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
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.