In the 1960s, American architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi had grown tired of some of their modernist peers. While they weren't opponents of modernist architecture, they felt that too many modernists were dismissive of the need to preserve older buildings and ask what people actually want. Old, frilly buildings had to make way for efficient, sleek buildings made out of glass and steel. Populism and fun as architectural concepts were looked down upon.
Scott Brown and Venturi were kindred spirits who found each other during their time as University of Pennsylvania faculty members. They would work closely together sharing their ideas and research. They explored more decorative and elaborate architectural styles and taught the same courses. Eventually, this professional friendship turned into a romance and a marriage.
It was Las Vegas where they first confessed their love for each other. But besides having an extremely personal connection to the city, Scott Brown and Venturi treasured Las Vegas also as architects: they saw the city as their nation's anti-modernist capital. Las Vegas was built for people, not for architects. It was colorful, bright, and above all, fun.
One day, Scott Brown and Venturi decided to organize an expedition with their university students to Las Vegas. They wanted to study the city directly on the ground. They wanted to understand why the place would attract more visitors each year than for example Paris or any other large, modern city.
During their 12 week stay, Scott Brown, Venturi, and their students started noticing things. First of all, the famous Las Vegas Strip is like a bazaar built for cars with massive neon signs spelling everything out. Second, even though as an outsider Las Vegas seems chaotic and disorganized, visitors don't actually get lost or overwhelmed. Instead, people found the colorful signs helpful and pleasing. Las Vegas worked because it was built for people, not architects.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author and scholar) cautions against activities where we try to impress our peers instead of the people who we are actually supposed to serve. When architects build for other architects, we are deprived of fun and elaborate designs. When writers write for other writers, we end up with literature without soul.
As a developer or designer, how much do you try to impress your peers? If your software is accessible and usable to as many people as possible, have you served the people who you set out to serve? Or do you still need validation from your community?
It's easy to look down on Las Vegas and its kitschiness. However, this year, more than twice as many people will visit Las Vegas compared to Paris. People really love the city. Even though us snobs hate it.
To learn more about Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Las Vegas listen to the 99% Invisible episode Lessons from Las Vegas.