Is Las Vegas's architecture a train wreck or a treasure? Almost fifty years after Learning from Las Vegas, consensus eludes architects and academics. Either way, Las Vegas remains a continuing object of infatuation for many. Few can look away, as this new book's existence proves.
In The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream, author Stefan Al offers a seventy-year overview of most of the major buildings, many of the architects, and some of the causes that have shaped the Las Vegas Strip, the stretch of desert highway that became an international capital of gambling, entertainment, charismatic architecture, and de facto planning. He relies on extensive research, exploring newspaper and magazine coverage, books, archives, and journal commentaries through the years, laying some of the groundwork to understand how Las Vegas came to be. He reminds us, for example, how financing—from Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters union pension fund to Michael Milken's junk bonds—played a key role in making the Strip's increasingly large hotel-casino dream palaces real. Yet for all its detail, the book does not fully digest the voluminous information it amasses.
Perhaps because its sources mirror conventional perspectives of their times, the book looks through a distorted lens. The titillation of gangsters, instant wealth, and sin has long dominated reports on Las Vegas in the popular press, and disbelief, distaste, and awkwardness have shaped most high-art critiques through the years. Judged by modernism's traditional measures of authenticity, “honest” structural expression, rejection of historic precedent, and the belief that less is more, Las Vegas, a surreal, mirage-like oasis in the sun-blasted desert, has consistently been found wanting.
Over the years, however, the most useful commentaries on Las Vegas have come from those who—like Tom Wolfe, Reyner Banham, Dave Hickey, J. B. Jackson, Hal Rothman, and John Chase—sidestepped those conventions and recognized truths that lay beneath the mesmerizing tinsel and sleaze. The controversy sparked by Learning from Las Vegas, the landmark 1972 text by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, forced a spotlight onto this hidden but significant corner of American modern architecture.1 But for every Learning from Las Vegas, there have been dozens of Jean Baudrillards, Umberto Ecos, and Ada Louise Huxtables discussing simulacra.
Relying on these distorted lenses leads The Strip into some critical blind spots. Al's discussion of the early, formative years of the Strip hotels, for example, lacks the serious architectural analysis given to recent Las Vegas structures by “certified” high-art architects such as CityCenter's Cesar Pelli, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn, and Rafael Viñoly, the Cosmopolitan's Bernardo Fort-Brescia, and the Hermitage-Guggenheim's Rem Koolhaas. These are indeed names more famous than those of Wayne McAllister, Martin Stern Jr., Hugh Taylor, and George Vernon Russell, some of the early Strip's architects, or Kermit Wayne and Hermon Boernge, two of the key sign designers of the period. Yet these were the architects and designers who perfected not only fresh formal solutions to challenging new architectural problems but also new building types—and not just new building types but a new “suburban-city” framework into which they fit. Without a solid assessment of these early architects and the historical context in which they worked, the full significance of Las Vegas is difficult to evaluate. They established the design strategies for most of what followed.
“The Strip began as an exception,” Al concludes (219), but I disagree. Its early architects were well grounded in—and major contributors to—the architectural, planning, and social trends that were reshaping the nascent Sunbelt metropolises of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas with the spread of the automobile in the decades after 1920. They creatively applied concepts—one might say theories—developed and tested in the laboratories of those cities in response to how motorists required architectural scales and configurations suited to the rhythm of car culture. They had practical experience with the culture of recreation and pleasure that was guiding modern architecture in those growing cities. And they worked in pragmatic commercial environments that brought their ideas to a broad general audience. Wayne McAllister's understanding of the ways autos were reshaping cities and living patterns was more fundamental than a simple mimicking of the aesthetics of cars, as The Strip implies. Most modern critics ignored these trends and, unaware of the logic behind them, saw the results only as strange and ungainly. Al repeats this mistake. For example, he describes McAllister's seminal designs for El Rancho Vegas and the Sands variously as “strange paradox[es]” (6), “incongruities” (5), and “glaring contradictions” (15).
Anything about El Rancho Vegas or the Sands that seemed strange to untrained eyes, however, actually reflected the innovations of suburban and commercial strip development (both ad hoc and intentional) that blossomed after 1945 in those rapidly expanding Sunbelt cities. Las Vegas was no exception. Its long, organic evolution is best understood, for example, through a study of the history of the vernacular roadside motels and cabin courts of the 1920s and 1930s that reflected the impact of the automobile on culture and the democratized wealth and pleasures of tourism. By the 1950s motels had evolved into larger “motor inns,” with features like pools and restaurants, a template for the Las Vegas Strip. These in turn evolved, starting in the 1960s, into the enormous hotel-casinos that became in effect complex and condensed cities within the city. This background is absent from The Strip, as are parallel evolutionary histories of the commercial strip, suburbia, the ranch house, theme parks, and neon signs, any of which would have helped to illuminate Las Vegas's roots.
Because of the city's initial small size, its singular focus on one industry, and the enormous budgets that the gaming industry allowed, the forces reshaping the postwar American West (and most American cities) were magnified in Las Vegas. This is Las Vegas's value: we can see these broad urban, social, and architectural innovations—and flaws—more clearly there because the city focuses their expression. It has been as pristine a laboratory for urban development as the real world may ever offer.
Observers who have included such fresh perspectives have contributed seminal insights, though they are still often marginalized.2 Encouragingly, The Strip, at times, also challenges the conventional critiques. In discussing the Venetian hotel, with its Styrofoam re-creations of Venice, the author notes that the “real” Venice in Italy is today as much a theme park as the version of Venice in Las Vegas. He recognizes that “theorists obsessed with dismissing heritage copies” (194) are blind to the larger context that shapes these designs; he reports the deep-rooted phenomenon that transformed the New York–New York hotel-casino's simulacra Statue of Liberty into a heartfelt populist shrine in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The distinction between mass consumerism and elite culture continues to fade,” he observes (220–21). These are excellent insights, but their implications are not plumbed.
Instead, The Strip reengages the high-art lens in its last chapter, when Al, discussing CityCenter, calls it “authentic architecture” that “rivals New York's finest contemporary buildings” (198). To elevate modernism's criterion of “authenticity” in a city built on a creative preference for the “real fakery … over the fake reality” (as critic Dave Hickey has prompted us) misses the point of seventy years of Las Vegas.3 CityCenter's gleaming sculpted towers, identical to similar complexes in a dozen other cities by Pelli, Libeskind, Foster, Jahn, and Viñoly (most of whom have acknowledged their distaste for Las Vegas), are as much a surreal imposition of architecture from elsewhere as the Las Vegas versions of the Eiffel Tower and Piazza San Marco—only with less wit. Sensing this, Al wavers. CityCenter's “shock and awe formalism” may be “magnificent individually,” but it is “tame compared to Luxor” (211).
There you have it. You can't have it both ways. The Strip mirrors the ambivalence and discomfiture about Las Vegas still seen in the architectural and academic professions. Yet this book's existence confirms academia's continuing curiosity about Las Vegas, however much the city's architecture undermines the tenets of high-art modernism. But perhaps it is too much to ask us to consider casino builders like Del Webb, Moe Dalitz, and Jay Sarno alongside planners like Ebenezer Howard and Camillo Sitte.
A half century after Learning from Las Vegas, I would have thought that the mainstream would be further along in consolidating Las Vegas's place in the evolution of modern architecture and planning. Observers such as Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour did consolidate Las Vegas's place, and they drew tough-minded conclusions that gave their essays lasting power. If The Strip had the same conviction to embrace the city's clear implications, it might have resolved this ambivalence.