Learning From Las Vegas: Academic Taxonomy
11 May 2022 | 6:50 am

I just returned from a trip to Las Vegas. I was ready for a little post pandemic adventure and Vegas is just so easy. It was good to get out into the world again and explore the ever evolving Vegas metroplex. Inevitably, I found myself going back and referencing the classic text, “Learning from Las Vegas.”

Source: The Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

In the late 1960s Denise Scott Brown, a Zambia born and British educated architecture professor, travelled to Las Vegas. She and her colleagues Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour went on to write, “Learning from Las Vegas” in 1972. Instead of dismissing Vegas as a tacky tourist trap like most other academics, the trio treated the city the way serious scholars might explore Rome. They wanted to understand what made the place tick.

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Robert Venturi was from Philadelphia and had studied classical architecture at Princeton in an era when modernism was the dominant style. He didn’t necessarily reject the minimal glass boxes of the time, but he did insist that symbolism and ornamentation in architecture were still important. The quotidian landscape was of interest to him, particularly as ordinary objects conveyed social and cultural significance.

Source: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates

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Together the authors created a scientific taxonomy for what they observed. Some buildings were called “ducks.” These are structures with a physical form that communicates their function - like a shop that sells duck eggs that’s shaped like a duck. The building itself is the sign.

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Other buildings were categorized as “decorated sheds.” These are no nonsense functional boxes with oversized signage and appliquéd ornamentation facing the street. The signs are effectively the architecture.

Source, Denise Scott Brown 1965.

In both cases the goal of these buildings is to respond to the reality of the dispersed horizontal auto oriented landscape. Buildings need to communicate to a public that exists largely in vehicles traveling at high speed from a distance.

The Las Vegas of fifty years ago was larval compared to what it has become, but the essential tactics and techniques are all still there. Ducks and decorated sheds draw people in from the highway with signs and symbols.

The New York-New York Hotel and Casino and Paris Las Vegas are quintessential ducks.

Nearly everything is a decorated shed from the lesser side streets lined with nudie bars to the industrial efficiency of the Convention Center to the electronic facades of glass box hotels.

The Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, like many of the structures along the Vegas Strip, manages to be both a duck and a decorated shed. The steel and concrete building has the shape of a circus tent while ornamentation has been outsourced to the detached and elaborate signage.

“Learning from Las Vegas” was never meant to be about Vegas per se. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi were very clear about this from the beginning. Vegas merely presented exaggerated versions of what was happening all over North America in the mid twentieth century. With time these trends have only accelerated.

All gas stations, fast food outlets, strip malls, and big box stores are decorated sheds. The architectural syntax and grammar are there, plain to see. Our ubiquitous buildings and public realm look and perform the way they do because they respond to our dominant transportation system and infrastructure. Everything is exquisitely tuned to the car.

Ducks may seem less common, but they’re more abundant than you might imagine. It’s rare to see a brewery’s grain silos embellished as a row of beer cans. But chain establishments use the silhouettes of their rooflines, trademark logos, and branded color schemes to create a ducky association for the public that’s embedded in the architecture. Las Vegas is everywhere.


Farmer Craig Hits an Oily Patch
24 March 2022 | 8:18 am

For years I’ve bought the majority of my meat and eggs from a farm family north of the city. Every two months Farmer Craig drives down in a refrigerated van and I fill my freezers with lamb, poultry, pork, and beef. I have a standing order for a gross of eggs (a dozen dozen = 144 eggs) which is a little less than two and a half eggs per day for two months. I like giving my money directly to the people who produce my food and the quality is excellent. Plus I like Farmer Craig and his wife Jen who are kind, relentlessly cheerful, and scrupulously honest.

Pre Covid there was a group spot where customers would gather to collect their orders. Once Covid hit Craig began delivering door to door for social distancing. His problem at that time was keeping up with the sudden spike in demand as more people wanted more of his products. We each adjusted by buying whatever was available and we managed without too much fuss.

Last week we were scheduled for a regular delivery when the lady who keeps the books at the farm reached out to me. She explained that gas is so expensive at the moment that it doesn't make sense for Craig to make his rounds this time. Gas in and around San Francisco is north of $6 a gallon and diesel is creeping up toward $7. Americans have organized their affairs around much less expensive fuel and small businesses with thin margins are extra sensitive.

I have more than enough frozen meat to wait out the next delivery. While farm fresh eggs are seriously better than the supermarket variety from industrial suppliers, I can certainly manage until fuel prices drop or Farmer Craig adjusts his business model. I’m thinking there’s a lesson here for the larger economy. A global pandemic was good for business, but a marginal increase in fuel costs shuts everything down. That feels fragile to me.

Of course, Farmer Craig’s operation isn’t primarily about farming per se, although a lot of very good food is indeed produced as a by-product of what actually happens at the farm. Mostly he and Jen are in the business of taking in troubled youth through his Christian ministry at Rockside Ranch. Farming is a vehicle for clean living, structure, and redemption. That business is thriving these days so perhaps they can ride out a little oily patch. But it points to how small family farms aren’t stable or profitable enough to survive as freestanding operations. In this case food production is an elaborate side hustle.


