The Vegas vision: Architects have learned a lot from this garage sale of cultural history
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 January 2004)

LAS VEGAS - The Venetian is one of those wildly ambitious casino hotels whose obvious purpose is to make travel to Europe unnecessary. It replicates, sometimes life-size, most of the crucial items that devoted tourists will check off their lists while visiting the original Venice: The Doges' Palace, the Rialto, the great bell-tower, and even lagoons with gondoliers who break into song unless you beg them not to. Some visitors will even find Venice, Nev., an improvement on Venice, Italy. Being only six years old, the Las Vegas version still feels new, whereas at least half of the real Venice, like half of Italy, always appears desperately in need of a coat of paint. In fact, the more time you spend in Las Vegas, the more the great sites of Europe begin to seem, in retrospect, a bit shabby.

By tradition Las Vegas has considered itself a place of some culture, and that notion has only expanded in recent years. This is still Wayne Newton's town, and it's still dominated by armies of grimly determined visitors who spend their days stuffing slot machines with coins and bills. These loyal servants of the slots exhibit a wondrous single-mindedness; you begin to understand the depth of their passion only when you spend a few minutes watching a man stretching his arms desperately to keep two machines eating his money simultaneously.

But Las Vegas has become increasingly devoted to more elevated pursuits. To accommodate an astonishingly elaborate version of Cirque du Soleil, the Bellagio Hotel contains a theatre designed in imitation of the Paris Opera, with a gigantic pool at the centre of its stage, into which Cirque performers can dive from great heights. But the Guggenheim Las Vegas Museum, placed within the Venetian Hotel and allied with the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, has become the most striking proof of Vegas's cultural aspirations.

Currently it contains a structureless, pointless but unquestionably high-toned exhibition called A Century of Painting: From Renoir to Rothko, where those who want a break from the blackjack tables can walk past a few dozen choice items from the Guggenheim's holdings.

And there, the other day, I found myself staring at Claude Monet's 1908 painting of the Doges' Palace. Including it in the show was a curator's cute joke, but it produced a moment of cultural vertigo. I was looking at a great painter's impression of a famous palace that had somehow found its way across the ocean and the continent and was now installed inside a replica of the building it depicted. The real and the unreal dissolved into each other.

But then, Las Vegas has been developing for decades into a garage sale of cultural history. Designers, screaming for attention but yearning for a touch of class, have jammed together a madman's anthology of tastes --Renaissance, medieval, classical, Egyptian, sometimes all of them in the same city block.

Caesars Palace provides the highest density of antique images. (Caesars Palace is always written without an apostrophe; Canadian sign painters grossly misuse the apostrophe, but their American colleagues have apparently abandoned it, on the grounds that it's more trouble than it's worth.) At Caesars Palace the scores of Roman senators and legionnaires have a distinct advantage over the sculptures in Rome; none of these Romans has lost a head or an arm.

Las Vegas may be the only tourist town anywhere that makes a habit of encouraging its customers to imagine they are somewhere else. It is also the only city that seems less real when you are there than when you see it in a photograph. On the Strip, every facade appears to be a stage set, even if you know very well that there's a building behind it where human beings eat, sleep or, more likely, bet.

In 1972, when Las Vegas design was relatively primitive, it was officially installed in American architectural history by a then surprising book, Learning from Las Vegas (MIT Press), the work of three Yale teachers, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. They informed their readers, as they had already taught their students, that studying Las Vegas was as vital to contemporary architects as studying medieval Europe was to their predecessors. In Las Vegas they saw a new type of urban form emerging, and they were not wrong.

Architecture at that point was dying of boredom, desperate for an intellectual transfusion. The once-grand modernist style had lost force and meaning; its blank glass facades expressed nothing but the spiritual emptiness of those who commissioned and designed them.

Venturi & Co. used Las Vegas (as others used Expo 67) to explore the potential of architectural symbolism. By 1977, when they brought out their second edition, they could say, with justice, that their ideas (which in the beginning seemed preposterous) were winning converts. Architecture schools were turning out professionals who were more than willing to let Las Vegas teach them how to make buildings with symbolic power. Much older architects, most famously Philip Johnson, were soon scurrying to catch up. Post-modern architecture was being born, and Las Vegas could claim to be the birthplace.

Those Yale professors saw Las Vegas as a phenomenon of architectural communication. The world needed, they argued, the Strip's "sculptural and pictorial architecture." Studying those apparently insane facades, without pre-judgment, could help architects understand commercial vernacular, the visual language that speaks to masses of human beings. In Las Vegas this meant architecture as show business, but elsewhere it could mean architecture that made obvious connections with cultural history.

Las Vegas encouraged architects to treat history as a pattern book from which images could be freely adapted. In the 1980s and 1990s, the expropriation of ancient or merely old ideas became so popular that no one could distinguish among pastiche, parody, homage, plagiarism -- and looting. Eventually, of course, all that ended. Post-modernism's moment finally passed. It had done its job of opening up rigid design formats and had prepared the way for an architecture with rich sculptural possibilities, most notably demonstrated by Frank Gehry's buildings.

With this process completed, Las Vegas continues to expand, pursuing with fresh vigour its outrageously imaginative and unruly aesthetic. A city built on greed and visual eccentricity, it survived Bugsy Siegel, it survived Frank Sinatra, and it even survived the post-modernist era it helped to inspire.

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