Las Vegas: Where Architecture Goes to Die.


The history of Las Vegas is in its signs. The famous sign for the Stardust casino is in fact a celebration of the nuclear tests that took place in Nye County about 100km away from Vegas during the 1950s.  It is said that Howard Hughes, having turned the ninth floor of the Desert Inn into his own asylum, bought the Silver Slipper casino so he could reposition its famous neon sign and thereby stop it from keeping him awake at night. Although the casinos are demolished after 20, 30 years, the stories pile up like sediment: the latest venture is always a means of viewing the ever growing history of Las Vegas. The strip may stay forever young, but the signs and the pile of stories grows higher.

Las Vegas has moved slightly. It began to the north of the strip. The first casinos grew up on Fremont Street. Binion’s is still there. The Golden Nugget too. A short walk away to the east stands the Neon Museum’s Boneyard. A holding pen for a collection of neon signs gathered together in the 1990s as themed casinos took over from the decorated sheds. Run by a small charitable organisation put together by civic, historical minded artists, the Neon Museum set up the Boneyard in 1998 and have been slowly restoring signs and putting them back into the city’s fabric since. The Silver Slipper that so offended Howard Hughes stands just outside the yard now. Yet so many signs were lost. Rather than dismantling them before the casinos were demolished, they were detonated at the same time.

The Neon Museum though has rescued a few. There’s the signage from the Moulin Rouge, the first desegregated casino that opened in 1955 and was co-owned by boxer Joe Louis. The sign was designed by the great female neon designer Betty Lewis who also designed the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign. The casino was only open for a matter of months but during its short life Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong performed often. Indeed the story goes that when white entertainers started going there, the casino was shut down by the Mob. The Boneyard is Las Vegas’s library and museum; one which charges thousands to people like Elton John and Tim Burton to use as a backdrop and then feeds the profit back into restoration.

This is where you will find, the Las Vegas you thought still existed before you first arrived. It is a Neon Area 51, containing a whole alternative history to America. Indeed the real Area 51, a secret US military where the U-2 plane was tested and where conspiracy theorists believe the American government have stashed alien craft, can be seen from the Boneyard across the valley. Yet the Boneyard is also a repository of personal histories. Guided tours are packed with those who came to Las Vegas before the 1990s looking for memories of their visits. A couple from Fort Worth in Texas, pose in front of a sign salvaged from the wedding chapel they were married in. They are delighted to find it, delighted to find any part of the town that they recognise. Asked how they feel to have the places they remember so largely erased, they respond with quiet awe rather than regret. So many Americans have been to Las Vegas. So many memories were made here. But the only thing that people find when they return is novelty and, if they are lucky, a sign.

Sitting in the small office in a community centre across the street, is the Neon Museum’s part-time operations manager, Danielle Kelly. She describes the CityCenter as the ‘Death Star’ and referring to the difficulty of getting in to the structure as ‘the Vatican on the Strip’. (Indeed, in an interview in Business Week, Jim Murran the CEO of MGM Mirage has also referred to the resort as the Vatican but he was referring to the metaquartzite stone flagging of the interior.) Kelly though admits that whilst she doesn’t like the CityCenter, Las Vegas as a whole needs it to be successful. Even in a city with an expanding population, working in ever diversifying industries such as tertiary education, gambling-led tourism is still the big business. CityCenter employs 12,000 people. Its failure would be catastrophic also in terms of the image of the city as a dynamic place that successfully reinvents itself.

The CityCenter is an $8 billion, 1.8 million sq m casino resort which was built in just 5 years. Designed by the architects of corporate America: Pelli, Viñoly, Foster, and Kohn Pederson Fox, the CityCenter certainly marks a reinvention of Las Vegas, but the question is just exactly what kind of reinvention?

