Las Vegas (TownPalnning) - Nenad Stjepanovic

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In retrospect, the morphology of the modern urban centers of the post–industrial world is based on forms of vernacular culture driven by consumerism and mass–media culture. The apotheosis of this merciless commercialization of human environment is represented in tourist resort, city of Las Vegas.

In one way Las Vegas is actual and cultural Mecca of plural society suffused by information age capital. It is embodiment of the new technological and social developments , a perfect architectural product of the media driven economy. As Venturi suggests that Renaissance cities of the sixteenth century in Italy and its urban fabric of dense closed spaces, such as squares, prove to be as big

revelation as insight to modern grand schemes of the broad, great scale spaces in which main object of interaction is motor vehicle—car. This approach in deriving genealogy urban elements is based on the remaking of the conventional armature, one conceived in roman forums of great ancient cities, such as Rome. It opens spatially new visual perceptions modified [altered] by high speed movements and higher scales communication paths and buildings. Las Vegas is epitome of the new architectural communication and the critical outlook of the phenomenon after twenty six years from the release of

Learnings from Las Vegas seems hardly different in its nature. It appears even more problematised and

complex.

The analytic structure of the burgeoning gambling city of Las Vegas during the post World War II period created a new type of armature—Strip. Hence, retroactively, ‘learnings’ from Las Vegas were lasting and far-reaching. [all-inclusive for modern urban experience] Its methods are conspicuous in the new urban developments—theme parks and ‘virtual’ cities. Also, similar ideas were incorporated in megalomaniac entertainment polises , “fake” cities, such as Disneyworld, Disneyland , or

amusement cities capturing in time and space compression historical past. Nevertheless, unlike such virtual spaces which are only conceived on reconstruction of time (reality) through technological means Las Vegas is a product of clear market values and the idea of city space no longer

accommodates only pedestrians but also cars. Las Vegas is an example that focuses on gambling and entertainment of mass culture, and although its architecture is artificial , it is a new phenomenon in a city planning, a message city, which completely functions as traditional East coast city. It

communicates through aggressive and fantastic sign ‘sheds’ in order to attract and provide

entertainment [commodities]. However, Las Vegas is still a ‘real city’ and though born as a place for gambling only it is gradually being transformed into residential city, place of conventions. Its artificiality is not connoted in spatial manipulations in context of technology, but rather in media based commercial communication.

In the nineteenth century hamlets along railroad tracks developed into gridiron cities focused on the train station. Today we see similar growth in lowrise suburbs along car-oriented commercial strips, blossoming into linear cities of time and spatial compression with high-rise towers dense

populations and social centers. These social centers denote major communication and exchange nodes (K. Lynch) that became landmark through their sign language or public function (casinos, Las Vegas airport, Strip) In essence, in such urban structures edges of the city become major thoroughfares along which node, commercial and communication hubs, are located.

The Las Vegas Strip, a three mile-and-a-half-mile highway south of the city limits is the ultimate version of the commercial strips found on the fringes of almost all American cities. Without question the Strip is exaggerated example. It offers a way to study the compelling phenomenon of populist post–industrial cities. Today Las Vegas is no longer anomaly.

If Postmodernism initially showed fascination with the kitsch, mass culture, with TV series, commercial advertising and motels, with the grade–B grade Hollywood films and science fiction, it is now accepted norm that infuses aesthetic forms, categories and public contents. It erased ideologies of Moderne by blurring the difference between high culture and commercial culture. Postmodernism in architecture stages itself as a kind of aesthetic populism, as it is suggested in Learnings from Las

Vegas offering formal criticism and analysis of architectural modernism. High modernism is, thus,

credited with the destruction of the traditional city core and of its older neighborhood culture. Transformation of the building of Utopian paradigm of International Style into virtual building in

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context of its urban and economic parameters evolved around fusion of the conventional architectural structure with the media content based on new communication technologies. Sign developed into symbolic form on the facade or simply became an independent structure for marking building’s front or entry. Many noted architects grappled with the design of a city which would accommodate car. Many failed. Le Corbusier campaigned in his work (Complete Oeuvre) for multistory viaduct highways running on the roofs of apartments in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1929, in Algiers in 1930 and in Rio De Janeiro in 1936. Frank L. Wright came closest to a buildable plan with his 1934 Broad Acre City proposal which swore off high-density concentration in favor of sprawl. These urban projects proved to be side shows in the course of urban history. To find real, functioning car oriented districts we have to look to Las Vegas Strip and other strips of commercial roadside. If Henry Ford’s mammoth River Rogue factory in Deaborn, Michigan, of 1917 is celebrated as the first mass-scale production car facility than Las Vegas could be considered as a parallel culture artifact for mass-scale recreation.

