Las Vegas. The Desert. The Strip. The Neon-lit skyline.
Surfers Paradise. The Beach. The Surf. The Palm-tree lined Promenade.
Not a lot in common. Or so I thought. About 15 minutes after arriving at the ‘Learning from Surfers Paradise’ exhibition, the similarities were glaringly obvious.
They both have been transformed tremendously in a short span of time by the actions of man. Both rely heavily on the Tourist Dollar. Both are often derided as brash and crude upstarts.
Let me preface by stating
that the exhibition is high on design-quotient thanks to the excellent work by Nick Searle & Susannah Waldron of emerging practice Searle x Waldron Architecture. Curated by Fleur Watson, who also curated the equally exciting Sampling the City at Melbourne Now, the exhibition crafts a wonderful journey that begins at the Swanston St entrance and weaves its way skillfully in-and-out of multiple exhibition spaces at the RMIT Design Hub.
The exhibition commences with the Learning from Surfers Paradise image gallery. The use of the Chevron as a background graphic to unite the meticulously recorded (and beautiful) then-and-now images by John Gollings is a delightful gesture. It also acts as a tongue-in-cheek Las Vegas billboard: as if to say “wait, there’s more ahead!” I also couldn’t help wonder how fortunate it is that urban planners, architects and the general public will be able to benefit from such an extensive Photographic survey. Perhaps City Councils too should engage in such programs periodically to better learn first-hand as to what does and not work. Don’t pictures say a thousand words?
The next gallery presents the Las Vegas Studio exhibit. Thematically the two are united by the extensive use of Oriented-Strand Board and large, playful graphics. The custom display units, which house the archives of Venturi & Scott-Brown along with their correspondence with local architects, are wonderfully detailed. These are mounted with whimsical minarets and other signage that directly reference the architecture of the Vegas Strip. In parallel is a loop of short films featuring 6 prominent Melbourne architects. These detail the impact of the Las Vegas studio on their own architectural theories and built work. One couldn’t help but wonder at the positive ‘Butterfly effect’ at work during this section of the exhibition. Here is a piece of writing from halfway around the world that is very specific to its own context – but which went on to impact young architects in Melbourne working on a completely different set of projects. It must also be said that the level of post-production and graphics in each one of these short-films is mind-blowing in its own right.
The final act of the journey is relatively low-key, but helps to heighten its impact. A series of archive images (including the original projection slides and grainy silent video footage) of Vegas made by Venturi & Scott-Brown are presented in a simple sequence in a darkened space. This leaves you to quietly contemplate their relative simplicity and yet their seismic impact in the following decades.
But, by the mere fact of being separated by a few decades in their inception, I walked out of the exhibition heartened by a key layer of difference that emerged between these two fast-tracked cities. Time has re-shaped the reigning Urban Design principles of our cities. Las Vegas was (& still is) based around the Automobile as the key means of transport and experience. The recent images of Surfers Paradise reveal that (at least on the ground-plane) Surfers increasingly relies on Pedestrians as the means of experiencing the urban environment.
Has the century of the Automobile, of which Las Vegas was the apex, ended? Clearly not, if we are still being saddled by white elephants such as the East West Link. But when we create spaces in the Public realm where we want to spend time in, we now expect that they be pedestrian-friendly.
The Duck or the Decorated Shed is not an either/or proposition anymore. We‘ll have one of each, thank you…but we demand that each of them engage with the Human Scale.
Sonia Sarangi is co-founder of Atelier Red + Black, an emerging architecture practice in Fitzroy, Victoria. She has previously worked in both small practice (Melbourne) and a large international firm (Singapore). She has a Masters in Architecture from the University of Melbourne. Sonia can be found on Instagram @thesarangi
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