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The Architecture of the Strip - Las Vegas Styles


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The Architecture of the Strip - Las Vegas Styles

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The Architecture of the Strip

A typical casino complex contains a building which is near enough to the highway to be seen from the road across the parked cars, yet far enough back to accommodate driveways, turnarounds, and parking. The parking in front is a token: it reassures the customer but does not obscure the building. It is prestige parking: the customer pays. The bulk of the parking, along the sides of the complex, allows direct access to the hotel, yet stays visible from the highway. Parking is never at the back. The scales of movement and space of the highway determine distances between buildings: they must be far apart to be comprehended at high speeds. Front footage on the Strip has not yet reached the value it once had on main street and p'arking is still an appropriate filler. Big space between buildings is characteristic of the Strip. It is significant that Fremont Street is more photogenic than the Strip. A single post card can carry a view of the Golden Horseshoe, the Mint Hotel, the Golden Nugget, and the Lucky Casino. A shot of the Strip is less spectacular; its enormous spaces must be seen as moving sequences.

The side elevation of the complex is important because it is seen by approaching traffic from a greater distance and for a longer time than the facade. The rhythmic gables on the long, low, English medieval style, half-timbered motel sides of the Aladdin Casino read emphatically across the parking space and through the signs and the giant statue of the neighboring Texaco station, and contrast with the modern Near-Eastern flavor of the casino front. Casino fronts on the Strip otten inflect in shape and ornament toward the right, to welcome right-lane traffic. Modern styles use a porte-cochere which is diagonal in plan. Brazilianoid International styles use free forms. Service stations, motels, and other simpler types of buildings conform in general to this system of inflection toward the highway through the position and form of their elements. Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back.

Beyond the town, the only transition between the Strip and the Mojave Desert is a zone of rusting beer cans. Within the town the transition is as ruthlessly sudden. Casinos whose fronts relate so sensitively to the highway, turn their ill-kept backsides toward the local environment, exposing the residual forms and spaces of mechanical equipment and servIce areas.

Signs inflect toward the highway even more than buildings. The big sign­independent of the building and more or less sculptural or pictorial-inflects by its posi­tion, perpendicular to and at the edge of the highway, by its scale and sometimes by its shape. The sign of the Aladdin Casino seems to bow toward the highway through the inflection in its shape. It also is three dimensional and parts of it revolve. The sign at the Dunes is more chaste: it is only two-dimensional and its back echoes its front, but it is an erection twenty-two stories high which pulsates at night. The sign for the Mint Casino on Route at Fremont Street inflects towards the Casino several blocks away. Signs in Las Vegas use mixed media-then words, pictures, and sculpture-to persuade and inform. The same sign works as polychrome sculpture in the sun and as black silhouette against the sun; at night it is a source of light. It revolves by day and moves by the play of light at night. It contains scales for dose up and for distance. Las Vegas has the longest sign in the world, the Thunderbird, and the highest, the Dunes. Some signs are hardly distin­guishable at a distance from the occasional highrise hotels along the Strip. The sign of the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street talks. Its cowboy, sixty feet high, says 'Howdy Pardner' every thirty seconds. The big sign at the Aladdin has spawned a little sign with similar proportions to mark the entrance to the parking. 'But such signs!' says Tom Wolfe. They

soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless. I can only attempt to supply names-Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald's Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney.[i]

Buildings are also signs. At night on Fremont Street whole buildings are illuminated, but not through reflection from spotlights; they are made into sources of light by closely­spaced neon tubes.

