Twenty-five years ago, two architects chose Las Vegas to highlight the divorce between contemporary architecture and popular culture. Deyan Sudjic explains how Dutch-born Rem Koolhaas is now following in their footstepsby Deyan Sudjic / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The newly opened Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas has a rusty fragment of the aircraft in which Otis Redding came to grief, impaled over the slot machines like a relic of the true cross. By Las Vegas standards the building itself is a model of restraint. Even more unassuming is the puce-coloured pavilion on Tropicana Avenue. It arrived on the back of a flat bed truck; it sports no more than a dozen flags and has only a perfunctory neon sign to attract attention. Set beside the hulking green monster across the street, the MGM Grand-with its trademark lion pumped up to 10 stories high and, at more than 5000 rooms, not so much the largest hotel in the world as a fair sized town-it’s all but invisible.
On the adjacent corner the Excalibur hotel is a little smaller than the MGM, but no less conspicuous. A mechanical dragon clambers out of the moat every half hour, in a vigorous but futile attempt to swallow whole an animatronic wizard with a New Jersey accent. Even the flashing sign advertising the Excalibur’s wedding chapel, “Where Happy Endings Begin,” dwarfs the puce-coloured pavilion.
But step inside the pavilion’s front door, and you find a preview of what, when it is completed later this year, will be the most conspicuous architectural landmark of the decade. Sealed inside a bronze effect glass cabinet is a room size model of New York New York-the casino to end all casinos. This $350-million monster turns the whole of Manhattan into a single building: a clump of replica skyscrapers, including a scaled down version of the Empire State building, translated into a hotel that will still be 48 stories high, with a 300 foot long version of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a copy of the Statue of Liberty one-third its size. It is like a pre-fabricated instant Big Apple, an adrenalin rush of the culture of congestion.
It is the epitome of what you might call virtual baroque: Las Vegas’s unique contribution to the history of 20th century architecture. It’s the style that escaped from the theme park and went on the rampage like hogweed; its effects are visible in every shopping centre dressed up to look like a village green, and every airport with a yeoman’s tavern in the departure lounge. The 80,000 square foot casino floor is modelled on Central Park-free for once of muggers and rapists. The shopping mall will be called Park Avenue, and the concert hall is Radio City. It is an hallucination of an hallucination.
There was a time when the academically respectable slice of the architectural profession would have recoiled like a vampire squirming away from a crucifix from such an exercise in the kitschest of kitsch. And yet Las Vegas occupies a very special place in the history of contemporary architecture. It is the city that inspired the most significant work of architectural theory in the last 25 years-Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972). The book attempted to address the divorce of contemporary architecture from popular culture; it tried to do something about the nagging sense of intellectual insecurity at the heart of the architectural profession: the sense that architects simply didn’t count in the wider world of culture, that they were regarded as concerned not with ideas, but with the grubby pragmatism of construction.
Books by architects which demonstrate a capacity for thinking beyond the narrowest of professional horizons are rarer than hen’s teeth. Learning from Las Vegas might not have been the most spectacular of intellectual leaps, but it did offer something fresh to a profession which had suffered since the 1950s from an acute lack of ideas. Most recent works of architectural theory have been magpie-like borrowings from other disciplines. Post-modernism was briefly a big number in architecture, yet the whole notion of the ironic assembly of motifs from many architectural periods, without a sense of ideological commitment to any of them, was borrowed lock, stock and barrel from literature. Architectural deconstruction was exactly the same: the transfiguration of a fleetingly fashionable philosophy into architectural terms, resulting in a rash of buildings which looked like train crashes.
But Learning from Las Vegas was an authentically original idea; that is what gave its authors their clout. It has taken three decades for a work to appear by a practising architect that will have anything like the same impact. The whimsically named S, M, L, XL (published by 010, 1995) will be just that. It is a brick of a book-more of a collage than a narrative, by the Dutch-born, British-trained Rem Koolhaas in collaboration with Bruce Mau. Like Learning from Las Vegas, it looks at the world as it actually is, rather than in the idealised utopian form which has dominated the thinking of architectural modernism for so long. But its aesthetic of inconsistency conveys the essence of Koolhaas’s architecture.
Venturi and Scott-Brown had brought a group of their students from Yale, and declared that Las Vegas was not a tawdry freak show-the product of a bizarre shotgun marriage between organised crime and the New Deal-but a contemporary Florence. They cruised the strip, paced the car parks, and surveyed the structure of what most architects, with the imagery of Tuscan hill towns indelibly marked on their minds, would not recognise as a city at all.
On the surface, 1960s Las Vegas was the very model of what not to do for an architectural profession still wracked by a sense of mission predicated on the construction of a new social order. It was crass-outrageously tacky. And yet it was also the most vital source of visual imagery in the US. It had drive-in wedding chapels and enough winking neon to scare the pants off the primmer modern architects. The Venturis had the vision to swallow hard and decide that, actually, Las Vegas wasn’t so bad. And they treated what they saw, not with a tongue-in-cheek knowingness, but with the utmost seriousness.
They saw strip development, with its giant illuminated signs, forecourt car parks, and artless buildings, as a vernacular. To the Venturis, the Las Vegas vernacular was there to be quoted by academically-trained architects, and even translated into the basis of a literary form, while still retaining its accessibility to a wider audience. Rather than dream about the kind of world which architects could construct if only society would let them, the Venturis were more interested in the world as it was. “Many people like suburbia, this is the reason for learning from Levittown and Las Vegas… We must go to the suburban edges of the existing city that are symbolically rather than formalistically attractive. If Los Angeles is our Rome, Las Vegas will be our Florence,” they enthused.
