Friday, February 2, 2018

8 Wonders of Las Vegas: Exploring Six Decades of High-Stakes Architecture

Every few decades, Las Vegas seems to reinvent itself, as it has reinvented so much of every other place's history and architecture. Maybe you can't please all the people all the time, but Las Vegas has always tried. Pick a theme--Egyptian, Roman, medieval, Old West--they all await you on The Strip.
Now, with the opening of three mega-resorts and other new attractions catering to baby boomers and their boomlets, Las Vegas is reinventing itself again. Sin City wants to be thought of as Fun Town: the Rat Pack meets Mickey Mouse, and the whole family is invited.
Here, such bizarre juxta-positions as a casino fronting an amusement park should come as no surprise. For in Las Vegas, reality and fantasy have a dependent relationship not unlike that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In this intensely competitive market, reality exists as the commercial impulse, and fantasy has taken form in the constantly evolving world of dazzling neon signs and theme architecture.
It's an unsentimental place, and much of its architectural heritage has been lost. Yet remnants of the old-style resort survive: some structures are intact; others are hidden under several layers of remodeling.
Not everyone appreciates The Strip's market-driven landscape. Deriders call it plastic and artificial, which of course it is. But the city can also be appreciated precisely for those qualities, counters architecture critic Alan Hess, author of the new book Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1993; $18.95).
Prewar hotels, best represented today by survivors in downtown's Glitter Gulch, emulated the Wild West. Postwar hotels moved away from that theme, but the era's architects and sign-makers, notably the Young Electric Sign Co., embraced the West's anything-goes mood and applied it to the emerging resort center. "What made Las Vegas great and allowed these people to do both marvelous and tasteless work is that there were no set standards of art, taste, and design," Hess says. "Thank goodness they took it as far as they possibly could."
Much of the early neon signage is gone, but Glitter Gulch remains one of the most instantly recognizable of all Western streets. And, says Hess, Las Vegas offers truly indigenous Western architecture, albeit newer and greatly influenced by Los Angeles, another urban quick-change artist. Las Vegas's commercial-strip architecture, modeled after L.A.'s, is repeated endlessly throughout the region. And the cool, modern lines of its 1950s resorts brought the sophistication and car culture of Los Angeles modernism to the Nevada desert.
"Las Vegas has always been influenced by Los Angeles, but it has always pushed those concepts to the limit," Hess says. "That sense of Hollywood modern elegance is light-years away from what Las Vegas has become."
In the 1960s, with structures like the round 17-story Sands and the now-closed Landmark Hotel, a tower in the same vein as Seattle's Space Needle, Las Vegas flirted with a Jetsons-style futurism. And Caesars Palace in 1966 introduced the history-as-high-concept hotel to The Strip. The resort has continued to refine the notion, and in 1992 added perhaps the most distinctive shopping mall in the West, The Forum Shops--faux Roman but pure Vegas.
The Wizard of Odds
Some old hotels like the 1941 Spanish rancho-style El Cortez still try to draw customers with the lure of the "world's loosest slots." But times have changed: gambling has spread across the country, from Atlantic City to Mississippi riverboats to Western Indian reservations.
So, like a boxer, Las Vegas has counterpunched with bigger-than-big, self-contained fantasy worlds that make Glitter Gulch look positively quaint.