Like other Western towns Las Vegas began with traditional Main Street, Fremont Street with sidewalk and storefronts. The alternative city center that blossomed along the strip, however, looks nothing like that traditional downtown. It is a landscape of low rising buildings, parking lots along major highway , commercial signs and enticing advertising images deferring to the car. Essentially, Las Vegas did not invent suburban forms, but only promoted them to the highest level. Las Vegas’s contribution lies in exaggeration and intensifying the features of a strip. Enormous gambling revenues fueled large budgets for strip hotels and luxurious casino resorts that created virtual oases pulled away from the major roads. The Strip also concentrated single-mindedly on recreation , avoiding stand-alone shopping centers found on other strips. Over the years Las Vegas has helped to mature the ordinary vocabulary of the commercial strip into a vivid urban center with public landmarks , public spaces and public purposes ?*. It is probable that professional planners were not employed in design of Strip as it grew by market forces. Liberated from the strictures of architectural theory and stylistic

constraints, strips only responded to commercial taste, economic energy and cultural inspiration of popular, in mid-century America. Rather than developing methodically Las Vegas Strip grew by experimental mistakes, wild visions, pragmatic solutions and chaotic collage. It became “collective art” where everyone from clients, architect, sign artist, government official were able to contribute in shaping of the city. In essence, Las Vegas was driven by popular aesthetic where monumental

buildings of International Style were transformed into ‘virtual ‘ sculptures. Consequently, Las Vegas became first urban development based on commercial vernacular architecture, whose building codes only responded to popular and economic demands in fast-food restaurants , housing ?, malls, gas stations and cinemaplexes. In some aspects Las Vegas Became outdoor museum of American Pop culture.

The results following development of Las Vegas into more residential city were not always successful in avoiding zoning and traffic problems. Like many other cities its faces problems of scarce water supply and economic stratification. But this experimental prototype of amusement, car city, has found new solutions for the old infrastructure of traditional city; the means to organize public areas accessible both to cars and pedestrians ; new creative forms of cultural communications were placed as orienting landmarks . The sign and graphic symbols became new media of architectural

communication. These learnings were far-fetched and all-inclusive not only for East coast traditional gridiron type of American cities, but, also, globally. Like consumerist society Las Vegas style is identified with show business, Hollywood type of modernism, glitz, neon, vulgarity and excess. Las Vegas has had six architectural eras, so far. First, there was the protostrip of the 1930’s, the beginning period with a few gas stations and billboards lined along a ribbon of asphalt. Except for a few early casinos downtown’s Fremont Street was indistinguishable from the standard Midwest Main Street. In this early period city was widely based on the conceptual grounds of the Western Town which imbued the vernacular culture of the 60’s and proved to be popular nostalgic artifact , an attraction for consumerism masses.

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The second period, the birth of the Strip began in 1939 when first Casinos appeared, followed closely by the first motor inn hotel El Rancho Las Vegas designed as a luxurious ranch. Fremont Street boomed during World War II, as a defense workers flocked to Las Vegas.

The third period era commenced in 1946 with a string of glorified motels (first was Flamingo) in sumptuous and sophisticated modern style. Las Vegas met national boom in tourism with an

aggressive promotion campaign.

The fourth era began in 1958 with the Stardust Casino. By turning its sign into architecture, the Stardust established the new, unconventional form to respond to the Strip. It had learned lessons from the Fremont Street commercial signs, which were already growing in scale (The Golden Nugget) In turn, downtown’s Golden Nugget and Horseshoe Club learned from the Stardust by creating entire facades of neon.

