Denise Scott Brown, Queen of the Desert

Here is Denise Scott Brown, hands on hips in the desert, looking us squarely in the eye with an intensity that seems like a provocation. ‘Here I am’, she seems to be saying, ‘And what do you think of that!?’

Her hair is up though a few wisps have come free. Her sleeves are pushed up to the top of her forearms, and she stands, square shouldered, legs apart with a concentrated glee. She stands to the right of the frame, as big as a building, occupying the image with supreme confidence. Her and Vegas, sky above and desert below.  She, and everything around her seems charged with a glowing energy, bristling with urgency and significance.

In the distance, the strip. Blocked out against the sky is the erect and phallic Dunes sign. There is Caesars Palace, a Denny’s and a billboard for Cutty Sark. A hotel tower, a loop of Googie.

But we’re not on the strip, we are somewhere behind the strip. We’re off grid. Apparently with no road, no car. We’re backstage from the action, removed from Vegas’s effects. The photograph places us outside, looking into the city from the edge, from a point of view where the cities only urban logic is obscured. How did we get here? How will we ever get back? The photographs strange location disorientates us. But not, to judge from her expression, Denise, who seems to know exactly why she is there.

To her left, occupying the midground, is the ruin of some kind of shack. It’s chimney stack still standing as large as the buildings in the distance. Its roof in now on the ground, sheets of corrugated iron curled like crisps. A ruin? Here in Vegas in 1968? Its strange looming presence alongside the Vegan sign-scapes suggests something intangible – a fragment of mythic or folkloric something.

Maybe Denise and Bob stood here – as opposed to just over there where you wouldn’t see the chimney – for a reason. Maybe the ruined chimney stands for old forms of settlement, for hierarchies of hearth or home, for the kind of thing that free-flowing capitalist space – of which Vegas represented an extreme example – makes impossible. Maybe this collapsed structure represents an idea of history become unstable in the shifting semiological sands of the Nevada desert. Maybe, like a momento mori, it prefigures the mortality of even this landscape of newness.

She looks like the last woman alive.  Certainly the only one who could stand right there like that and handle reality in such a clear-eyed way. Scott Brown smiles with a sheen of ecstasy, as though, Yes! This is it! This moment! This rubble around me! The sun beating down and the blue sky! This half formed landscape! This nothing … might somehow contain … everything! It seems to show us Denise experiencing Vegas’s urban condition like an electric charge shooting right through her, setting her taut.

The picture defines a complete architectural position. We see it in the contrast of Scott Browns excitement and singular confidence with the weak confusion of the environment. Somehow her stance suggests hope and possibility amongst an abandoned, unplanned, ill-fated landscape. If I were the mayor of Vegas I’d build a giant, glowing, neon bright version of her, standing there just like this image. A colossal Scott Brown, lights blinking and lasers scanning like a giant cult image of the city, an Athena Parthenos for a city that most had given up hope for.

Scott Browns image has a twin. A photo of Robert Venturi in a black suit with his back to us standing in almost the same spot. Our view has shifted a little to the right. This shift in framing makes the landscape seem clearer, less random, more intentional. His body is in a kind of ironic-stiff pose, gazing towards the strip so that his body forms a black shape, a void against the bright landscape. As a photograph, it’s more arch, more composed than that of Denise. It’s funny and absurd, a Magritte-in-the-desert. It presents an appropriate Venturian perversity, a non-portrait portrait.

Denise takes Bobs picture. Bob poses, Denise clicks. Bob takes Denise’s picture, Denise poses, and Bob clicks. This is a conversation via photography. An exchange, a to-and-fro of personality. These are not ordinary portraits of architects. We should remember that while we might now read them as polemic, they are also incredibly intimate images.

Their Vegas trip took place at around the start of their relationship. And the photographs they took of each other are the kind of photographs that we would now post to Facebook – photos taken on a roadtrip with a new-ish squeeze that we upload to publicly announce whatever intensities we may have just experienced. We’d do it to somehow receive external validation for all too fragile and mysterious sensations with the hope that posting them to a semi public space them might act as vital proof and to fix them against the existential fear that we know can rise up out of nowhere and swallow the possibility of love in one gulp.

O that we might all one day experience the intensity displayed in Bob and Dens photographic diptych, that moment where everything makes sense, even the fragmented landscape of an anti-urbanism of rubble and billboards and ruins, that moment when the world opens up into kaleidoscopic possibility.

