Thursday, 8 July 2010

Vegas Baby


This was written back in March, about my January trip to Las Vegas. Sadly it lost its slot in the magazine it was written for, and has after some months in limbo found its way to the spike. So here it is. Photos are from my Flickr stream.

“We rode around from casino to casino, dazed by the desert sun and dazzled by the signs, both loving and hating what we saw, we were jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins,” said the architect Denise Scott Brown of her first visit to Las Vegas in 1966. At that time, the Nevada city was already a byword for pleasure-seeking and sin, but it was architecturally unexplored territory. Scott Brown's trip, with her husband and partner Robert Venturi, was a fateful moment for their profession. They would return two years later with a whole class of Yale students to study the place in detail – the result, in 1972, was Learning From Las Vegas, a book that scandalised the architectural establishment simply by paying attention to the unique, dizzying landscape of the Strip in the desert.


More walkable and urban than you might think.

Today, Las Vegas still has the ability to jolt the first-time visitor. It announces itself in an almost sickening moment of existential shock. From Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to CSI, culture has furnished such a detailed mental picture of Las Vegas that it's almost unsettling to discover that the place is really real. It's like discovering that Narnia really exists. But it's a different wonderland to the one explored by Venturi and Scott Brown 40 years ago. The Las Vegas of Learning From Las Vegas was a low-rise landscape punctuated with spectacular signs. Now, the buildings are the spectacle. The Strip is a procession of architectural set-pieces unlike anything else on Earth, from the high-rise turbo-classicism of Caesar's Palace and the Luxor techno-pyramid to the inimitable imitations of Paris, New York and Venice. There are Disney turrets at the Excalibur and a working volcano at the Mirage, eruptions hourly. In a neat plutocratic pairing, the metallic-brown Wynn resembles an 1960s executive desk-top cigarette lighter, while the gold-clad (literally, gold) Trump is pure Benson & Hedgefund. The Circus Circus, one of the Strip's more venerable hotels, mocked as the screaming nadir of middlebrow bad taste by Hunter S Thompson, is now positively dowdy by comparison.


CityCenter. Helmut Jahn's Veer towers are centre; the blue building at right is Norman Foster's Harmon. Below the Harmon, Daniel Libeskind's Crystals mall.

In the midst of this menagerie is a new beast, bigger than the others and strange in comparison: a gleaming cluster of towers called CityCenter. This is the latest reinvention of Las Vegas – the newest form thrown up in this extraordinary melting pot of atavistic leisure, consumer surrealism, and corporate hypermoney. “Hypermoney” isn't an exaggeration. This project comes festooned with superlatives and eye-popping stats, but among the most impressive is the fact that it's the single largest private development in the United States. $9 billion – or $11 billion, depending on who you listen to – has been plonked down on the roulette table here, just as the ball skips towards the double-zero of a global recession. A joint venture between resort corporation MGM Mirage and Dubai World, the horribly troubled investment wing of the government of Dubai, the CityCenter project has persistently flirted with crisis and bankruptcy, and against the mounting odds opened for business early this year. Whether it succeeds or fails, it's a fascinating new mutation in a place that has been an urban laboratory for half a century.


The Veer. Cesar Pelli's Aria hotel is the curved building below.

CityCenter isn't just a name – it's a statement of intent. The project is described in the plentiful, excitable publicity material that surrounds it as a “city within a city”, a “new urban core” for Las Vegas. 18 million square feet of space over 67 acres is divided into half a dozen hotels and casinos – a Mandarin Oriental and new brands with somewhat abstract names including “Aria” and “Vdara” - in an thicket of towers, most of which are so aesthetically restrained by Vegas standards that they would not stand out in Canary Wharf. These are arranged around the most striking buildings in the complex, the leaning Veer towers and a shopping mall by Daniel Libeskind that goes by the name of, and shape of, Crystals. Libeskind is just one of the starchitect names involved in the project: Foster & Partners designed the Harmon hotel, Rafael Vinoly was responsible for the Vdara and Cesar Pelli contributed the flagship Aria. It goes far beyond manufacturing a simulacrum of a city as a decorative theme, in the same manner as the New York, New York next door or the Paris across the Strip – it wants to be a genuine “urban environment”. As well as the mall, it will have a residential population, a density of construction similar to Manhattan, and it is designed to be walkable, linking up with neighbouring casinos in a web of promenades.


