I admire and respect Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for their great career and contribution to architecture, which has yet to be fully assessed. The depth of their thinking, the vigilant efforts to achieve their aesthetic vision, their desire to overcome modernist dogma, which had mutated into marginalized elite uncivic abstraction, falsely denying vibrant areas of life...how can one argue with the importance and value of such work?
Let me try.
To me, this book represents one of the most interesting turning points of an architectural career, very similar to Rem Koolhaas' essay on Bigness in S,M,L,XL.
Both texts are attempting to give themselves an elite artist's alibi for co-opting the corporate machinery's unself-conscious production. Here, both artists (VRSB and OMA)attempt to escape into pop art, just like their friend Andy Warhol, thumbing his nose at the self important abstract expressionists.
There's just one problem with this; they are architects, not just artists.
And this places them in significantly different political territory. Architects build in the public sphere, and therefore have a powerful civic impact. They enable some political forces, and, by physical default, suppress others. If they were artists, their voice is a singular one, an unsponsored comment, to be entertained or dismissed. Architecture cannot be waved away.
So, being architects, is 'Learning from Las Vegas' and 'Bigness' an elite artist's manifesto, or a cynical architect's effort to solicit clients from the bloated and most lucrative areas of commerce? The ambiguity is disturbing, because ultimately it has proven out not to matter what their intention. Both Venturi and Rem Koolhaas have been most useful tools for the most egregious excesses of our runaway imperial corporate world.
And this is a sad legacy for two brilliant architectural careers. No matter what their aesthetic accomplishments in the way of rarified architectural thought, the more brutal reality is that architects seeking fame cannot also speak truth to power. This gravely undermines their civic responsibilities.
I am reminded of William Morris' quote, a sad retrospective look at his career, saying that ultimately, his work "only served the swinish luxuries of the rich." A bitter realization for a socialist, one who chose to retreat into archaic craft, instead of trendy pop.
Pop architecture is not a game. It is an insidious symptom of the polarization of wealth, a symptom that Venturi and Koolhaas cheerfully enable, both with their particular form of dissociating irony. They can play with it as a theory, but it has wrought disastrous consequences in the physical and political landscape. Same thing happened to Frank Gehry, another symptomatic starchitectural monster, who apparently doesn't need to theorize. Hard to say when the deal went down exactly. I just don't know.