The opening of Caesar’s Palace in 1966 marked the fifth period, the era of theme, where each Strip resort unlike Casinos of Fremont Street created its own mini-world based on history fantasy or exotic locale.

Around 1980 Las Vegas enters the current, sixth period influenced by large hotel corporations. The skyline once dominated by high-rise signs competing in size and height is replaced by high-rise towers. The sparse recreational strip became a dense urban corridor.

The evolution of Las Vegas is not easy to trace and could be only marked by major

development of the forefront casinos, hotels and the most luxuriant and vulgar signs. The Strip can also be associated in the early post W.W.II period with the vision of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Sigel. His entrepreneurship produced casinos influenced by seminal vision of Californian type of modernism, less giddy and neon accented which catered to exclusive clientele from Los Angeles (highrollers as they were popularly called).

On the plan there are two levels of communication. One that is associated with downtown is the level of the Main street and the other is linear spine of the sprawl. The Main Street is Fremont street and first early casinos themes were developed along this armature. It is interesting to note that casinos and hotels of Fremont street were position mostly around railway station at the opening of the street reminiscent of Toni Garnier’s project for City Industrielle functional configuration of urban layers in sequential zones. At the starting point we can find major communication node that unlike traditional city acts also as edge to the linear urban sprawl of the Fremont Street. At this node level of

communication between railroad and the Main street level are spatially united creating time/space compression hub. The actual orientation of Fremont street toward railway station has symbolic value, and it visually addresses the change between two different spatial domains: the outside space running along the railroad and enclosure of the street. This stands in opposition to the Strip which is part of Road 91 and stretches southward to the airport the second, air gate to the city. After entry through airport’s terminal everything is adapted to the car measures. From the airport highway Strip slowly starts and as a car approaches vicinity of the city, urban densification along linear axis becomes ubiquitous changing perception of the scale. Strip like the highway 91 connect airport with the center of Las Vegas, and downtown which encompassed Fremont street. Therefore, Fremont street and Strip are axially normal to each other.

The stark graphic visual designs that address spatial perception from car view at high speeds begins in 1946 with hotel Flamingo. The lines of these first motor inn type casinos resort were predominantly horizontal, associated with the long and low entry building. The landscape of the site had appearance of unusually lavish roadside motel. The signs provided visual attraction board featuring the performance events of the week while demarcating entry driveway and parking zone. In case of Flamingo there was a Grier clock, making an odd roadside version of the clocktower of courthouse squares. The main buildings which housed lavish casino interiors had accent on horizontal extension and were modern like drive-inn restaurants At the roof level silhouettes of neon lettering against sky provided dynamic heraldic element at the front of the building. In terms of design strategy the casino was casually asymmetrical, presenting two wings bridged by a long horizontal wedge of wood floating

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over a glass entry. Building was freely placed on the site flush with the approach route to the highway. A vertical sign pylon pinned down the wide jutting canopy. Each layer of the cedar pulled in slightly from the one below to emphasize horizontal line, a devise used by Frank L. Wright in 30’s. Two walls were reinforced concrete covered in green ashlar stone or stucco. Overall building reflected familiar connotation of the West coast Moderne, emblematic of the Wright’s emphasis on frontal spatial layering and horizontal extension. The building played with the scale in approaching view facing the highway traffic in a sense of diminishing speed through spatial layering. Inside, Flamingo was spacious and air-conditioned. A waterfall stood to enhance monumentality of the entry. The bar and casino were oriented toward entrance and their windows were angled to look out on the pool. Garish pink leather -finish upholstery accented soft greens of the carpet and the wallpaper.

The Flamingo changed the development of Las Vegas. In plan and form it employed

connotational devices of roadside vernacular. Conceptually, it was familiar with architectural spatial conditions of Frank L. Wright’s Modernism. Stylistically, it was dramatically different from El Rancho and the Last Frontier which played on nostalgic image of Old West frontier cities. However, the Flamingo opened experimental era where building form will be transformed into more expressive sculptural shape. Building elements began denoting familiar architectural symbols and a collage of commercial messages became dominant frontal feature. This will open disjunction between interior and exterior by transformation of facade into symbolic form divorced from structure behind. The casino had started evolution into decorated shed with “out-of-scale” billboard for facade.

