Scale, Speed, Symbol: Las Vegas

Words & Images: Tag Christof

July 17 2016

You roll in to Nevada just before midnight Friday, five hours and two coffees from L.A.. The strip glows low as you pull off I-15 several miles south of the city and onto the far reaches of Las Vegas Boulevard. Shabby casinos dot the roadside, beckoning incandescently with 69¢ dinner deals, free drinks, and girls girls girls.

Little by little, the signs grow showier and more frequent, and the ambient glow grows brighter and brighter until, just past McCarran Airport, you’re enveloped in a dome of orange-green twilight. The night sky is never really black there, and the jungle of light and architecture that stretches ahead is still more impressive and otherworldly than anything in the megalopolises of Asia. You turn off the strip and into a giant parking garage, shake off the hours of car, and drag your Rimowa across a footbridge and into the low, disorienting embrace of a casino floor. Drop $5 into the nearest slot machine, collect your free gin and tonic, and let the evening begin.

Las Vegas is a tawdry, post-postmodern Oz, a dreamland of sorts that attracts the most improbable mix of middle-class tourists, foreign high rollers, dreamers, and artists. Its struggles as a “real city” over the years have been well-publicized: the housing bust hit it harder than almost any city in the country, and it remains rife with poverty, homelessness, and staggering inequality. But its economy has been on the upswing this decade, with one high-profile tech company famously financing a downtown revitalization that, while not exactly breathtaking, is a good start. There’s now a legit arts scene, good coffee, and an abundance of hangout spots that don’t involve blingy outfits and bouncers.

Though the mobster act has been replaced by a corporate web, and the city is making earnest strides toward a more modern urbanism, at its heart it remains the Las Vegas of oversize ambitions, super scale, and no-rules architecture that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown learned from almost fifty years ago.

From 'Learning From Las Vegas,' 1972

Vegas is all about signs–both figurative and literal ones. Currently, the showiest ones flash frantically and play roadside video at newer mega complexes along The Strip such as The Wynn, but the purest, most Las Vegas expression is the building-as-sign: the Paris and its faux Eiffel Tower, the cartoonish Excalibur’s castle, the sphinx-guarded pyramid of the Luxor, the Stratosphere’s out-of-context tallness, the Bellagio’s fountains and the City Center’s audacious show of supermodernity. Each is a semiotic tour-de-force, a giant physical expression of a brand that all promise some form of power, indulgence, and fantasy.

Their ancestors, the old-fashioned neon beauties, are mostly gone, though many of the more iconic examples have been saved for posterity at the not-for-profit Neon Museum. A few still stand in their natural habitat, like the massive and terrifying clown outside of Circus Circus and several façades of the classic downtown casinos. Many more less noteworthy signs on less valuable property still dot the landscape, sometimes with scrambled marquees, often with flickering neon, all in various states of neglect.

Las Vegas did most of its growing in the forward-looking 1950’s and 1960’s, and so it was once filled to the brim with elegant midcentury architecture. From the demolished Jetsons-era Landmark Hotel to the famous residences of performers like Liberace, old Vegas is a Tumblr wet dream. Unfortunately, money talks a lot louder than historic preservation in Vegas, so most have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. But because the abundant land outside the typical tourist circuit has traditionally been less expensive, a surprising number of odds and ends remain intact.

There are still luncheonette counters in a couple pharmacies, a few resplendent 1960s-style steakhouses (there’s even one where every lady guest gets a freshly-cut rose before dinner), a 3-screen drive-in cinema, and plenty of Googie architecture and other mid-century oddities. There’s even one old mall, not at all worth visiting for the shopping, but which is still festooned with a bit of jet-age-in-the-desert detailing (below). Old restaurants like the Peppermill, with its mirrored walls, giant menu and curved mansard roof, do a nice job of bringing some of that old-fashion swag into the present.

For a good guide to the surviving Modernist gems around the city, check out Mod Traveler, an enthusiast site with info on most of the surviving points-of-interest, from private homes to signs and steakhouses.

A bit further off-the-beaten-path, you’ll also find some highly original houses. Of course, the city is home to some of the showiest mansions and McMansions in the land, but abundant land and big imaginations have brought an inordinate number of domes, fortresses, mini castles with moats, and other whimsical dwellings to the ticky tacky of suburbia.

Change is central to a city as dynamic as Las Vegas and, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, demolitions—specifically in the form of spectacular implosions—are essential to its renewal process. Dozens of area hotels have been imploded over the years, some fewer than 10 years old. Some have been replaced by new megaresorts or grander version of themselves, while others are now parking garages or empty land.

My most recent trip to the city was to see the first implosion of the very last Rat Pack joint on the strip, the Riviera, first opened in 1966. In its last days, it looked cheap and reeked of old smoke, but at its height was a swanky approximation of continental modernism and was featured in several films, such as Oceans 11 and Casino.

Above is the hotel the morning before the tower on the right was imploded, with the giant, looming and unfinished carcass of what was once to be the Las Vegas Fontainebleau in the background. The experience of the implosion is mind-blowing, even from a few thousand feet away—a countdown, a series of echoing booms, some flashes, and then an apocalyptic crash. Though it does the event no justice whatsoever, a clip I shot of the action later that night was used by the TODAY Show the following morning.

Below is the immediate aftermath. By morning, the debris had settled into a massive pile of rubble on which, apparently, a new convention center will be erected. How boring. And though it isn’t necessarily the midcentury patina that makes Vegas fascinating, singular and strangely beautiful, it is nevertheless sad to see an illustrious old place blown to dust. As the city becomes ever more corporate and polarized, I only hope the weird continues to thrive.

Tag Christof does all sorts of stuff in New York City and on the road. Follow him at @americaisdead.