Flâneurs in Automobiles* | Venturi and Scott Brown on the Road

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1966 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

Baudelaire‘s meaning of flâneur was that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. But with the automobile industry suffering big changes in the USA in the decade of the 60s, while the European makers adopted ever-higher technology, and Japan appeared as a serious car-producing nation, American architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, with students from Yale University, embarked in 1968 on a groundbreaking investigation of the Las Vegas Strip… as flâneurs but in automobiles.

Now, almost forty years after that experience, it’s time to re-think about what we’ve learned of this psychogeographic trip. At those years, architects had a fresh way of understanding the cities. They were looking at the influence of popular culture, advertising, film and the experience of the built environment. From a moving automobile, they extended the categories of the ordinary, the ugly, and the social into architecture. About this project, we can read at Venturi & Scott Brown website:

Learning from Las Vegas created a healthy controversy on its appearance in 1972, calling for architects to be more receptive to the tastes and values of “common” people and the commercial vernacular and less immodest in their erections of “heroic,” self-aggrandizing monuments. This revision includes the full texts of Part I of the original, on the Las Vegas Strip, and Part II, “Ugly and Ordinary Architecture, or the Decorated Shed,” a generalization from the findings of the first part on symbolism in architecture and the iconography of urban sprawl.

For Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour photography and film were both the means of argumentation and representation of their research. Their approach was to use photographic methods borrowed from the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and art. As a research methodology, it became as revolutionary as their findings, which were published in the book, Learning from Las Vegas.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Stardust Hotel and Casino. Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

The idea of being a flâneur in automobile inevitably reminds us of the adventures of Jack Kerouac in 1951, and the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America, that were the basis of his novel On the Road. We can imagine Venturi and Scott Brown travelling through Las Vegas and maybe just feeling the same as Kerouac when he wrote:

“I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 1, Ch. 13

The concept of the flâneur has been meaningful in architecture and urbanism and has been used to describe those persons who are indirectly and unintentionally affected by a particular design that they experience only by passing trough. We can think that this feeling was exactly what Venturi and Scott Brown wanted to share by showing a new way to approach to the psychological aspects of the built environment.

Walter Benjamin described flâneurie with these words “Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He… enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit.” According to Benjamin, the flâneur came to rise primarily because of an architectural change in the city. In the decade of 1960, Las Vegas was the perfect representation of “change”, while a phenomenon led by Howard Hughes, occured and Corporations were building hotels and casino properties. They had the capital necessary and that made the casino industry extremely attractive. Gambling became “gaming” and started the transition into legitimate business, according to Las Vegas official history.

Thunderbird Hotel and Casino, entrance, Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Fremont Street neon signs, Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Gas station, Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

In Flâneurs in Automobiles, a conversation between Peter Fischli, Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist; Fischli talks about his own experience:

In the early 1980s. In 1982, I guess. I bought a car in New York and drove across America for four months. It’s a completely astonishing experience when you drive for three days through the desert and then come to Las Vegas. You see this “thing” in the middle of just dry stones and nothing. And when you arrive there, it starts with one sign, then two signs, and more and more … . So that big empty space around Las Vegas was always something important to me. The “fata morgana” moment. It wasn’t the Las Vegas as we know it today, of course.

Koolhaas said to have done the same thing in 1973, ten years earlier. So we can see that the idea of a research-road-trip was deeply extended in the architect’s mind of those years and that is why the photographic work done by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour before arriving to Las Vegas was as important as their vision on the quality of the “spontaneous” and “generic” architecture in America.

American suburbia, ca. 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Tanya-Billboard on the Strip, Las Vegas, 1968 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

Reyner Banham pointed in early 1967:

“Las Vegas is now a mandatory stop-over in the English architectural student’s grand tour of North America.”

So, it’s interesting to think about this trip and how it changed the architects mind on those years. The role of the architect also changed while interacting with other disciplines as photographer, film-maker and writer and we can think about how this role was perceived forty years ago and how is perceived in the current times. As Koolhaas wonders, it’s difficult to understand why did this research isolate them [Venturi and Scott Brown] from the rest of the architectural profession of those years?

Maybe it was because forward-thinkers are never understood in their moment… and we need to let time pass by to understand.

For a better understanding on the importance of Venturi and Scott Brown‘s research on Las Vegas, The Graham Foundation is opening the exhibition, Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, presenting original photographs and films produced in 1968. So, if you’re around, don’t miss it!

* Flâneurs in Automobiles is a conversation between Peter Fischli, Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist published on the book Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown by Hilar Stadler and Martino Stierli.

Recommended reading:
Learning from las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.
The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin

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