A "street" within CityCenter, leading towards Crystals.

That's a world of difference to the Las Vegas Venturi and Scott Brown discovered 40 years ago. Then, Las Vegas was new and extraordinary because it was designed entirely with the car in mind. At the roadside were the lavish neon signs intended to lure motorists into comparatively modest modernist buildings set back away from the street behind a forecourt of parking. Pedestrians were not encouraged. Once you had parked, the mob-backed management was not going to make it easy for you to stroll over to one of their competitors down the street. The interiors were dark and confusing – it's still hard to tell if it's night or day in most Vegas casinos. Little was permitted to divert from the gambling. But when the architects were compiling their study of this unique landscape, it was already changing. The eccentric aviation mogul Howard Hughes also pitched up in Las Vegas in 1966, installing himself in the top floor of the Desert Inn. When the management tried to eject him (Hughes what could be called “hygiene issues”, and his penthouse wasn't cleaned once in the four years he occupied it) he bought the hotel. Then he bought another, and another, until he had bought up half a dozen resorts.


Crystals, with the Harmon behind. Libeskind is here a kind of Las Vegas entertainer, still belting out the same old repertoire of former hits, but flatter and fatter than before.

Hughes' spree ended the mob's stranglehold on the ownership of casinos and greatly improved Las Vegas' reputation, painting it as a playground for tycoons. Perhaps more significantly, it opened up the Strip to big business, paving the way for corporate ownership of casinos. Since then, the corporations have shaped Las Vegas in unexpected ways. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Las Vegas flirted with becoming a family-friendly destination, a trend that didn't last but which kicked off the spate of super-themes, where the branding of a hotel was extended to become a form of entertainment in itself, from the Treasure Island's scheduled pirate battles to the New York New York's skyline and rollercoaster. Steve Wynn, the billionaire local power broker who developed the Mirage and the Treasure Island, followed them in 1998 with his master stroke, the Bellagio, a hugely luxurious hotel-casino that reasserted the city's status as a destination for high rollers.

And the Bellagio pointed straight to CityCenter. Ironically, Strip's new-found friendliness towards the pedestrian over the automobile isn't the result of enlightened planning or a sudden appreciation for the so-called “new urbanism”, which stresses the value of compact neighbourhoods. It's the result of the concentration of corporate interests into a near duopoly. Two corporations – MGM Mirage and Harrah's – now own the vast majority of all property on the Strip. They are no longer motivated to keep visitors in one place because they own most of the other places – indeed, both companies have suddenly taken an interest in public transport, after a fashion, building tram and monorail lines to ferry punters between their properties. It's an urban landscape drawn like a company org-chart, with different corporate holdings linked up by micro-rail and footbridges.

At CityCenter, lower-scale visitors are essentially extras in an fabulously expensive display of Potemkin urbanism – as they stroll between the fountains, the public art and Libeskind's mall, they're providing the traffic and energy that will give the new district a sense of urbanity. This is for the benefit of the upscale residents – the super-wealthy who will be buying the condo vacation homes in the Veer towers, the Harmon and the Mandarin Oriental. CityCenter isn't obviously themed – indeed, the abstract nature of the branding of its hotels gives them a slightly unnerving lack of conceptual context, like seeing an animatronic stripped of its fur and reduced to a swivel-eyed cyborg. But there is a kind of theme. In a way it's a distillation of the idea of the “world city”, familiar to the residents of London, Paris and New York, where it can feel that the bulk of the residents are there just to provide a lively backdrop for multi-homed mega-rich non-dom top tier. The genius of Venturi and Scott Brown's study of Las Vegas was to show how this unique place in Nevada could teach us about every place – a lesson that would only work if one approached the subject without moral or aesthetic judgement. CityCenter is the same. This glittering enclave is a model of how a globalised elite is re-shaping the idea of the city, and how the rhetoric and practice of walkability, public art and vibrant urbanism can comfortably serve corporate monoculture as well as it serves the healthy metropolis. Like the rest of Las Vegas, it's a genuinely fascinating and exciting place – but also not a little scary.

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