Las Vegas was a place to learn from, rather than love or hate
First published in AT200, 2009
Is it really my kind of town? Perhaps. Neon is in my earliest memories, starting with Johannesburg’s 50th Jubilee celebrations in 1936. That year grandparents brought trinkets from a distant Coney Island and pretty Coronation memorabilia followed in 1937. In the 1940s our family holidayed on the beach and promenade at Muizenberg, our Atlantic City. So a resort and carnival ethos imprinted my psyche well before 1950 when my parents returned from the US with movies of Las Vegas lights. But in another sense, no. My Quaker husband and I don’t gamble. As architects for academic and public institutions, we have never been employed by Las Vegas. And certainly not all its — or any other city’s — lessons can be derived from The Strip. Yet we learn from the architecture and urbanism of gaming as we do from gothic cathedrals, despite our revulsion at the Crusades. Our professional heritage takes us there too. Modernism, notwithstanding its focus on abstraction, admonished us to learn from industrial architecture, and the Brutalists and social planners promoted study of life as lived in London’s East End, Boston’s West End and the commercial and residential architecture of urban sprawl. Next came the auto-based cities of the American south-west. Our journey there was accompanied by the Pop artists and Tom Wolfe and supported by decades of Modernist studies of vision and motion.
Visiting Las Vegas first in January 1965, I felt a shiver – was it hate or love? On its everyday strips buildings merged with the desert as their polychromatic signs etched themselves against blue sky with the precision of Greek temples. But The Strip was different. Its improbable urbanism apotheosised the commercial environment. I knew it would be an aesthetic turning point for me and, after several more visits, invited Robert Venturi in 1966 to share my discoveries. In 1968 we ran our ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ studio. The city taught us profound lessons on iconography, perception and communication, yet this was only one aspect of our study. Sadly, others went unnoticed. But young architects and students today understand how our approach has both social and aesthetic components. Learning from Las Vegas is still in print in many languages and, if Russian visitors recognise the dismembered Stardust sign at the Neon Museum, curators tell us it’s because they have read our book.
In 1997, bundled in a red convertible in the frozen desert night, we documented our reaction to Las Vegas 25 years after LLV appeared. Steven Wynn was then ridding The Strip of neon, replacing signs with Disneyland scenography and converting parking parterres to pedestrian forecourts. This was needed, he felt, to help the city grow beyond its single industry. But reducing its scale and obliterating its history eroded The Strip’s vitality. And with the neon went the communication system we had analysed. The new Las Vegas had little to teach us, and this only worsened as NeoMo followed. We left Las Vegas feeling depressed.
In June 2009 we returned, this time to 100 degree heat and a white convertible that brought whistles and wishes for a happy honeymoon. Though two days gave little time to form opinions, Las Vegas seemed better. As the city became the fastest growing in the US, dense development replaced The Strip’s thin line. Las Vegas Boulevard began to share the exuberance of Tokyo and Shanghai. All are ‘cities of a 1000 designers’ where strong individuals have worked, not necessarily in unison, to produce a strange unity and that combination of passion, vitality and shock that we call terribilita. Las Vegas growth is larger-scaled and more orderly than the skyrocketing Tokyo of the 1950s, and although Shanghai’s Pudong district and Las Vegas Boulevard both suggest fairyland at a distance, Pudong’s local streets are a nightmare for pedestrians while Las Vegas casino forecourts are grand slams where Paris, Venice and New York entice you in. Terribilita is achieved by computer. Photoshop collages Venice’s vivid experiences to produce more laciness than is found in any one place in the real city. Eat your heart out Paris – the Eiffel Tower has been dumped on the Opéra.
Parking is out front again, jammed in with the icons but visible from the road. A monorail glides between unknown destinations. But does it go where needed, relieve congestion and enliven the city? And neon is back. On our last visit we heard sad forecasts of its demise but had high hopes for LED, which was expected to leave the rectangle and follow neon’s flowing lines. But today’s LED whatever its size looks constricted and pale. An earlier calamity was the removal of Freemont Street neon. As if the street where Las Vegas began didn’t have enough troubles, it was further crippled by removing its legendary lights and adding a barrel-vault projection screen over it. This destroyed its main defences – historic buildings and open sky. Today’s films on the vault are at least brighter than they were and restored antique signs added to street medians beyond the screen raise interesting debate on whether civic neon should be different from commercial neon.
Strong-willed developers have both contributed to and destroyed the city’s vitality. Signs that once stood proud against the desert now lie dismembered along alleys set up to deliver them“
Meanwhile the architectural battle line has shifted from neon to allusion. The Wynn and Encore Hotels, their names inscribed in cursive script high on their facades, suggest a pair of visiting cards. Their narrow slabs encased in copper mirror glass look sleek and reticent. Glistening discreetly in the sunset, they’re rather nice. And when the low rays reflect between their and other mirror surfaces, sunlight seems to shine eerily from opposite directions. But the forest frontages, happily too thin to alter the desert ecology, are not wide enough to ensure the desired exclusivity. And can abstract exclusivity and urban surrealism be enough? Will ‘Modern’ hyped by architects’ signatures find a market despite a lack of decoration and perhaps a not quite central position, or will location trump signification? Will people grow bored with abstraction as they did in the 1960s? Overall, the image of today’s Las Vegas derives from PoMo piles, NeoMo glass, and Photoshop collage, set within the proportions of a desert auto city that is massifying. For such a city, the image is strangely Victorian. It resembles Thomas Cole’s painting, The Architect’s Dream.
Strong-willed developers have both contributed to and destroyed the city’s vitality. Signs that once stood proud against the desert now lie dismembered along alleys set up to deliver them. Here gorgeous sections of the Stardust vie with the swirling ‘M’ of the Moulin Rouge and the parabolas of La Concha. The alleys display a sequence of construction techniques, galvanized metal, then tin, then plastic, all bedecked by mirrors, neon and light bulbs. It’s astounding how simple details could cause such effect. But the mood now is elegiac. One recalls Tom Wolfe’s original ode to their discovery: ‘But what signs! They soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless… I can only attempt to supply names – Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon, Ming-Alert Spiral …’. Yet the new Las Vegas brought protection when the bone yard became the Neon Museum. With no building but a world wide visitation and a board of urban movers and shakers who know art and signs, they work eagerly on their unusual mission. We sat with soul spirits among the signs and shared our memories.
On my second trip to Las Vegas I rode The Strip in an early morning bus photographing from its front window. I was the only tourist among workers heading for shifts on The Strip and, when we broke down, they turned on me. ‘You think we have one-armed bandits in the nursery schools!’ was followed by, ‘personally I never go there, we go to Lake Meade’. Certainly there are possibilities for other lives in Las Vegas, and even in the 1960s the city had a growing suburbia and The Strip itself had few if any permanent residents. Is it now my kind of town? Not yet. My city offers choices in housing, work, education, entertainment and health and fitness to diverse people. It should also make room for more of the ‘1000 designers’. As Las Vegas grows, can it keep its wackiness, its sense of naughty danger (backed, people know, by actual safety)? Can it remain a place where visitors ‘are afraid something wonderful might happen’?