By Brantley Ellzey
In October 1968, the architects and married couple Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, along with Steven Izenour and twelve Yale architecture and graphic design students, arrived in Las Vegas to study the urban form of the oft-derided city. They studied, photographed, categorized and documented its hotels, motels, gas stations, lighting, symbols, forms and its famous strip. This exhaustive research led to one of the most seminal architectural tomes of the twentieth century “Learning From Las Vegas.”
“Learning From Las Vegas” was published in 1972 and caused a sensation in the architectural world. In the book, Scott Brown and Venturi contrasted Modernism’s anonymity and reliance on form to a messier, more human concept that found meaning in process, mundane imagery, sprawl and signage. They argued that before Modernism architecture had incorporated decoration and graphics to convey meaning and that modernist buildings were mute and meaningless when compared to what they coined the “decorated shed.”
I can think of few buildings that embody the tenets set forth by Scott Brown and Venturi more than the Albert Cook Plumbing building at 2101 Central Avenue in Memphis. The charm of the illustration; the font selection and combination; the matching of the building color to the signage; and the perfect scale of the signage to the building facade. Truly a fantastic example of the “decorated shed.” I’m pretty sure that Denise and Robert would agree it is a treasure.
(Tidbit of trivia. Venturi and Scott Brown spent time in Memphis in the early 80s working on a comprehensive master plan for downtown and the riverfront that was shelved and never implemented. Robert Venturi passed away in 2018.)
Brantley Ellzey was born and raised upriver from Memphis in Osceola, Arkansas. In January 2020, he began a daily blog on Facebook called Love List 2020. He hoped it would act as a happy counterpoint to the constant barrage of troubling news and turmoil that fill sour modern lives. Select posts were republished on StoryBoard Memphis.