High Water Victorians, Roosevelt Corner Shops, and Hipster Legos
5 March 2022 | 5:16 am

As happens from time to time a reader reached out to me and suggested we meet in person. A quick Google search provided a couple of links to podcast interviews where he talked about his life. He described being a military dad and how he and his wife foster and adopt children as part of their Christian faith. I drove from San Francisco to have lunch with him in Sacramento where he gave me a day long walking tour of his neighborhood. He was kind, smart, and charming. I’d like to think I’ve made a valuable new friend.

To the extent anyone thinks of Sacramento these days it’s as a company town - the company being the state government. It’s the old Bonn or Canberra or Brasilia of California. Respectable enough, but a bit dull. Downtown is sleepy, especially after office hours, but the metroplex is growing rapidly. The overwhelming majority of that growth is occurring out on the suburban periphery. While “inner city” Sacramento has a patchy reputation, a handful of older neighborhoods are getting renewed attention these days since they offer a reasonable degree of high quality urbanism at a significantly lower price point than San Francisco or the Main Street remnants of Silicon Valley.

Our walk was centered on the parts of town that date back to the Gold Rush era. Sacramento sits at a strategic point where two great rivers, the Sacramento and the American, meet and eventually connect to San Francisco Bay. This allows seafaring ships to come and go from all around the world and for smaller river boats to then travel north, east, and south to access farmland and raw materials. Sacramento thrived as the natural exchange point and value-add nexus for industry. It’s worth pointing out that in the late 1800s Los Angeles was a dusty scarcely populated rural backwater with no visible prospects, while Sacramento was by far the more important and dynamic city.

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One of the lesser known aspects of Sacramento’s location and history involves serious cyclical floods. The same geography that provides navigable waterways for commerce and fresh water for agriculture also delivers devastating periods of inundation. The Great Flood of 1861 submerged a 300 mile (480 km) long stretch of California’s Central Valley and bankrupted the young state.

Way back in pre-history the Central Valley was actually a massive lake that filled and drained as conditions fluctuated. Scientists say these mega floods occur about every 200 years and we should expect a similar event in the not too distant future. The next time an atmospheric river coincides with an unusually heavy spring snowmelt from the Sierras a whole lot of California’s interior is going to be under 10 feet (3m) of water for a month or two. Like the next really big earthquake along the coast this is a “when” not an “if” situation.

Victorian era institutions rallied and built large public works projects such as levees and canals to tame the water, but these earthworks didn’t always hold. As a result the city continued to flood from time to time - not every year, and not even every decade. But the floods came often enough for people to develop pragmatic work-arounds to accommodate them.

The response from property owners was to repurpose the existing housing stock so that the primary residents lived in the upper floors of buildings while the ground level was rented to tenants. In a flood event renters would carry their belongings up to the higher floors for the duration, wait for the flood waters to recede, then move back downstairs when things aired out. These are now referred to as High Water Victorians.

Construction of the late 1800s involved clay bricks and naturally rot resistant old growth timber from nearby forests. There was effectively no insulation inside the wall cavities to soak up and hold water. Air flowed freely through these porous structures and allowed the homes to breath after a flood. Lath and lime plaster interior walls would dry out over time and not be terribly bothered by the floods. Of course, all these qualities also made old homes drafty and terribly inefficient to heat and cool. Pick your poison…

In addition to the way previous generations built adaptively given natural forces, I’m enamored by how property was understood to be an economic tool. Homes weren’t merely a static asset meant to appreciate passively over time or convey status. They were assumed to be productive businesses. Why wouldn’t anyone want to make some extra money by renting out a portion of their home? Why wouldn’t the front yard be built out into a profitable enterprise? The older parts of Sacramento are full of Roosevelt era corner shops and home based businesses.

Yes, this was raw unbridled capitalism. But it also solved problems in a straightforward manner. These neighborhoods needed grocery stores, lunch counters, churches, barbers, and “affordable housing” so local property owners simply supplied it. Very often the front lawn was the perfect place to build such an establishment. If one small enterprise failed, as many did, something new took its place. A century ago this was just common sense.

Was this set of arrangements perfect? Absolutely not. The culture of the time had its own non negotiable imperatives. “Irish need not apply.” “No Negros or Chinamen.” “No Jews or Catholics.” Blah, blah, blah. But over time society traded one set of constraints for another with exclusionary zoning. Individual properties and neighborhoods are now prevented from adapting over time so problems just fester and multiply.

Here’s a block of modest little homes within bicycle distance of the capitol dome, each fully detached with a bit of garden front and back. Notice how these homes are about as wide as a pickup truck is long. Workers housing, whether for sale or rent, was built in response to market demand, not federal subsidies or municipal mandates. Someone made money filling a need by building the kinds of homes that society required at a price that worked. This stuff isn’t complicated. And yet these same exact homes in exactly the same location couldn’t legally be built today. They’ve been regulated out of existence. Our current rules did, in fact, solve some of the problems people were keen to fix - like filtering out “the wrong element.” But new problems emerged as a direct consequence - like people living in vans or tents under the freeway.

