A made up and exaggerated example of this would be something like say the Palace of Versailles. Now comes the fun part where I make fun of Venturi.

Versailles is famous as being the palace of Louis XIV (cat toes). And for having a really strong design of buildings and the grounds together, a tour de force of complete architecture for the ages. Instead of looking at the layout of the buildings and the grounds Venturi might look at or collect every example of a lighting fixture at the Palace of Versailles. Or he might get examples of every handrail on every staircase at the Palace of Versailles. What on the surface seems like an insult to the Art Historian is a very careful attempt to look at the practicalities of a building that is being lived in. It’s boring, it’s inane, it’s facetious, but it is meant to really call into question the overwhelming influence of the Modernist program on Art History and Architectural Design. Modernism would be so wrapped up with form and light and the ‘program’ of the building, everything that could be called the ‘not so subtle’ aspects. Venturi recognizes that part exists, but Architecture is not ONLY form, light and program. It is that, plus. At MIT’s School of Engineering the principle followed on any project, proof of concept or DEMO is not what features go in and which ones are eliminated (Less is More for instance). No, no, no. The principle is much more liberal and expansive. If you cannot decide between two things because each one has beneficial though not essential differences then you must INCLUDE them both. This is the idea of both/and. Venturi’s philosophy of inclusion is the seeming polar opposite of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s principle of essential qualities expressed in the saying, “Less is More”. Venturi’s feeling is that philosophical conclusion can only lead to monumental architecture that is more sculpture and monument than shelter and living quarter.

Which brings us to the Yale School of Architecture and Fall of 1970. Venturi wanted to conduct a special field work course where a ‘study’ was conducted of the Levittown housing development. The title was named provokingly, “Learning from Levittown”. As a pre-fabbed postwar suburban housing development, Levittown was showered with disdain, resentment, and disapproval from all corners of the professional architecture world. It was a commercial project meant to make money fast, fast, fast and meet the huge demand for houses after WW2. It was a huge success in both respects and it spawned a wave of similar projects all over the U.S. Unlike carefully designed masterpieces like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style ranch houses. These borrowed in a very loose way all the parts of the Usonian house that made good economic sense. Venturi felt that the whole bias and chauvinism against the suburb was an impediment to all architects who followed the party line and felt Suburban = Bad. Instead Venturi entered into this project with the idea that Levittown was as valid and valuable to study as Chartres Cathedral. But Why?

Pragmatism gets a bad rap no matter what field it is practiced in. Whether it be medicine, art, or politics nobody has great praise for the folks who just want to get stuff done and move on to the next thing. That’s not to say they are pragmatists are sloppy, impatient, or easily bored. Instead pragmatism when applied to things like architecture acknowledges how long Man has lived and practiced Architecture. Some things have been sorted out. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, maybe we don’t need to design every light fixture, chair, waste basket, sink handle and toilet that goes into every building we design. Maybe the architect’s role is to design the building and allow people to then live their own lives as they see fit. Similarly Venturi talks about the exigencies of cost. Architects like Wright were famous for cost overruns, delays in schedule and after the building was given the certificate for habitation, numerous problems with leaks, structural issues, etc. The pragmatism of Venturi surrounding the cost of a building was centered on providing what the customer wanted at the cost they wanted and then within that budget adding the subtleties of decoration that would identify the building as a Venturi building.

In studying Levittown, Venturi wanted to acknowledge that suburbs and merchant builders associations exist too. The program of this type of architecture is worthy of study in order to ‘deconstruct’ the conventions followed in the design. Through analyzing the historical references made in the design one could try to understand what it was that attracted so many people to these houses in the first place. Once the desire was nailed down, then an architect could use those same references in future projects to more closely match the project to what the customer was looking for. It’s boring, but not without interest through the details,  through the decoration, not through the adventurous program of the building. One expects an adventurous program at a theme park, a jungle gym, an obstacle course. For every day living the history has numerous examples of ‘what works’. And that should followed, then provide the architectural design that enhances or helps make the building more original looking. People first, design second and hopefully costs will fall inline.







3 responses to “Learning from Las Vegas, Learning from Levittown”

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