it was not uncommon to see mobile homes parked in front of old rural farm houses

Venturi and Rauch   Roma Interrotta: Sector VII   1978
Robert Venturi   John Rauch


Las Vegas is the apotheosis of the desert town. Visiting Las Vegas in the mid-1960s was like visiting Rome in the late 1940s. For young Americans in the 1940s, familiar only with the auto-scaled, gridiron city and the antiurban theories of the previous architectural generation, the traditional urban spaces, the pedestrian scale, and the mixtures, yet continuities, of styles of the Italian piazzas were a significant revelation. They rediscovered the piazza. Two decades later architects are perhaps ready for similar lessons about large open space, big scale, and high speed. Las Vegas is to the Strip what Rome is to the Piazza.
There are other parallels between Rome and Las Vegas: their expansive settings in the Campagna and in the Mojave Desert, for instance that tend to clarify their images. On the other hand, Las Vegas was built in a day, or rather, the Strip was developed in a virgin desert in a short time. It was not superimposed on an older pattern as were the pilgrim's Rome of the Counter-Reformation and the commercial strips of eastern cities, and it is therefore easier to study. Each city is an archetype rather than a prototype, an exaggerated example from which to derive lessons for the typical. Each city vividly superimposes elements of a supranational scale on the local fabric: churches in the religious capital, casinos and their signs in the entertainment capital. These cause violent juxtapositions of use and scale in both cities. Rome's churches, off streets and piazzas, are open to the public; the pilgrim, religious or architectural, can walk from church to church. The gambler or architect in Las Vegas can similarly take in a variety of casinos along the Strip. The casinos and lobbies of Las Vegas are ornamental and open to the promenading public; a few old banks and railroad stations excepted, they are unique in American cities. Nolli's map of the mid-eighteenth century reveals the sensitive and complex connections between public and private spaces in Rome. Private building is shown in gray crosshatching that is carved into by the public spaces, exterior and interior. These spaces, open or roofed, are shown in minute detail through darker poché. Interiors of churches read like piazzas and courtyards of palaces, yet a variety of qualities and scales is articulated.
An excerpt from Learning from Las Vegas--From Rome to Las Vegas--accompanied Roma Interrotta: Sector VII.

The Strip outside the walls of Rome is actually the Appian Way.

"They built in an isolated spot, Las Vegas, out in the desert, just like Louis XIV, the Sun King, who purposely went outside of Paris, into the countryside, to create a fantastic baroque environment to celebrate his rule. It is no accident that Las Vegas and Versailles are the only two architecturally uniform cities in Western history. The important thing about the building of Las Vegas is not that the builders were gangsters but that they were proles. They celebrated, very early, the new style of life of America--using the money pumped in by the war to show a prole vision . . . Glamor! . . . of style. The usual thing has happened, of course. Because it is prole, it gets ignored, except on the most sensational level. Yet long after Las Vegas' influence as a gambling heaven has gone, Las Vegas' forms and symbols will be influencing American life. The fantastic skyline! Las Vegas' neon sculpture, its fantastic fifteen-story-high display signs, parabolas, boomerangs, rhomboids, trapazoids and all the rest of it, are already the staple design of the American landscape outside of the oldest parts of the oldest cities. They are all over every suburb, every subdivision, every highway . . . every hamlet, as it were, the new crossroads, spiraling Servicenter signs. They are the new landmarks of America, the new guideposts, the new way Americans get their bearings. And yet what do we know about these signs, these incredible pieces of neon sculpture, and what kind of impact they have on people? Nobody seems to know the first thing about it, not even the men who design them."
There's no question that Wolfe (already) learned something very new from Las Vegas. And there's no question that this passage precurses and inspired Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour. What's interesting now is the difference between Wolfe's focus and V,SB&I's focus--a journalistic focus versus an academic focus, sort of. There is also the difference that V,SB&I probably felt they had to introduce so as not be 'copying' Wolfe. For example, V,SB&I do not exactly pursue the study of Las Vegas as a rare case of an "architecturally uniform city in Western history." Right now, I kind of wish they had.

Being now fully aware of the role Wolfe played in the making the Learning from Las Vegas, my view of the VSBI project has changed. For a start, Learning from Las Vegas no longer seems lively and unique, rather now a bit cold and clinical. Furthermore, Learning from Las Vegas now feels even more agenda driven than specifically about Las Vegas, per se. It's odd (for me, at least) to now realize that Learning from Las Vegas could have been legitimately different than is it, could have been better even.




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