A panorama of CityCenter from the Strip. Daniel Libeskind’s shopping centre Crystals is in the foreground. Helmut Jahn’s Veer Towers are immediately behind

On one level the CityCenter’s main claim is to permanence. Helmut Jahn, architect of another tower on the site, compared the skyline of Las Vegas to a collage rather than a profile like Chicago or New York. ‘Until now, the memory of Las Vegas’ skyline was graphic; our goal was to make it architectural,’ he says. An engaging falsehood, but a new one at least.

Another is its architectural ambition. Never has a casino resort had such grand architectural claims made for it and this comes from the top. Jim Murran, CEO of MGM Mirage, developers of the project claims he once considered a career in architecture. When it came to CityCenter, he exercised his interest. ‘I knew that world-class architects could make an experience that was meaningful and immersing,’ he said. References to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s book Learning from Las Vegas come thick and fast from the publicist, scribbled down by food and hotel writers from LA and New York. (There’s a cocktail critic around here somewhere).

When Las Vegas expanded in the 1940 and 1950s, the casinos were sheds and the hotels simple blocks. The signs became everything. Venturi and Scott Brown also predicted the coming of the building-as-sign or as we know it now, the themed hotel. Luxor along the strip is a themed Egyptian hotel in the shape of a pyramid. Even Belagio, MGM Mirage’s most luxurious and most recent building before CityCenter is still vaguely themed on 19th century Italy. CityCenter, so the argument goes, is somehow three-dimensional compared to everything that has gone before; urbanism rather than resort building.

Yet, Las Vegas is designed to bamboozle and bewilder. Here architecture is just one device to deliberately confound the judgment of the gambler. Sunlight is kept out of casino floors so you can’t tell how long you’ve been losing money. Hotel lobbies are difficult to navigate so you come up against the slot machines, black jack tables –  saggy-faced old timers losing their years savings. The casino bosses want you lost in space and time. And isn’t just the interiors that perform this trick on you.

During the 1990s the major hotel and casino complexes built along the Strip, were all themed. The Paris casino is dominated by a half-sized Eiffel tower; the Venetian by a replica of the Doge’s Palace. Inside you can ride a gondola along swimming pool blue canals. It’s fakeness reveals itself in fantastic ways.  Your safety belt strapped around you, moving slowly over, crystal clear water 1m deep, your gondolier sings Louis Prima to you. A helium balloon bounces gently against the surface of the painted sky. It is as if the hoteliers absorbed the lessons of Hunter S. Thompson and took the simple fraudulent glamour of the 1950s – the Rat Pack and so on – and added halucinogens. You don’t need to take drugs in today’s Vegas. The place has taken them for you. Las Vegas absorbs its own myths – like lysergide onto blotting paper.

So can CityCenter be somehow more honest than what has gone before?

In a word, no. For a start CityCenter is not a city centre. Certainly there are small urban moments to it largely at the various access points to the Libeskind designed shopping centre called with a brilliant Las Vegas logic Crystals.

The Golden Nugget was built in 1946 in the downturn area north of the Strip. It is one of the oldest casinos in the city and feels like it

There’s a small plaza between it and the hotel Aria, which has a Henry Moore in it. Like a forgotten corner of Cincinatti. There’s also an entrance onto a raised walkway that connects to a bridge across the strip – like getting to the Metro in Dubai. But that’s about it. Everywhere else feels like a resort compound albeit a very high class one. Crystals is a stunning mall with canted cross beams dominating a undulating cave-like roof but to suggest that it provides a retail centre for Las Vegas, which according to the US Census Bureau is one of the fastest growing in the USA is ridiculous. If you thought Libeskind’s version of deconstructivism couldn’t be debased further you need to see the spotlights casting fake sunlight from angular windows in Las Vegas. To cap it all, the angular interior has to fight with the first bizarre version of green design, Las Vegas style: an angular vegetable parterre in the middle of the concourse, a double height interior treehouse in the shape – it very much appears – of a cock and balls. Dominated by top end brands, like Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tom Ford and Versace, this is not where the two million people who call Las Vegas home are going to buy their underpants.

It is as much an expression of the casino culture as Ti  or Mandalay, albeit with a mildly self-deceiving twist. At the opening of  the new branch of Tiffany’s, we wandered into a set by Matt Goss – formerly of boy band Bros and now managed by Robin Antin, the woman who established the Pussycat Dolls. Goss, in Dean Martin style pork pie hat did some ex-Brat pack numbers and shook hands with the Brits who recognised him.

CityCenter’s novelty is to include luxury condominium blocks. The residential part of the development provides serviced apartments for wealthy out-of-towners, high rolling gamblers who visit the city several times a year. Film producers from LA. Real estate millionaires from New York. A wealthy Arab gambler bought 42 condo units for $60m back in 2006. It’s not just the economic climate that keeps the department blocks from feeling empty, it’s the fact that they will be occupied by the super-rich for short periods of time. The talk is of Arabs and the Chinese: people from countries full of glass towers. Las Vegas – you have to admire them – is commodifying . The ‘road’ through the site, is just a hotel driveway, new to Las Vegas perhaps but part of the established architectural language of luxury hotels elsewhere in America. Most deceitful of all is the People Mover, a monorail system that snakes through the plaza. It looks like a piece of pioneering transport infrastructure but it is little more than a spectacle of urbanism. Separate from any network, it takes the congenitally lazy from one side of the site to the other, without connecting into any wider system.

Excalibur casino is the soul of modern Las Vegas. Its fairytale exterior was modeled on Mad Ludwig’s castle in Bavaria. Madness on madness

So in terms of its espoused urbanistic role, CityCenter is a fake – a hollow gesture to urbanism in search of the top top dollar. Jahn’s claim that it is an architectural statement in a city hitherto hooked on graphics is more interesting, if still utterly disingenuous.

Despite the fact that its history resides in signs, the suggestion that Las Vegas’s skyline is two-dimensional is wrong. Those lucky to arrive at Las Vegas at just the right time of morning, as your plane taxis passed the southern end of the strip, will see the sun will glint on the golden glazing of the Four Seasons Hotel, part of the Mandalay Bay casino complex. A tripartite tower block, it has 43 storey and 3,300 rooms but seems so much less. Gold leaf was used on its glazing. Beneath the jagged maw of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, snow covered until the mid-Spring, it looks like a delicate confection. Is it a beautiful bit of architecture? It would appear so. But then could that be because it’s next to a really big and stupid concrete pyramid…When you walk into that and realise that the 4,400 hotel rooms are inversely stacked around the interior of the pyramid, your whole register of architectural possibility shifts permanently.

And no one has confused things more than Steve Wynn. Like an inverse Venturi, he has co-opted high culture into the Strip. He built themed hotels and then in the last, the Belagio, hung Picasso’s in them. In 2005, as he was going blind, he closed the era of the themed hotel with the eponymous Wynn, a super-styled luxury modernist hotel. This elegant curve of a tower, in chocolate tinted glass and gold bands announced itself as a step change for Las Vegas. Venturi and Scott Brown turned their backs on Vegas in disgust at this wanton aspiration. Still, Wynn who had won over the art crowd by his assiduous purchases of Impressionist art, was stung by the architectural critics who attacked him for his pretensions. ‘You see if they don’t start building crescent shaped buildings around here now,’ he said. Wynn is still a hero around these parts. Drunk after seeing a Matt Goss set at the Palms Casino Resort, we take a taxi and gazing at the squiggle of Wynn’s signature, smudged on the rainy skyline, we facetiously wonder aloud who would win in a fight between Wynn and Donald Trump. The taxi driver takes our proposition at face value. ‘I think Wynn’s a strong guy, he could take Trump straight on, but Wynn’s got poor peripheral vision and Trump might be able to take advantage of that.’ Indeed Steve Wynn suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease which affects peripheral vision. Whoever believes Las Vegas is drenched in irony, hasn’t been.

The CityCenter is an extension of Steve Wynn’s model of Las Vegas glamour, although it is the progeny of MGM Mirage ostensibly. Indeed much of MGM Mirage used to belong to Wynn until they bought him out in 2000. The CityCenter is a result of his thinking about the new direction of Las Vegas, a compound full of different buildings rather than a monolith. Of course there is a lot of architecture at CityCenter. It appears to be seven different structures. The Veer Towers by Jahn, rise out of the rippling aluminium roof of the shopping centre, Crystals. To the south of the site is a classic modernist hotel tower by Foster that stands apart and as yet unfinished at the very corner of the site. Due to poorly poured concrete that proved too costly to fix, MGM Mirage were forced to lop 21 floors from the top of the building. The tower is still a success: a slender volume in banded blue glass. Other projects are less successful: a bland, Viñoly-designed, (and ,yes) crescent-shaped 1500 room hotel that is articulated as three thin volumes; a 47-storey W-shaped plan hotel by KPF.

Individually the architecture, the Veer Towers aside, are pretty standard.  As part of an ensemble though the towers, playing their clever games at reducing their obvious mass, have an impact. Indeed the CityCenter is an ensemble orchestrated by one executive architect Gensler and built by one contractor Perini. Nor does it entirely lose its status as graphic design. The CityCenter provides little skyline. Like Vegas of old, it works best at night, when it looks like the photograph of a huge neon sign at the point of detonation. The skyline of Las Vegas is a collage – a predominantly graphic rather than architectural experience.

*                      *                    *

In her book Winner Takes All – a history of contemporary Las Vegas, The Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley writes: ‘Las Vegas initially had nothing going for it, except its willingness to be bulldozed. And imploded and bulldozed again into resurrection.’ For this reason, nothing is more deceptive than CityCenter’s sustainability credentials. Whilst all but one structure on the site has achieved Gold LEED certification, Las Vegas is a city, which renews itself repeatedly. The most optimistic prediction of its life is 50 years. It is likely to be less. Even the famous Dunes, where Sinatra played, only made it to 38 before it was demolished. Hilariously, the main claim to sustainability of the Beso nightclub co-owned by Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria Parker, which is part of CityCenter is that the Swarovski crystals in the chandeliers around the dance floor were made from the curtain at last years Oscars. This is the quicksand upon which the Venturis built their ideas. Surely any theory based on the architectural devices Vegas employs is likely to go the way of its casinos eventually.

Of course, there is a Las Vegas beyond the Strip. There is a local life that is bubbling around the tourists and away from the strip: amazing little bars with singing barmaids, a dynamic music scene, old-fashioned pool bars were you can while away whole afternoons. Look beyond the Strip and Las Vegas is one of several small South-Western American cities: Reno, Phoenix, Austin. These are small dynamic places, with room to expand (much to the horror of fans of high-density living). They have cheap rents and universities. They have developing cultural sectors but also a diverse manufacturing base. They have weathered the recession better than northern cities.

The Strip though continues to comodify everything; sex, history, politics – all for your fun, all for your entertainment. It’s like a machine that you put values into, and get pleasure out the other end. Why should late modernist tower blocks and urbanism be any different? Why should the urban spectacle of Shanghai’s skyline or Dubai’s be any different? You have to admire the bosses of CityCenter for identifying the architectural preferences of their new customers in the Far East and China: spectacular glass clad towers, throwing them through the blender and then pretending that they’ve made an urban gesture. If you are going to tell a lie, make it a big one, and the real nature of CityCenter almost disappears in its size. It isn’t the end of Las Vegas, of course. There are still mavericks in the game, still enough lunatics with frontier spirit to keep the manic energy of the Strip going, in recessions more than ever. Meanwhile the city is accruing a fascinating jumbled material history from the carnage. The days of the themed hotels such as Excalibur, New York New York are numbered. One day, in a decade or so, a miniature Eiffel Tower will be demolished or saved by a museum.

Illustrations by Christopher Rainbow
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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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