Hollywood without Hollywood: Las Vegas from the Periphery

For the architect or urban designer, comparisons of Las Vegas with others of the world’s “pleasure zones” – with Marienbad, the Alhambra, Xanadu, and Disneyland, for instance – suggest that essential to the imagery of pleasure zone architecture are lightness, the quality of being an oasis in a perhaps hostile context, heightened symbolism, and the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role: for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa or an architect from Haddonfield, New Jersey.

Learning from Las Vegas, pg. 53


Writing in 1977, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour attempted to provide a new urban model based on the rapid development of the then burgeoning gambling oasis. The Las Vegas they encountered seems more akin to a proto-Sin City than the reality we know today. Their Las Vegas appears low slung and devoid of the monumentalism that now towers over the strip. The growth of the city in the 1990s alone dwarfs the size of Las Vegas in 1977. For example , from 1990 to 1992, the population in the city  grew by 14%, totaling 300,000 newcomers. From 1990-1995, Clark County expanded by 37%. By the mid-1990s, the actual physical size of the city had increased to 92 square miles. Undoubtedly, the respected authors of Learning from Las Vegas fraternized with the parent of today’s Strip. With that said and despite these limitations, in many ways, Venturi et al’s observations remain important.

Driving into the city, the amount of signage imposed on the driver  increases exponentially the closer he or she gest to the strip. Whether 1977, 1997, or 2007, Las Vegas signage is the equivalent of desert monarchy. Yet despite this dominance, its rule often proves malleable.  “The most unique, most monumental parts of the strip, the signs and casino facades, are also the most changeable,” notes Venturi and the others.  (34) Michael Dear agrees. Dear, an expert on urban postmodernity, remarked that as hotel building took off in the 1950s, signs served as a kind of “logic and grammar” providing “coherence and form to adjacent buildings.” (Dear, 202) However, in the 1980s, the Strip’s economic expansion resulted in larger hotels, sharply crafted marketing schemes, and a general ordering of affairs under a more organized business approach. Alan Hess has labeled this period “corporate splendor,” as “blockbuster corporate architecture” towered over the Strip, thus, “elbowing out the glorious neon signs.” (Dear, 203) Such monumentalism created spaces between the now “self contained islands” that Las Vegas Casinos had become. Here a “lively” street life emerged. Signage’s importance persists in these spaces.

In a bizarre way, this street life has become one of Vegas’ central draws. Las Vegas is one of the most walking friendly cities of the American West. Though the sidewalks exist as a confused agglomeration of public private space (low level cheap amusements, street performers, and sex info workers – the men and women who so generously hand out the baseball cards and magazines for escorts and  sex industry sundries) tourists traverse them in a state of sensory overload consumeristic bliss. As one notable historian commented at the recent UHA conference, the proliferation of Southern Californians might cause one to pause and consider the attraction. Perhaps the contrast between the dearth of public spaces in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County and Las Vegas’s overflowing cup of consumer communalism unwittingly draws Nevada’s neighbors to the West.

Maybe that’s all wrong. The aforementioned Alan Hess built on the opening quote provided by Brown et al, observing that “corporate splendor” architecture created a Strip that operates much like a “video for the national consciousness,” delivering images of a stereotypical past to the fore or as Michael Dear notes, “the sophisticated West is nowhere to be seen in Las Vegas today.” (Dear, 206)  So is Vegas Blade Runner? Certainly, the obvious comparisons exist: the massive signage, the enormous video advertisements, the new City Center architecture, and the mix of peoples (if Vegas is anything, it is definitely diverse) serve as evidence. Safe to say, the dystopian nature of the movie does not really parallel a night out in the city, or at least if things go well — please do not reference The Hangover.

Here, finally, the point. The above arguments are relevant and aspects of them certainly apply. However, one might suggest another or related theory. The above comparison to Disneyland in Learning from Las Vegas serves as the starting point. Undoubtedly, as Las Vegas grew, it did so in conscious dialogue with Walt Disney’s Disneyland. The often mentioned John Findlay, Eric Avila, and Lisa McGirr, among others, have all pointed to Walt Disney’s creation as an influential factor in post war conceptions of suburban/urban development. Disney incorporated numerous aspects of filmmaking in the construction of his amusement park. Movie studio art directors supported by a slew of “architects, writers, special effects artists and other motion picture” trades emerged as the park’s chief designers. These film experts employed techniques such as “forced perspective” – tricking the eye into viewing buildings as taller than in reality – and “scaling down” – the parks features were not life size, for example the trains traversing the parks are built at “approximately five eights scale” -while threading narratives through “the rides, the several lands, and the general park” that reflected those of Disney movies. (Findlay, 68) As noted in Learning from Las Vegas, people come to pretend they are something else. Everything from the architecture to the signage operates as kind of movie set backdrop, not unlike the efforts of Walt Disney. If we are all stars in our very own life movies, the Strip finally provides us with the necessary backdrop in front of which our great human drama can unfold (predictably, of course — lay by the pool, gamble, drink too much, return home with stories of indulgence, etc.).

But what does it take to run a glorified movie set? At T of M, we decided to abandon much of the Strip for its outlying regions, snapping photos here and there, checking out hipster tiki bars, cheap gifts, UNLV, Chinatown and downtown or “Old Vegas.” As it turns out, the shine of the Strip remains dominant, but the glow means something very different. Tiki Bars exhibit dark interiors with pockets of intense red and green (tiki galaxy, green light), sexualized caricatures (id city), stiff Polynesian styled drinks, and bathrooms awash in 1950s kitsch (pop bano). Fresh Water signs glow in isolation. Chinatown pulses with commerce, diversity (it sure isn’t just the Chinese) and political mobilization (reid pagoda). Housing failures find a friend (chance and survival, foreclosures r us) while homeowners (small suburbia) prepare for Halloween. For all the writing about the Strip, one wonders what these parts of Las Vegas mean. How does their story end? Basically, what role do they play in the movie?

Ryan Reft

Large Variety: From Blade Runner to Myrtle Beach