In an L.A. landscape where billboards and signage are becoming increasingly contentious issues, the images from a 1972 architectural study of the Las Vegas Strip could make important commentary on the way Angelenos view their city.
When "Learning From Las Vegas" was originally released, it turned the architecture community on its head.
The study by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour was a revolutionary look at urban sprawl that, among other things, proposed a theory of communication in architecture -- that the billboards and signs that dominated the Vegas landscape organized and gave meaning to it.
The seminal work is getting a second look in an exhibition called "Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown," opening Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center. The show focuses on the artistic merit of photographs taken during the research process -- which have slumbered for 40 years in the archives of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.
The 80 photographs that make up the exhibition are striking glimpses of Americana featuring icons of the Strip like the Tropicana (built in 1957) and the Stardust (built in 1958) hotels.
"Our idea was to go back before theory formation, and really look at the original source material," said co-curator Martino Stierli.
Signage defined city space then, as it does now. "There are all these billboards in Los Angeles, and the experience of driving through the city is very different than the experience of walking through the city -- communication works through billboards and signs," said MOCA curator Philipp Kaiser.
When the study was first released, the idea that billboards and urban sprawl were beautiful or artistic was totally foreign. "Many, many people would say that stuff is very ugly and 'How could you photograph it?' " Scott Brown said.
But Vegas struck her the moment she saw it: "The blue sky and the colored signs, helter-skelter -- I didn't know if I hated it or loved it, but I thought: This is something I can learn from," she said.
Kaiser acknowledges that these photos were not intended as art. Still, a "photo document is never neutral. You always have a point of view, you always have a composition," Kaiser said. One of the points of view is that Las Vegas was a driving city.
That's a perspective that also gives meaning to life in L.A., for better and worse.
Where: MOCA Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Contact: (310) 289-5223; www.moca.org