I AM A MONUMENT: On Learning from Las Vegas

by Aron Vinegar
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008
208 pp., illus. 82 b/w. Trade $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-22082-8.

Reviewed by Chris Speed
School of Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art


Vinegar’s book revisits Learning from Las Vegas (LFLV), one of the most influential and contentious architectural books of the twentieth century. Written by architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, the text used the visual iconography and urban design of Las Vegas to demand a re-appraisal of the ‘modern’ architectural movement. Published in the same year that the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St.Louis, Missouri was dynamited, and a year after the collapse of the Breton Woods agreement that was established in 1945 to regulate the international monetary system, the book anticipated many of the characteristics of post-modernity. Thirty six years on, Vinegar recovers the book and demonstrates its value through the exploration of a series of contemporary themes.

Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s use of Las Vegas can be located alongside a series of authors who have used cities as ways to the understand social, cultural and architectural dynamics of a particular period in time. Benjamin on Paris, Burgess on Chicago, Soja on Los Angeles and Koolhaas on New York, all used biopsies of cities to offer insights into how society has changed. As each city in turn has been used to herald a new cultural paradigm, Vinegar’s book reminds us the importance of returning to a text to appreciate its perspective out of time.

Vinegar’s approach is to analyse both the 1972 and 1977 editions in depth, focussing in particular upon the use of language and many of the illustrations that accompanied the ideas. In the first chapter Vinegar focuses upon the term ‘skepticism’ to explore Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s rather particular manner for describing their experience of Las Vegas. Often interpreted as retaining an “aesthetic and moral irresolution”, critics at the time were uncomfortable with LFLV’s apparent ambivalence for the state of America. Vinegar uses the term ‘skepticism’ with integrity, to identify the importance of the LFLV’s ability to critique a city with wonder and indifference, so as to make it meaningful. Vinegar is extremely thorough in constructing his arguments, using a complex arrangement of sources to support his project to resituate the original texts, and identify the longevity and value of its insights.

Particularly sophisticated is Vinegar’s analysis of the ‘Duck’ and ‘Decorated Shed’, terms that were introduced by Venturi and Scott Brown to describe a distinction between architectural approaches and the use of signs. After an examination of the terms with reference to modern architectures obsession in resolving the conceptual dimensions of ‘inside and outside’, Vinegar layers deeper and deeper interpretation upon the ‘Duck’ and ‘Decorated Shed’ to support their role as powerful models for understanding aspects of expressionism and voice within the human condition. The critical analysis is extended to a very enjoyable exploration of the concept of the ‘dead pan’ as a skeptical device, and is used with reference to Buster Keaton to slow down the shock of events and provide more time to reflect upon the body’s relationship with materials, form and space. With consistent complexity, Vinegar goes on to tackle architectures presentation of itself through an analysis of ‘I Am a Monument’, an image and concept that links questions of representation, community and the persistence of vision. During these sections of the book, Vinegar is able to use LFLV as a rich reference point from which to construct arguments about architecture, language and perception.

The final chapter, analyses the differences between the first and second editions of LFLV that were published five years apart. In extraordinary detail, Vinegar uses a wide variety of source material including original designs for layout, use of fonts, and communication between authors and publishers to describe how the two editions have become coordinates between which we can better understand the entire LFLV project and in particular its persistent relevance for architecture. Vinegar’s approach is a rare combination of factual analysis and theoretical reflection, which describes his deep understanding of both editions of the book, not just as texts but also as cultural artefacts.

The book is a sharp and intelligent, and is very thorough in the way that it constructs it analysis of one of the most important architectural texts of the twentieth century. At times its complexity makes you feel as though you are reading more than a personal obsession for the books, as Vinegar’s depth of reflection becomes extremely intricate. But, his understanding for the concepts involved and the integrity with which they are extended across a wide range of theoretical references makes it a valuable text in its own right.

Last Updated 1 April, 2009

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo:isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST