Comment: Learning from Las Vegas

The following is adapted from a longer presentation by Brett Lazer at the IFA In-House Symposium on January 22, 2010.

Learning from Las Vegas and the Antinomy of the Postmodern Manifesto

Along with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Learning from Las Vegas (1972) forms Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s classic articulation of a new path for architecture in the face of late Modernism. The basic assertion of the book is a turn towards the vernacular – not a vernacular of gables and dormers, nor Modernism’s industrial vernacular, but rather the commercial vernacular, with its apotheosis in the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip. Venturi and Scott Brown see the Modernist rejection of history, ornament, and denotative symbolism as irresponsible, empty, boring, and inappropriate. The expressionistic use of space and light that Modernism requires is incommensurate with the scale of American society, reformatted in recent years to the automobile and the highway. As Venturi puts it, “articulated architecture today is like a minuet in a discotheque.”[1] However, taking on Modernism is no easy task, requiring rhetorical contortions that call into question the very foundations of Venturi and Scott Brown’s project.

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Found: Textile and Tradition

Photo: Matthew Septimus

For Sergej Jensen’s “first American museum survey,” MoMA PS1 has put on an exhibition of over twenty recent works that Jensen constructed with many types of fabric and colorants, from burlap to cashmere and chlorine bleach to acrylic paint. Most of Jensen’s textiles are found, and his use of them is analogous to his use of found conventions, as he interprets inherited modernist traditions through scavenged fabrics. This acknowledgment of disorder and process renders Jensen’s works moving in their honest exploration of fraying edges and uneven seams.

The 2008 piece Blessed presents this function most directly. Two pieces of cashmere are sewn together and pulled taut, unevenly stretching the warp and weft. At the single horizontal seam, which is neatly stitched, the irregular end of each piece is clearly visible through the thin textile. Fabric edges are usually hidden and tucked away—similar to folding the end of wrapping paper, hemming is a way to disguise the imperfect sides of cut or torn material. But here Jensen displays both realities simultaneously: the polished product and its unrefined components.

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