The 1952 marked fusion of economic style that surpassed West coast format of Modernism. Instead of older style of western splendors, this time designers brought popular late Moderne style from Los Angeles.

The Sands Resort was modeled after common luxurious restaurants of Los Angeles. The structure was built on the sidewalk which pushed Sand’s complex close to the highway, although opposite strategy was preferred by hoteliers because of easier access by car. The view from the approaching cars has shaped the design, as it had in earlier casinos, but in this case, connotative expression was even more dramatic and modern.

The casino is basically a warehouse for gambling and covered with flat roof. The cavernous structure denoted its disjunction from the surrounding exterior and the bordering highway.

The two-story glass entry was adjecent to a wall of marble. Among the circular drive an extraordinary line of sculptural metal columns and stuccoed pylons containing integral lighting denoted entry zone for car. Aggressive neon lighting created a screen between the entry and the pool gardens. Interior space with strong separation from car circulation and surrounding high-speed

landscape has a quality of quaint oasis. Atrium and the pool gardens are enveloped in plan by four two-story motel wings stretched in the back on the lot.

Crowning Sands was a roadside sign that took a first step beyond Strip’s conventional

iconography of metal sheets and neon light. It became architectural element itself. At fifty-six feet, it was taller than the rest of the complex. But, it was integrated into main building’s architecture. It was no longer signboard, but architectonic element. A secondary sign stood by the southern highway turn. Later attraction board featuring events and shows was added-on. It set off the race for more sculptural, visually apealing shapes and monumental aesthetic sophistication.

Now all attraction boards were carefully positioned, as if to bow in direction of the approaching car view.

The Desert Inn brought its western Modernism up to the roadside with an arch. This was wooden architrave resting on a pylon of native stone. During 1950’s all casinos followed-up this trend by adding bigger, more garrulous neon signs, lowrise room wings and bigger casinos. Such bold sign shapes scattered along the Strip in chaotic way made a distinctive imprint in the urban landscape of formal symbols and lights. The bigger signs, as Venturi already noted, became means to visually bridge the distance between highway and hotel/casino as the Strip designers experimented with forms and techniques that worked in the Strip’s broad landscape. The hotels were still recognizably

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architectural. Views across intervening, slow ceremonial spaces of parking lots still contained

conceptually vernacular of roadside motels. There are several principal characteristics of all casinos on the Strip that were formulated by late 60’s during the fifth period when sign becomes architectural form. The Stardust’s sign was unique, but not unheralded. The Flamingo’s effervescent cylindrical sign towered over the Strip. The Sand’s sign was integral to the architecture. The roots of the Stardust sign also lay in the billboards of the roadside vernacular. The Mint sign constructed the year before on Fremont Street culminated in exploration of scale, volume, image and color in sign that increasingly blurred the line between two dimensional and three dimensional architecture. The Stardust sign went even further. It became architecture.

The Mint pioneered new sign imagery by braking away from the dated streamline pylons of the Las Vegas and Boulders Clubs. The first post W.W.II casinos are typical examples (Sahara, Flamingo, Desert Inn) Taking the entire facade as its domain, the Mint sign was three dimensional, sculptural and complex in animation.

Stardust complex was initially conceived as a collection of individual functions (motel wings, casino, showroom) without an overall concept of an image. It did not attempt a slab-like desert style roof of the Desert Inn or an elegant glass entry like the Flamingo’s. The structure of the building was tilt-up concrete walls, covered with wood roofs, a method once used in warehouses and industrial buildings. The two-story motel wings were post-tensioned concrete slab structures.