But the messy vitality of the Las Vegas which inspired them was already on the way out, to be replaced by vacuum-formed, back-lit perspex, just as Burger King has replaced the diner. For all its apparent radicalism, Learning from Las Vegas is full of nostalgia for redundant technology. The Las Vegas of the Venturis is no more the authentic Las Vegas than Jane Jacobs’s nostalgic view of the gentle street life of Greenwich Village was the real New York.
When Venturi and other architects of his generation got the chance to put into practice what they claimed to have learnt, they proved incapable of matching the bravura of Las Vegas. Compare the casinos designed by anonymous architects with the uncomfortable collision between high and low culture at EuroDisney. Michael Eisner took Robert Venturi, and a troupe of other high powered architects, on a weekend retreat to talk about strategy for the new theme park. Eisner eventually ended up looking at architectural portfolios from practically every important contemporary architect: Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry and a dozen others were asked to make detailed proposals-a sign of the increasing sophistication of Disney’s audience. The resulting themed hotels, including a New England mansion on steroids, look pallid and self-conscious by Las Vegas standards.
The Venturis would hardly recognise present day Las Vegas. Glitter Gulch, where the workers who built the Hoover dam came on pay day to stuff their money into the slot machines, can’t keep up with the new casinos. The city announces itself now, not with pop art cowboys, but with the laser beam slicing through the heavens from the top of the Luxor hotel: the notorious larger-than-life replica of the great pyramid visible from miles away across the desert. Uniquely among Las Vegas’s giant hotels, it has managed to integrate theme with structure. All the rest are let down by the need to incorporate the countless thousands of hotel room windows strung along corridors. The Luxor-with its smooth black glass skin-makes the windows vanish as if by magic.
New York New York will have to compete with the Mirage hotel, which offers regular volcanic eruptions featuring tidal waves of water cascading down the prefabricated rocks which overlook its 300 feet wide frontage on the strip, and a conflagration of flame which threatens to engulf passing cars. It must also contend with Treasure Island, which stages sea battles between a pair of fully rigged galleons, culminating in the sinking of a British man-of-war.
Mary McCarthy wrote an elegant little book about the impossibility of finding anything new to say about Venice. She could just as well have been talking about Las Vegas; a city which has-over the last 50 glory years at least-been picked over by an even greater density of literary tourists, from Noel Coward to Hunter Thompson. All of them identify the essentially industrial character of the place, with the polyester-clad hordes toiling grim-faced around the clock on the production line slot machines. Most also point out the resemblance of Las Vegas to Lourdes: the terminally sick, the obese and the hideously deformed journey here from across the US in search of redemption and the chance to touch, for a fleeting instant, the dream of riches and gold on which the city is built. And yet, unlike Venice, Las Vegas is not dead: it continues to re-invent itself.
The latest incarnation of Las Vegas represents an entirely new urban form. For the first time the strip has encountered a new ingredient. Until now the casinos have followed each other in a double file along the strip, heading steadily westward. Architecturally they have been called upon to do little more than present a frontage coherent enough to impress passing traffic. Now Las Vegas has acquired a crossroads, a three dimensional urban space on which the casinos are not just a front; they show off their sides as well, and have to deal with the previously unknown problem of addressing a corner. The Tropicana’s clump of larger than life-size Easter Island heads stakes its claim to attention. It faces the Excalibur, which in turn confronts the MGM. And the MGM’s lion will glower across eight lanes of traffic at a scale version of the Statue of Liberty, erupting from a lake traversed by the Brooklyn Bridge which will take guests to the hotel itself, fashioned from a clump of replica Manhattan high rises, all in one-third scale.
Visitors to Las Vegas are not easily impressed. But the New York New York model is constantly the focus of attention. Matrons with the displacement of supertankers, and the balding types who insist on scraping the remains of their hair into pony tails, fall silent in awe. There is a brisk trade in New York New York key rings and peaked caps. And if you doubt that such an extreme architectural idea can ever become reality, go outside: steel is already up to the 15th floor, and the cladding for the replica of the Empire State building is already in place.
Koolhaas’s book has learnt from the Venturis and from Las Vegas. He has looked at the avalanche of growth transforming the cities of Asia, and concluded that traditional architectural frames of reference offer little help in coming to terms with the transformations of the contemporary world. The search for alternatives underpins his new book, and his own architectural work-most notably in the master plan for EuroLille, the most extraordinary urban development Europe has seen for a generation. It is an exercise not in the creation of an ideal city, but in working with the chaos and vitality of the modern world. It is planning and architecture not as an exercise in nostalgia, but an appraisal of what the modern city can be: a city which is not a picturesque crust, but an urban soup, in which technology and transport have cancelled out conventional spatial constraints. As Koolhaas says, Lille is based on the idea that the Channel Tunnel makes it just as plausible an office location for footloose multinationals as the suburbs of London and Paris.
Koolhaas’s architectural response to this new situation is dynamic and strong. It is concerned not with the iconography of style, nor of the hierarchical manipulation of space, but with the creation of a sense of identity in an ever-expanding world. In this sense he has perhaps better learned the lessons of Las Vegas than the Venturis. In the end it is not how the place looks that is so fascinating, but the way in which it constructs an idea of reality. Its real lessons are the use of spectacle, the way that it functions on a global scale, and the pace of change. S, M, L, XL Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau