Las Vegas, Nevada

Latter-Day Las Vegas

On first seeing Las Vegas in 1965, I felt a shiver. Was it hate or love? The sprawling city, its polychrome signs etched against desert and so-blue sky, engendered both emotions. And the Strip, apotheosis of neon, archetype of suburban commerce, cried out to be studied. So in 1968, we launched our Learning from Las Vegas studio at Yale University [published in 1972 as Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour].

In 1997, when we revisited the city, Steven Wynn, the Las Vegas casino and resort developer, was removing neon, replacing signs with scenography, altering the balance between cars and transit, and converting parking forecourts into pedestrian parterres. Change was probably needed to help Las Vegas grow beyond a single industry, but ousting its signage gutted the city’s communication system, obliterated much of its history, and sapped its vitality. The new Las Vegas had little to teach us. We left feeling depressed.

Returning in 2009, we found a densely developing Las Vegas Boulevard. Although no substitute for the vertiginous Strip, it had its own exuberance. Las Vegas today is a “city of 1,000 designers,” as planner David Crane has said, where strong protagonists combine élan and shock in projects of terribilità—of an unsettled unity and intensity. The city’s growth patterns are larger and more orderly than Tokyo’s of the skyrocketing 1950s. And whereas Shanghai’s Pudong and Las Vegas Boulevard both suggest fairyland from afar, Pudong streets are a pedestrian nightmare while Las Vegas casino forecourts woo their customers with grand-slam visions of Paris, Venice, and New York. Here terribilità is achieved by Photoshop. Venice’s most vivid experiences are collaged to produce more laciness than is found in any one place in the real city. And in Paris Las Vegas, the Eiffel Tower sits atop the Opera. Parking is out front once more, jammed among the beckoning icons but visible from the road. And a monorail glides between unknown destinations.

Neon lighting is back. On our 1997 visit, we heard forecasts of its demise and predictions that LED would forsake rectangular formats and follow neon’s flow. But this has not happened, and Las Vegas LED, whatever its size, looks constricted and pale. In any case, by 2009, the stylistic battle line had shifted architecturally from neon to NeoMo. The sleek slabs of the Wynn and Encore Hotels, their names inscribed in cursive high on their facades, suggest a pair of well-bred visiting cards. Their copper-colored cladding glistens at sunset and, when low rays reflect between their mirror surfaces, the sun seems to shine from west and east. They’re rather nice, but their forested street frontages, happily too thin to alter the desert ecology, are also too narrow to assure the desired privacy. And can abstract exclusivity and urban surrealism be enough?

In 2009, CityCenter was not yet complete, but it seemed that, as in Pudong, the glass would purvey a fairy-tale effect, day and night, and impressive surrealism at sunset and dawn. Yet, will a project lacking decoration, hyped only by architects’ signatures, and situated off the 100 percent location (in real estate terms) find a ready market? It’s called CityCenter despite the fact that it isn’t at the center. Can luxury, exclusivity, and level of service replace pizzazz? Or will people grow as bored with abstraction as their grandparents did in the 1960s?

Today’s quickly densifying city is different indeed from the 1960s noncity, whose signs in the desert mocked the prim dreams of architects but drew the world to the Strip. The New Las Vegas looks strangely Victorian. Seen from a middle distance, its PoMo piles, Photoshop collage, and crystalline NeoMo resemble Thomas Cole’s 1840 painting The Architect’s Dream. What a dream! But today, when developers, seeking exclusivity, turn projects away from the street, how can they offer the interest-filled pedestrian environments they hope for? While Crystals may sit on Las Vegas Boulevard, others are located on an inner street that is not highly visible to the boulevard—so different from the parterres of the New York, Paris, and Venice casinos. This is because the developers have stressed exclusivity as a marketing tool. Furthermore, Crystals’s pointed forms and discontinuity with other shop entrances seems to break the retail linkage. Laws of economics require that stores be located where most people pass, and that overall patterns of retail be conceived to provide maximum connectivity.

More mixed emotions await us at the city edge. In the Boneyard the great odes to neon of the Old Las Vegas lie cut up, testament to those who built them and those who destroyed them. Tragedy is in the air; on the ground, high monumentality. Opera could be performed here. But can a NeoMo opera be written for the Newest Las Vegas? Can urban composers use this abstract language to portray and preserve the city’s grand wackiness, its sense of naughty danger (backed, people know, by actual safety)? Can Las Vegas remain a place where visitors are afraid something wonderful might happen?

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