I don’t have a degree in graphic design. I went to architecture school. That education has served me well in the various roles I have filled since. For one, it comes in handy when writing a post about architecture for my company’s blog. But, it also taught me a very valuable lesson, one which has its roots fifty years ago in Las Vegas. In the 1960s, when most architects and designers were writing the city off as a place of heinous buildings, a couple of architects decided the city deserved a closer look.
I promise I’ll keep the history lecture brief. Basically, Las Vegas is where it is because the land was adjacent to a couple of major railroad lines. As more people traveled by train, more people stopped. More people stopping needed more places to stay. More inns, more saloons. Eventually, this meant more bars, more hotels, and some casinos. Soon, Las Vegas became the place for cheap fun and novelty. As travel capabilities in the US grew, so did infrastructure. But, regulations on architecture and urbanism did not change much in response. This left the door wide open for building, well, pretty much anything. And so, by the 1960s, Las Vegas had become what was, and to many still is, an atrociously tacky pit of commercial chaos.
In many ways, Las Vegas represented the antithesis of what most architects aspired to design. It certainly was the antithesis of what was happening in respected architecture circles at the time. The so-called Modernists – architects like Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe – were designing buildings in a style that emphasized balance, regularity, and an absence of ornament, letting expression come from the construction methods and the inherent properties of the building materials (color, texture, visual weight, etc.). The Modernists dismissed the buildings in Las Vegas, as they were highly ornamented, irregular buildings and made symbolic references to things outside of themselves.
Enter Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, a husband-wife architectural duo, professors, and principles of their own firm, Venturi, Scott-Brown, and Associates. The two had other ideas about Las Vegas. As much anthropologists as they were architects, they were interested in the melding of cultures – this thing influences that thing, creates something unusual. And Vegas is certainly absurd. They wanted to understand why and how the city came into existence. They are quoted as saying: “Withholding judgement may be used as a tool to make later judgements more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything.”
Venturi and Scott Brown took a group of architecture students from the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a research studio in Vegas. The group studied various aspects of the city, including the commercial vernacular, lighting, patterns, typography, and symbolism in the architecture. They generated highly detailed diagrams and created a taxonomy for the forms, signs, and symbols they encountered. Eventually, all of this was compiled into a book called Learning from Las Vegas. But Venturi and Scott Brown were most inspired by the emphasis on sign and symbol they found on the strip.
Arguably the most important piece of research that came from this studio was the division of all the buildings on and around The Strip into two camps: ducks and decorated sheds. They coined the term “duck” to describe a building in which the architecture is subordinate to the overall symbolic form. It is a reference to an actual building shaped like a duck. A duck farmer built The Big Duck in Flanders, NY in 1931 to try to boost his business. The building worked simultaneously as a shop to sell ducks and duck eggs and as a kind of billboard to advertise its function. The building looks like what it does.
Decorated sheds, on the other hand, are buildings whose purpose can only be identified by their signage. Stripped of all their superficial applications, these buildings could become almost anything. You’ll see these plain shoebox buildings much more often than you’ll see ducks. Remember the old Kmart in your hometown that became an ice skating rink for one winter before it was a Halloween Express? Yep, that’s a decorated shed.
Not all buildings are either ducks or decorated sheds, but most of the buildings on The Strip fall into one of these categories because they are essentially all advertisements for themselves. Many of the casinos are decorated sheds – pretty plain buildings clad in glitter and neon, with giant flashing signs that say, “Spend your money here!” Many of the hotels are ducks. Caesar’s palace. New York, New York. The form of the Excalibur building is telling us, “I’m a medieval Castle, and you’ll have a joust of a good time in here!” The function of the building, however, is a hotel.
Author’s note: Eventually, Learning from Las Vegas won a Pritzker Prize, which is sort of like the Oscars for architecture. Let me rephrase. Robert Venturi won a Pritzker prize, although Denise Scott Brown co-authored the book and contributed equally to the project. A petition to award Denise a Pritzker retroactively was rejected—in 2013 (if you needed any proof that sexism in design still isn’t dead.)
This research, particularly the duck and decorated shed dichotomy, provoked a larger discussion in the architecture world about the value of signs and symbols. Modernist buildings, in their effort to converge into a style that was universally applicable, eschewed ornament and symbolism. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown insisted that in doing so, Modernist buildings became mute and unimaginative. Signs and symbols, they argued, are actually very universal in nature. We as a civilization have a very human need for symbolic association. Symbols transcend language. They also express an innately human quality: imagination.
The argument in favor of using symbols and ornament in architecture eventually won out, and thus Modernism gave way to Postmodernism. Postmodern buildings incorporated asymmetry, humor and camp, colors and textures unrelated to the building’s structure, references to past styles, and references to the regional vernacular.
So what does the story of Las Vegas have to teach designers? Heck, what does it have to teach us all? I am not suggesting that you abandon all criticality in favor of an anything-goes approach. Rather, the objective of the ducks and the decorated sheds tale is to try to consider everything with an open mind. Even the “worst” designs on the internet have something to say. Who designed it? And for whom? Why? With what resources? Why does it look this way and not that way? What might have influenced the design? Is it objectively bad, or do I just think it’s bad? The point is, everything — and I mean everything — has something to teach us. Even “bad” design. It may just change the world.