Las Vegas Styles

The Las Vegas casino is a combination form. The complex program of Caesar's Palace – ­it is the newest – includes gambling, dining, and banqueting rooms, night clubs and auditoria, stores, and a complete hotel. It is also a combination of styles. The front colon­nade is San Pietro Bernini in plan, but Yamasaki in vocabulary and scale; the blue and gold mosaic work is Early Christian, tomb of Galla Placidia. (Naturally the Baroque symmetry of its prototype precludes an inflection toward the right in this facade.) Beyond and above is a slab in Gio Ponti, Pirelli-Baroque, and beyond that, in turn, a lowrise in neo-Classical Motel Moderne. Each of these styles is integrated by a ubiquity of Ed Stone screens. The landscaping is also eclectic. Within the Piazza San Pietro is the token parking lot. Among the parked cars rise five fountains rather than the two of Carlo Maderno. Villa d'Este cypresses further punctuate the parking environment. Gian da Bologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, and various statues of Venus and David, with slight anatomical exaggerations, grace the area around the porte-cochere. Almost bisect­ing a Venus is an Avis: a sign identifying No.2's office on the premises.

The agglomeration of Caesar's Palace and of the Strip as a whole approach the spirit if not the style of the late Roman Forum with its eclectic accumulations. But the sign of Caesar's Palace with its Classical, plastic columns is more Etruscan in feeling than Roman. Although not so high as the Dunes sign next door or the Shell sign on rhe other side, its base is enriched by Roman Centurians, lacquered like Oldenburg hamburgers, who peer over the acres of cars and across their desert empire to the mountains beyond. Their statuesque escorts, carrying trays of fruit, suggesr the festivities within, and are a background for the family snapshots of Middle Westerners. A massive Miesian light-box announces square, expensive entertainers like Jack Benny in 1930s-style marquis lettering appropriate for Benny, if not for the Roman architrave it almosr ornaments. The light­box is not in the architrave; it is located off-center on the columns in order to inflect toward the highway.

The Interior Oasis

If the back of the casino is different from the front for the sake of visual impact in the autoscape, the inside contrasts with the outside for other reasons. The interior sequence from the front door back, progresses from gambling areas to dining, entertain­ment, and shopping areas to hotel. Those who park at the side and enter there can inter­rupt the sequence, bur the circulation of the whole focuses on the gambling rooms. In a Las Vegas Hotel the registration desk is invariably behind you when you enter the lobby; before you are the gambling tables and machines. The lobby is the gambling room. The interior space and the patio, in their exaggerated separation from the environment, have the quality of an oasis.

Las Vegas Lighting

The gambling room is always very dark; the patio, always very bright. But both are enclosed: the former has no windows, the latter is open only to the sky. The combina­tion of darkness and enclosure of the gambling room and its subspaces makes for priva­cy, protection, concentration, and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. He loses track of where he is and when it is. Time is limitless because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same. Space is limitless because the artificial light obscures rather than defines its boundaries. Light is not used to define space. Walls and ceilings do not serve as reflective surfaces for light, but are made absorbent and dark. Space is enclosed but limitless because its edges are dark. Light sources, chandeliers, and the glowing, juke-box-like gambling machines themselves, are independent of walls and ceilings. The lighting is antiarchitectural. Illuminated baldachini, more than in all Rome, hover over tables in the limitless shadowy restaurant at the Sahara Hotel.

The artificially lit, air conditioned interiors complement the glare and heat of the agoraphobic auto-scaled desert. But the interior of the motel patio behind the casino is literally the oasis in a hostile environment. Whether Organic Modern or neo-Classical Baroque, it contains the fundamental elements of the classic oasis: courts, water, green­ery, intimate scale, and enclosed space. Here they are a swimming pool, palms, grass, and other horticultural importations set in a paved court surrounded by hotel suites bal­conied or terraced on the court side for privacy. What gives poignancy to the beach umbrellas and chaises lounges is the vivid, recent memory of the hostile cars poised in the asphalt desert beyond. The pedestrian oasis in the Las Vegas desert is the princely enclosure of the Alhambra, and it is the apotheosis of all the motel courts with swim­ming pools more symbolic than useful, the plain, low restaurants with exotic interiors, and the shopping malls of the American strip.

