Deconstructing Las Vegas: scientific frictions in Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour

  • YEAR
    Chapman, Michael
    Ostwald, Michael J.
    Tucker, Chris
    2006 Conference Papers
    Human Issues


ABSTRACT: Scientific attitudes towards knowledge have proliferated architecture and urbanism in the
period since the Second World War as the growth of science and its standing in the community
continues to grow. As a theoretical framework has developed linking science with architecture, the
precise methodology and interpretive rigour of scientific research has provided a seductive model that
urban theorists have used to interpret the cultural and social dimensions of urban form.

One of the most famous and original examples of a scientific methodology being applied to architecture
is the canonical work of Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour entitled Learning From Las Vegas. This work
provided a scientific framework for understanding popular culture, first demarcating it spatially within
Las Vegas, dissecting it into clearly defined categories, establishing clear frameworks to the research
and ultimately interpreting the results and presenting them graphically. The innovative scientific model
employed in Learning from Las Vegas allowed, for the first time, architects and urbanists to examine
information in rigorous and consistent “laboratory conditions” supplying a vast and well-organised body
of interpretive data while at the same time removing hermetically the superfluous information. This
allowed the city, as a cultural organism to be dissected and laid out systematically in the same way
bodies are dissected in the quest for scientific knowledge.

Despite its seductive appeal, the logic of Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour’s analysis has never been
questioned and its scientific rigour has not been tested. While a convenient means of representing
architectural data, the framework used to examine Las Vegas is based on a number of internal
inconsistencies which vastly undermine the scientific credibility of the experiment. By demarcating the
city into clearly defined areas of research this model of thinking sought to contain and isolate the
various dimensions of popular culture like a virus and prevent them from spreading or reproducing.
While maintaining a superficial fascination with the “popular” the scientific procedure was analogous to
a kind of quarantine that sought to identify popular culture, contain it, and limit its growth, ensuring,
through the methodologies in place, that the heterogenous dimensions of the city were hermetically
divided into isolated and homogenous categories like atoms in a scientific laboratory. Cultural theorists
at the time of Learning from Las Vegas such as Michel Foucault were already warning of the inherent
dangers of this model of scientific analysis for the humanities and the limitations it placed upon
epistemological research.

Using a deconstructive model of analysis (which explores specifically the spaces between linguistic
opposites) and drawing from parallel themes in critical theory, this paper will investigate the scientific
methodology that underpins Learning from Las Vegas and demonstrate its abridged relationship to the
broader social and cultural dimensions of built form. By dismantling the procedures and hypotheses of
the experiment, the paper will demonstrate the limitations at work in the scientific data attained by
Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour and some of the inconsistencies that exist in their theoretical
conclusions, particularly in their attitude towards heterogeneity, ambiguity and complexity. Drawing
upon the work of Foucault, the paper will demonstrate how Learning from Las Vegas, rather than
containing a scientific record of popular culture, contains within it the scientific desire to contain it.


To top