This cottage court was built in the 1920s in what is sometimes referred to as the “Disney” storybook style. It’s kitschy and overly romantic, but people do tend to love it. The same plot of land that would otherwise hold a single family home with a front lawn and back garden can equally accommodate a half dozen perfectly respectable little homes for rent or sale. If the goal is to provide decent homes for people at different price points this is a great option. But if the goal is to intentionally exclude people of lesser means (which is almost always at the heart of zoning regulations) this is completely unacceptable. Ironically, the fact that so few properties like this exist makes these cottages command very high prices. Even market rate “affordable housing” can be made unattainable if the larger institutional dynamics put the squeeze on things.

Sprinkled around the older parts of town are infill buildings from the middle of the twentieth century. They tend to be boxy and minimalist compared to their ornate older neighbors and they came with the trend of removing nearby buildings to make space for surface parking lots. If the goal was to make historic districts more easily accessible for drive-in suburban visitors they failed. The suburbs are purpose built with cars in mind and are far superior to a mediocre retrofit of the older urban fabric.

On the other hand, a chopped up semi-suburbanized Main Street is still pretty good on foot and can continue to function in a compromised fashion for decades. I’m actually very keen on these unadorned box buildings because they’re so easy to renovate and repurpose compared to gooey Victorians or craftsman bungalows. If I’m trying to avoid institutional friction (always!) and want a walkable mixed use location these are the better buildings for my money. The cherry on top is their durability. After a flood the concrete blocks, bricks, and unpretentious slabs can be power washed and aired out quickly. And their style, bare as it may be, has an earnest simplicity I can appreciate.

As we walked around each contiguous neighborhood from different eras we observed how the building stock changed. Tucked away in what looked like single family homes were all sorts of detached backyard cottages, garage apartments, and in-law units. They were everywhere. In the past these kinds of ad hoc arrangements were entirely normal and completely legal.

On one particular block there was a clear line between a 1930s neighborhood and a 1950s development. The architectural style shifted from faux Cape Cod, imitation Tudor, and mock Dutch colonial to cookie cutter ranch homes. But notice how the 1950s homes are actually duplexes. These are the kinds of properties that were profitable for private builders to construct and affordable for ordinary families to buy or rent. Yet the suggestion that new duplexes might be built anywhere near existing neighborhoods today is the kind of heresy that brings out mobs bearing firebrands and pitchforks.

So how exactly is new housing being created in Sacramento now? There are a couple of workable models. One is to find a patch of disused industrial property that’s no longer productive and transform it into a whole new neighborhood. The cost of the acreage, upgraded infrastructure, impact fees, environmental remediation, and so on all compel the builder to squeeze as many units as possible onto the site. Otherwise each individual home or apartment will be too expensive for the market to bear.

What most people really want is a fully detached single family home at a manageable price point. But they want that home close enough to civilization to still have reasonable access to economic opportunity and culture. So they settle on so-called “handshake” buildings. You can reach out your window and shake hands with your neighbor. It’s all about compromise.

I see these residential subdivisions as a peculiar mashup of medium urban density paired with borderline suburban iconography. It’s the idea of a house and a lawn. It’s the feeling of a walkable neighborhood. In some cases it might achieve some version of both, but in general they’re neither. I’m not saying this is good or bad. I just don’t find them satisfying enough to want to live in these places myself.

There’s a miniature version of this same strategy that’s a bit more appealing to me - depending on the particulars. It’s the conversion of a small plot of old commercial property that’s been infilled with a smaller row of townhomes. The important characteristic is the location where the neighbors don’t freak out and resist change. That usually means a poorly aging downwardly mobile inner suburban strip lined with half dead Jiffy Lubes and abandoned McDonalds. These are the places that are ripe for Hipster reinvention. You can call that gentrification if you like, but the alternative is continued decline.

If the surrounding suburban strips are retrofitted, even a little bit, with sufficient activity close enough to walk to or ride a bike… There’s potential. A peculiar “gift” of the Covid era is the discovery that parking lots make reasonably good public plazas on the cheap. I could be tempted to think about living in one of these Lego looking boxes under the right circumstances even if they aren’t my first choice.

But, let’s be honest. The overwhelming bulk of new construction is being built out on the fringe of the metroplex where there’s more open space and it’s easier and cheaper to build new stuff. “Drive ‘till you qualify” has been the American housing mantra for the last three hundred years. I have no interest in this landscape, but I understand why so many people chose to migrate out to these places. Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick two… It’s all about compromise.

But here’s my primary non-esthetic concern. Modern flood control infrastructure has effectively contained the normal seasonal events and kept the newer suburbs reasonably dry most of the time. But all infrastructure is predicated on assumed parameters. The highest flood is thought to be X feet high so the levees are built to that standard. Cost considerations and value engineering prevent overbuilding beyond a certain statistical point to keep on budget.

To me this suggests that sooner or later the Sacramento Delta will experience a flood that exceeds the capacity of that existing infrastructure and that old 300 mile long temporary lake down the middle of California will return with dire consequences. Today’s new homes are made of compressed dust and synthetic materials that will turn to moldy mush pretty quickly. The 1860 census listed 380,000 people in the state. Today there are just shy of 40 million. What could go wrong?



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