The images have been taken out of the VSBA archives as part of the ‘Las Vegas Studio’ show, currently on at the Graham Foundation. The show presents a series of photographs taken by Venturi and Scott Browns students on their research trip to Las Vegas – the raw material that later became Learning From Las Vegas. I caught the show at Yale earlier this year. Somehow both the show and the accompanying catalogue trouble me.  They are both so beautiful. Maybe too beautiful. Somehow too easy to like, especially given what the images were used for later.

Here is a fragment of a review I wrote for Frieze on the catalogue sometime last year that explains this sentiment a little more::

“What were shot as casual, off-hand, deadpan images by Robert Venturi and Denies Scoot Browns students suddenly assume a kind of high art status. They are no longer documentary images, but super-sexy images of mid century Americana. Their casual framing becomes artful. In doing this, it transforms the content of the images, delaminates them from their polemic, from the very reason they were taken. Presented here, they seem so seductive that it’s hard to think beyond their overwhelming beauty. While the book celebrates the LLV project, it has the strange effect of defusing its architectural argument. It’s not without irony that the Las Vegas Studio – itself an exercise in learning from the vulgar, popular landscape – should be revisited in such a refined, high art manner.

The value of learning from Learning From Las Vegas is not only in its own particular conclusion but also in its consequences for architecture and implications for research. This is briefly touched on in a meandering discussion between Rem Koolhass – who acknowledges the deep debt his publishing projects owe – Hans Ulrich Obrist and Peter Fischli. In other texts, editor and curator Martino Stierli sets out the context of the studios activities and Stanislaus Von Moos, a critic with a long and close relationship with the work of VSBA discusses the firms built projects. But perhaps most striking is the absence of the voice of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi to illuminate what they were doing and how they were doing it. This absence of the mechanisms, tactics, intentions of the studio is frustrating, as is the context of the studios work within Scott Browns own sprawling personal image archive.

What we do get is a glimpse behind the curtain of a moment of significant architectural history. Here we can see a moment before the studios work became a fixed cultural point, still full of the thrill of discovery and pregnant with possibilities. It suggests we might be able to rewind architectural culture so that we might replay it to speculate on alternative presents, free from the partisan debates of previous generations.”

Whatever my misgivings, we must really thank Martino Stierli and Hilar Stadler for taking these two images out of the rickety wooden slide draws of VSBAs office and bringing them to our attention.  They present us with an alternative to the canonical images of architects, planners and the city. Think of those images of Le Corbusiers hand hovering over the a model of the Ville Radieuse or Robert Moses astride an oxide-red I-Beam clutching rolls of drawings with Manhattan behind him – images of architecture as professionalised, detached and autocratic. Bob and Denise’s cute, funny and strange portraits suggest that architecture can have other kinds of relationship to the cities that surround us. That serious, important architecture might even include taking pictures of your sweetheart.

Denise Scott Brown’s desert portrait must stand as the most magnificent image of the contemporary architect. In it we see the foundation of an entirely different image of the architect as real, true humanist, an image of energy, engagement and willingness to take it all on so powerful that we should carry it around in our wallets as a reminder of everything architecture should be.

Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown is at the Graham Foundation till Feb 19, 2011. (Which you should go to if you can, because these scans really don’t do justice to these ultra-significant pictures).

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  1. Arthur Techt says:

    These photos make a bold but simple assertion… “I am the city”.

  2. Alex Gore says:

    Le Corbusiers hand over the model is a brilliant shot.

  3. Rory says:

    Great stuff Sam. Lovely descriptions of such fantastic photos.

    Made me think of a nice essay by Colomina in a book on the Eameses where she compares the photo of them standing on the construction site of their house — all optimistic, Californian and self-consciously styled (Ray even releases a dove!) — with a photo of Mies on the construction site of the Farnsworth. Mies has his back to the camera (not unlike Venturi), casting a big black silhouette, except there’s snow on the ground and the scene is so bleak. Something about the seriousness of European Modernism (mis)interpreted in the US with so much colour and positivity.

    You can read so much into these pictures, would make a great book or exhibit.


  4. anothersam says:

    Rory, it would be a great show, huh? And I can see the coffee table book too … its all shiny and Taschen-ey with text that no one gets around to reading.

  5. Rory says:

    Ha, wow, I see it too, sooo Taschen-ey.
    Wonder if Taschen know that nobody reads their books? You could write anything

Pings to this post

  1. […] in Chicago through 2/19/11. If you’re considering going, don’t miss Sam Jacobs’ review of the show over at Strange […]

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