Vegas learned if you build it tourists will come

Friday , March 02, 2012 - 10:24 AM

David Brussat

LAS VEGAS -- With Las Vegas booming in the 1950s, casinos were built farther and farther out on old Route 91 to intercept gamblers driving in from Los Angeles, who after 265 weary desert miles would surely stop at the first casino, right? Well, pretty soon Las Vegas was leapfrogging its merry way toward California, creating the Strip.

That's fun fact No. 1. The casino-hopping stopped when jets overtook automobiles as the most popular ride to Vegas.

Fun fact No. 2 is that the big glitzy neon signs for which Vegas was famous were gradually overwhelmed by the big glitzy neon architecture of the casinos. As Robert Venturi observed in "Learning from Las Vegas" (1977), eventually the casinos were the signs.

Fun fact No. 3 is that a growing slice of visitors to Vegas came not to just gamble but to have fun in other ways, too! Casinos swiftly rebranded themselves as "resorts," as if they were Caribbean islands. Sunbathing! Entertainment! Tourism! But what was there to see in Vegas but Tom Jones and casinos?

The casinos replied: Caesars Palace! Luxor! New York New York! Paris! The Venetian! You no longer had to trot the globe to visit its greatest places. My wife and I toured the Venetian a year after touring Venice, and found the fake to be almost as impressive as the original, given that it was fake. Furthermore, the Eiffel Tower and Ancient Rome were steps away.

Vegas now has 40 million visitors a year, 78 casinos and 19 of the world's 25 largest hotels.

These fun facts flew at me from the Powerpoint of David Schwarz while I and a dozen other architectural scribes sat in a very luxurious classical setting atop one of the six Caesars Palace hotel towers. After touring his lovely new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, in Art Deco style, the day before, we heard his plan for the next Caesars resort, LINQ (no, it doesn't actually stand for anything). Across the Strip from our high vantage point at Caesars, it will be a pedestrian resort (experienced on foot, that is) stretching from the Strip to a seriously huge Ferris wheel, with gondolas large enough to rent out for private parties swinging 550 feet high in the sky, half an hour per revolution.

LINQ is fun fact No. 5. A press release says that the walkway will be "composed of newly constructed warehouse/industrial-style buildings. The new pedestrian area will appear to have been adaptively reused." Schwarz is a classicist, but this is perfect postmodern palaver, artfully obscure in its meaning.

Still, the quality of the urbanism is nevertheless, um, real. The 1,200-foot walk will feature dining-themed plazas to interrupt your shopping progress every 300 feet. Sounds like bliss! Schwartz caused my heart to skip a beat (for joy) when he said they'd nixed modernism as its style. Vegas, he said, will never again take the modernist plunge because the modernism of CityCenter could never be topped.

CityCenter? Readers will notice that in this brief history of Las Vegas, fun fact No. 4 has been leapfrogged. Fun fact No. 4 is CityCenter, the largest private development in U.S. history, a collection of resorts, supposedly reminiscent of a city, designed by a host of celebrity architects, including Cesar Pelli, Helmut Jahn, Rafael Vinoly, Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster. CityCenter was masterplanned by Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn (yes, EEK!).

Fun fact No. 4(a) is that Sir Norman's contribution to this cacophony, The Harmon, had such intractable structural problems that it will be demolished after a court decides who must pay for it. Construction stopped at floor 28 of an intended 49-story hotel/condo tower.

Fun fact No. 4(b) is that when the Vdara, by Vinoly, opened, the sun bounced off its reflective glass and scorched a sunbather at its pool below. Shades of Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, in L.A., off whose steel skin bounced the sun, superheating nearby apartments.

I stayed at the Aria, by Pelli, and spent hours wandering around, trying to figure out how to get where I was going. True, this is the long-standing modus operandi of casinos. I suspect that Pelli's modernism eased EEK's job of discombobulating guests. A little wow goes a long way, but there's a lot of it here, and no refuge, not even in your room. If Vegas hesitates before its next plunge into modernism, it may not be because CityCenter can't be "topped."

We are running out of space for fun fact No. 6. It is the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, designed by Frank Gehry. The "Your Brain on Drugs" Building is nothing special. If you've seen one Gehry, you've seen them all. If only Frank Gehry would stay in Vegas, too.

(David Brussat is a member of The Providence Journal's editorial board. Email dbrussat@providencejournal.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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