As Stardust soon took over the neighboring Royal Nevada, casino comprised of

many fragmented elements distributed across a huge loft. Therefore, sign was crucial to design. In order to create unity and compactness of megastructure the symbolic form became visually critical agent of both architectural facade and conventional roadsign with billboard. Freed from architectural conventions and without any formal theoretical constraints or preexisting form, the Stardust offered nothing short of spectacular. Its image contained exuberant galactic panorama of the solar system that exploded beyond the edges of the building. At the sign’s center sat a plastic earth, ringed by Sputnik, an image caption from news tabloids. Cosmic rays of neon and electric lights pulsed in all directions enhancing visual style. Also, sign incorporated not only symbolic images and forms but characteristic graphic lettering. Plastered across this universe was a jagged galaxy of electric letters spelling out Stardust. At roadside stood the second freestanding sign; a circle constraining an amorphous cloud of cosmic dust. The transformed facade,now symbolic messageboard, was visible from long distance and acted as a spatial compressor at large scale in landscape of high-speeds. Within the Strip the scale was reduced to roadside block and parking lots where roadside sign was visually sufficient image of attraction.

At this time at the end of 50’s a common formula has been hammered out for the design of casinos and hotels. Broad and spacious parking space was placed at the front and it not only served as a comfort, but as a symbolic element of motel. (L. from Las Vegas, Venturi) Building became low, visually unassuming and recessed from the main access routes. The casino’s atrium and main room was frontally placed and it was the first thing visitor saw when he entered the building. All other functions from hotel-check-in, restaurants too showrooms were disposed radially, spun off the central casino atrium.

Circulation levels and spatial level of the highway match the distance between buildings. Along the Strip, notes Venturi parking lots are not only used to mark prestige, but allow direct access from the road and regulate physical distances between different casinos. The visual extension and unconstrained broad views lend to illusion of slow motion. Building’s facade and front levels are possible to survey at the high speeds. Side view of the complex becomes also important since it is present for longer time in visual spectrum of the moving traffic that runs along parking lots and parallel to access route of the casino.

The Stardust’s facade was bent in the middle slightly to conform to the building shape and direction of traffic. The southern half angled back to face northbound traffic. The sign is hoisted aloft one story on a colonnade of store pillars, similar to Desert Inn. Display windows lined along

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arcade replace the storefront and other large billboards announcing other attractions hang on either side of the sign. The rest of the building , an unassuming two and three story structure reminds us of big, low industrial warehouses. The height of the building is low due to maintenance system

requirements, such as air-conditioning. It seems that building structure peeks our hesitantly from behind dominating sign-facade. Architecture is neutral and almost invisible. Interior spaces stand completely independent and separated from the road—commercial armature of the Strip. Lacking the Desert Inn’s lawn and fountain architectural genealogy of conventional motor inn is lost. The sign in the front of symbolic parking acts as communication node (agent) between landscape of hi0gh speeds and unlimited expansion, and private areas (parking space,casino, hotel’s pool area) where smaller scale and monumental entry relates to secluded realm of the interior. In the Learning from Las Vegas Venturi designates, this striking building, Stardust as a decorated shed. It is relatively simple structure with an elaborate, independent layer of symbolism through which urban space is organized. The Decorated shed revealed a critical building elements for strips. Architecture is no longer perceived as a form in urban space, bur rather, as a symbol of that space. The ontological element of these symbols works as directional communicative instrument. The Stardust took this urban form further that it had ever been taken before.

Las Vegas achieved a vivid and conceptually strong framework in the time span from early 60’s to the end of 70’s. The transformation of roadside architecture into billboard type of facade was

complete.

In the great signs Strip has developed an urban aesthetic that proved both practical and

expressive. They were conceptual or ‘virtual’ gateways, guiding drivers down the Strip while relaying the experience of casino resorts over large spaces at high speeds to be discovered inside. As landmarks, signs gave order to the parking lots, lowrise casinos , motel blocks and the growing number of higrise hotel towers strung along the highway. They proved to be as important and visually effective as church spires and City hall domes of more traditional cities. In Times Square this concept found its application in decorative wallpaper mounted on the existing buildings’ facades, serving similar symbolic and commercial function. In Las Vegas sign shaped space and by its own graphic means was able to communicate at high speed and compress space at different levels.

