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What happens in Vegas…

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Vegas is a city filled with stories, both in it's history and it's buildings

Apparently, the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip have only been dimmed twice in living memory-once in 1999 to mark the death of Dean Martin and again in 2005 for that of Frank Sinatra. Having been there, it’s not surprising  to think that this weird and unique city, marooned in the Mojave desert, should take a ‘time out’ to commemorate both a notorious boozer and mafia schmoozer- for Las Vegas really is a law unto itself.

It is also incredibly thrilling, disorientating and nefarious in equal measure. On no serious architect’s aesthetic register in 1972; with hindsight, it’s no wonder that two academics, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, should have wended their way here to treat the city as a test-bed for their theory that Modern architecture should be one of styles and signs rather than a singular industrial aesthetic- ‘Post-modern’. Their premise that spatial relationships are developed through symbols, rather than form, posited Vegas as the exception that proved the rule.

Forty years on, the Strip that was at the crux of ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ continues to multiply, expand and outdo even its own wild clichés. Beginning with the gaudily overt Caesar’s Palace and Flamingo, the gambling petri dishes from which a whole new culture of signs and symbols grew. Today, some are manifested externally- either blatantly, such as Paris and The Luxor, with their Eiffel Tower and Pyramid totems; or more subtly as at The Bellagio, where giant cannon fountains regularly fire up as an epic-scaled liquid portico for the massive hotel behind it. Others are purely internalised experience; the MGM Grand’s conventional office-like curtain walling belies vast basements of incalculable dissolution, where you could lose yourself without ever coming up for air.

And then there is the gesamtkunstwerk, where the symbols and signs pass osmotically from outside to in, consistent like writing through rock. And of these, The Venetian has no peer. A brobdingnagian event whose 4000 hotel suites float silently over a vacuous verisimilitude of Venice- complete with gondolas. Yes, it’s a casino, but its frescoes are traced from a Doge’s Palace; and it may be a mall, but it’s portrayed astride cleansed canals as some strange San Marco, beneath a too blue painted sky, while outside St Mark’s Tower jostles for space with the elbows of the Rialto Bridge. All unreal, all invented- but jaw-dropping in ambition.

Yet in the giddy, postmodern hegemony of the Strip, other styles are still trying to make their mark. Daniel Libeskind’s angular, multi-billion dollar Crystals CityCenter, with its LEED Gold certification acting as sustainability ballast for the otherwise profligate high-end bling within, in its depopulated state, seems more curate’s egg than Fabergé. And part of it, Foster+ Partners’ bizarrely casino-free Harmon boutique hotel, sits unfinished and empty- still only there by virtue of its being evidence in a $400M contractor/ client law suit over poorly installed concrete rebar- a fault that saw it reduced from 49 to 28 floors- and then condemned. And so the deconstructed and the High Tech, bang in the middle of the Strip, remain on its cultural periphery.

But like its world famous boxing matches, Las Vegas challenges all comers. The city knows its roots, and on the face of it, is still devoted to reifying the hopes and dreams of those who come to visit it. It is the original postmodern city, actively eschewing, it seems, the attempts of any other aesthetic style to reinvent it. As Venturi and Scott-Brown proselytised in 1972, and the owners of the Harmon have bitterly realised; with Vegas, it’s always been about the stories…