It is in the course of defending this tackiness–or as he would put it, “messy vitality”–that Venturi wheels around to make his frontal attack on modernism. Las Vegas’s symbols look cheap and inauthentic, but this does not mean they are newfangled. Oddly enough, something reconnects them to the historical allusions of 19th-century eclecticism, when Tudor and Queen Anne thrived in England and Renaissance was the style of choice in France. “Banks were Classical basilicas to suggest civic responsibility and tradition; commercial buildings looked like burghers’ houses; universities copied Gothic rather than Classical colleges at Oxford and Cambridge,” wrote Venturi. “The hamburger-shaped hamburger stand is a current, more literal attempt to express function via association.” Sometimes he calls the language of Las Vegas architecture “heraldic.”
The modernists despised heraldry, whether it took the form of banks pretending to be temples or of hamburger stands pretending to be hamburgers. Architecture was about architecture, they insisted. Borrowing forms and motifs was uncreative, decadent, and bourgeois. Venturi insisted this was not so, or at least that it was not avoidable. Modern architects borrowed forms, too; they were just too dim to recognize it. They were fascinated with 19th-century factories, he noticed, and continued parodying the forms of manufacturing technology well into a 20th century in which most of the technology was electronic. The result was the same warmed-over Corbusierism, building after building after building. …
Modernism in architecture was, above all, about the grandeur and genius of the artiste. But if this sort of thing was what resulted from a quest for the “heroic and original,” then Venturi thought that architects would be better off designing buildings that were “ugly and ordinary.” He urged “a humbler role for architects than the Modern movement has wanted to accept.” This would result in buildings that are “socially less coercive and aesthetically more vital than the striving and bombastic buildings of our recent past.”
What did he mean by socially coercive? Consider Earl Carlin’s Central Fire Station of New Haven, a photo of which is reproduced in Learning from Las Vegas alongside an unpretentious firehouse Venturi himself built in Indiana. Carlin’s building is a forbidding wall of cement. It was meant to house a government service on which depend the lives of the people who paid for it. And yet the message it sends to anyone whose house is on fire is: “This had better be important.” Orthodox Modernist architecture was hard to distinguish from a political project. It put the state on a higher plane than the citizen, whether accidentally or on purpose.
Actually, it was on purpose. Las Vegas’s casino developers may have been slavishly dependent on outdated architectural motifs, but their modernist detractors were slavishly dependent on utopian doctrines. At one point, Venturi calls these doctrines “progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian, and puristic”; at another he mentions Modernism’s “reformist-progressive social and industrial aims.” It is clear throughout that he is looking for a polite way to say “authoritarian”:
Revolutionary eras are given to didactic symbolism and to the propagandistic use of architecture to promote revolutionary aims. This is as true for the symbolism of today’s ghetto rebuilders (African militant or middle-class conservative) as it was for the Romantic Roman republican symbolism of revolutionary France.