The Caesar Palace opened to public in August 1966. Caesar faced the Strip with a royal presence and bulk established its own organization in its own domain. The particular arrangement of wings marked entry and appeared more Baroque than Roman. The disposition of the complex favored richness and complexity over accuracy. The roadside motel tradition from early 40’s and 50’s has ended with opening of Caesar’s Resorts. Its complex programs and sumptuous forms of historic elements on plan introduced Baroque city organization. The focus was on symmetrical wings reaching out to embrace the limousine cruising-up to the entry. Above stood convex fourteen story tower. Evolution from motel prototype which was based on loose arrangement of buildings on the site, to complex schemes of controlling, open vistas invoking monumental order, are completed with Caesar Palace. It contained space for gambling, restaurants, auditoriums, complete hotel and shopping mall.

A sumptuous array of styles and a host of marble-white columns establish its theme which is in spirit close to Roman forum. The arcades of the facade appear to be influenced by Bernini, but scale and size belong conceptually to postmodern expression. Classical statuary and blue mosaic has

multiple reading and could be associated both with Byzantine style and neoclassicism. The parking lots are removed from the frontal view to the side and space of the entry zone has resemblance of St. Peter square. The area itself is elliptical and dotted with embellishing statutes and five fountains. Visual landscape evokes great processional spaces of summer Villas of Baroque. The eclectic motifs in the facades are collages of the Etruscian and mature Roman peristyles. The architectural devices were employed to solve “problems never attempted in the whole evolution of Classical architecture”, marveled authors of the Learnings from Las Vegas. The formal elements from architectural past connote past styles, and in essence, describe eclectic style of postmodern Pop culture. The artists used

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enough of the vocabulary of Classicism to make images recognizable, then stretched that vocabulary to serve a new cultural context. The columns are too large for a temple, but just right for a Las Vegas sign.

Las Vegas has changed. Caesar Palace gave the strip medium a message by perfecting a critical element of the Las Vegas style-:theme architecture. Caesar represented the culmination of the trend to unify the vacationers’ visit by designing every detail of what they saw and experienced. The hotels existed as much in memory or fancy as in time and space, and were intended to intensify experience of a place. The strip became a string of such worlds.

By the time of the Caesar’s construction, Strip was no longer a random collection of unrelated buildings. The roadside evolved into rich panorama of architectural symbols referential of the popular cultural icons. The emerging urban form was organized along ‘a canal of leisurely automotive

transport’. Each hotel/casino palace faced common highway across large parking lot. Interspersed with these large complexes were smaller motels, gas stations, shops. The great signs had been born as creatures of this landscape to establish an identity and focus of the Strip.

The wanton style of Las Vegas’s glittery mobster past was replaced by corporate titans who preferred established style when commissioned new architecture during 1980’s.

Enormous theme palaces emerged on the Las Vegas Strip. The balance between signs and architecture shifted in favor of the architecture as highrise started to dominate skyline. Masses of new visitors drawn by corporate marketing unexpectedly added pedestrian life to the car-oriented Strip. Density brought an oddly urban character.

Las Vegas’ Strip emphasized recreation almost exclusively. It created an entire city district shaped by the activities and images of entertainment. It was a suburb of the Southern Californian culture of mass entertainment. By the 1980’s the formative spirit of entrepreneurial experiment had vanished. And yet the commercial vernacular landscape continued to innovate. The denser Strip produced new opportunities to bring people together and to communicate message.

Strips were never intended to be cities at all. The home of amusement for teenagers, service for cars and trucks, and restaurants serving travelers, strips originally provided convenient grounds for the car culture. All these function required large, inexpensive tracts of real estate. The architecture of the strip was expedient.

It seems that Las Vegas, model for car city exhausted its both commercial and cultural

potentials. The next step in the evolution of urban genealogy would probably be a virtual city based on collective consciousness of masses and media infused landscapes drawing inspiration from previous urban memory. Challenges and problems of traffic congestion, water scarcity, and high density are drawing limits to Strip expansion. But while the strip remain a form of urban experiment, it never materialised into more than video screen of the national consciousness. Over the years range of themes of the mini-worlds along the Strip alluded more to cinematic reality than to traditional architecture of the city. Las Vegas remained on the edge : at the edge of the town and at the edge of culture. The strip has been the perfect architectural medium for creating a new type of city where more traditional city could not take root.

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