Learning From Las Vegas: Academic Taxonomy


I just returned from a trip to Las Vegas. I was ready for a little post pandemic adventure and Vegas is just so easy. It was good to get out into the world again and explore the ever evolving Vegas metroplex. Inevitably, I found myself going back and referencing the classic text, “Learning from Las Vegas.”

In the late 1960s Denise Scott Brown, a Zambia born and British educated architecture professor, travelled to Las Vegas. She and her colleagues Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour went on to write, “Learning from Las Vegas” in 1972. Instead of dismissing Vegas as a tacky tourist trap like most other academics, the trio treated the city the way serious scholars might explore Rome. They wanted to understand what made the place tick.



Robert Venturi was from Philadelphia and had studied classical architecture at Princeton in an era when modernism was the dominant style. He didn’t necessarily reject the minimal glass boxes of the time, but he did insist that symbolism and ornamentation in architecture were still important. The quotidian landscape was of interest to him, particularly as ordinary objects conveyed social and cultural significance.

Source: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Together the authors created a scientific taxonomy for what they observed. Some buildings were called “ducks.” These are structures with a physical form that communicates their function - like a shop that sells duck eggs that’s shaped like a duck. The building itself is the sign.

Other buildings were categorized as “decorated sheds.” These are no nonsense functional boxes with oversized signage and appliquéd ornamentation facing the street. The signs are effectively the architecture.

In both cases the goal of these buildings is to respond to the reality of the dispersed horizontal auto oriented landscape. Buildings need to communicate to a public that exists largely in vehicles traveling at high speed from a distance.

Read the rest of this piece at Granola Shotgun.

Johnny Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape, from small rural towns to skyscrapers and everything in between. He travels often, conducts interviews with people of interest, and gathers photos and video of places worth talking about (which he often shares on Strong Towns). Johnny writes for Strong Towns, and his blog, Granola Shotgun.

Photo: The Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, courtesy Granola Shotgun