The Big, Low Space

The casino in Las Vegas is big, low space. It is the archetype for all public interior spaces whose heights are diminished for reasons of budget and air conditioning. (The low, one­way mirrored ceilings also permit outside observation of the gambling rooms.) In the past, volume was governed by structural spans: height was relatively easy to achieve. For us, span is easy to achieve, and volume is governed by mechanical and economic limita­tions on height. But railroad stations, restaurants, and shopping arcades only ten feet high reflect as well a changing attitude to monumentality in our environment. In the past, big spans with their concomitant heights were an ingredient of architectural mon­umentality. But our monuments are not the occasional tour de force of an Astrodome, a Lincoln Center, or a subsidized airport. These merely prove that big, high spaces do not automatically make architectural monumentality. We have replaced the monumental space of Pennsylvania Station by a subway aboveground, and that of Grand Central Terminal remains mainly through its magnificent conversion to an advertising vehicle. Thus, we rarely achieve architectural monumentality when we try; our money and skill do not go into the traditional monumentality which expressed cohesion of the com­munity through big scale, united, symbolic, architectural elements. Perhaps we should admit that our cathedrals are the chapels without the nave; that apart from theaters and ball parks the occasional communal space which is big is a space for crowds of anony­mous individuals without explicit connection with each other. The big, low mazes of the dark restaurant with alcoves combine being together and yet separate as does the Las Vegas casino. The lighting in the casino achieves a new monumentality for the low space. The controlled sources of artificial and colored light within the dark enclosures, by obscuring its physical limits, expand and unify the space. You are no longer in the bounded piazza but in the twinkling lights of the city at night.

Inclusion and the Difficult Order

Henri Bergson called disorder all order we cannot see. The emerging order of the Strip is a complex order. It is not the easy, rigid order of the Urban Renewal project or the fashionable megastructure-the medieval hilltown with technological trappings. It is, on the contrary, a manifestation of an opposite direction in architectural theory: Broadacre City – a travesty of Broadacre City perhaps, but a kind of vindication of Frank Lloyd Wright's predictions for commercial strip within the urban sprawl is, of course, Broadacre City with a difference. Broadacre City's easy, motival order identi­fied and unified its vast spaces and separate buildings at the scale of the omni­potent automobile. Each building, without doubt, was to be designed by the Master or by his Taliesin Fellowship, with no room for honky-tonk improvisations. An easy control would be exercised over similar elements within the universal, Usonian vocabu­lary to the exclusion, certainly, of commercial vulgarities. But the order of the Strip includes: it includes at all levels, from the mixture of seemingly incongruous advertising media plus a system of neo-Organic or neo-Wrightian restaurant motifs in Walnut Formica. It is not an order dominated by the expert and made easy for the eye. The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders, like the shifting configurations of a Victor Vasarely painting. It is the unity which 'maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives .. .force.'[ii]

Las Vegas is analyzed here only as a phenomenon of architectural communication; its values are not questioned. Commercial advertising, gambling interests, and competi­tive instincts are another maner. The analysis of a drive-in church in this context would match that of a drive-in restaurant because this is a study of method not content. There is no reason, however, why the methods of commercial persuasion and the skyline of signs should not serve the purpose of civic and cultural enhancement. But this is not entirely up to the architect.

Art and the Old Cliché

Pop Art has shown the value of the old cliche used in a new context to achieve new meaning: to make the common uncommon. Richard Poirier has referred to the 'de-cre­ative impulse' in literature:

Eliot and Joyce display an extraordinaty vulnerability to the idioms, rhythms, artifacts associated with certain urban environments or situations. The multitudinous styles of Ulysses are so dominated by them that there are only intermittent sounds of Joyce in the novel and no extended passage certifiably is his as distinguished from a mimicked style.[iii]

Eliot himself speaks of Joyce's doing the best he can 'with the material at hand.'[iv] A fitting requiem for the irrelevant works of Art which are to day's descendants of a once meaningful Modern architecture are Eliot's lines in East Coker.

[i] Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus

and Giroux,

[ii] August Heckscher, The Public Happiness (New York: Atheneum Publishers,

[iii] Poirier, 'T. S. Eliot and the Literature of Waste,' op. cit.: 20.

[iv] Ibid.:

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