It was great seeing you in Las Vegas last week. I’m glad you finally made it out here, and I hope you’ll be back soon.
Do you remember what you asked me at the bar, the afternoon we were downtown? You asked me a question about what I thought was the signature building in Las Vegas. And my answer, I’m sure you remember, was pretty weak. I said there were no great buildings in Las Vegas.
Now, true, this was partially your fault. When you told me that you thought the Titanic Casino and Resort was the best building in town — what did you say? Some word like “astounding” or “astonishing” — I wanted to put you on the first plane back to the East Coast. I thought you were going to give me some line about the glories of Las Vegas’s postmodern pastiche. The First City of Spectacle. Some such nonsense.
But that was my knee jerk reaction. We locals forget what it’s like to see the Strip for the first time. No matter how many pictures or videos you see, the first time you see the Strip up close, especially in the falling light, when you catch a glimpse of the darkening mountains in all directions, it really is like an impossible dream. So, OK, I’ll grant you the chutzpah of the Titanic. The juxtaposition of the long shape of the ship and the vertical hotel, which looks like an iceberg. It’s beyond nutty, but people seem to like it, and the long boardwalk “dock” is actually a decent public space.
Of course, the real Titanic didn’t fare very well, and whenever I walk by ours, I wonder if it’s a sort of prophetic warning about the future of the Las Vegas economy.
Still, I think my initial answer to you is true. There are no great buildings in Las Vegas, or there are so few that it’s not worth talking about. (There’s the Hoover Dam, obviously.) But it was a bit of a dodge. It’s what we say around here when we grow tired of the facsimiles and find nothing but empty posturing.
So I’ve sent this letter to you to try to make a case for some of our noteworthy buildings. They may not be great, but you asked about signature buildings, which I’m interpreting as buildings that say something about the essence of the city, even if they do not necessarily advance the cause of great architecture.
So, the most significant building in the last 40 years?
It has to be the Xanadu. Sitting right there at the southwest corner of the Strip and Tropicana. My God, what a vision. It’s that sloped, ziggurat form. It has the structural clarity of modernist building, and yet it’s so much more playful. It’s precise and at the same time exuberant. The architect was Martin Stern Jr. He did the design for the old Las Vegas Hilton, that great slice of marble cake modernism. He really helped lay the groundwork for an urban Las Vegas Strip, one of soaring verticality — and the idea of the casino as a mixed-used behemoth. Resort. Casino. Hotels. Convention space. Parking. All sort of consolidated in one mega structure.
The promotional literature for it called it an International Class hotel — like it was the Starship Enterprise or something. 1,730 rooms. The pergolas and gazebos look out on the casino. The atrium is 20 stories tall. There are mirrors all around. It’s — I think a read description of the place once as a “lush garden fantasy” — just tremendous. There’s a kind of knowing quality to it, yes, all the casinos have that. It’s all a joke. Right. But a joke is only funny once. The Xanadu works because its sumptuousness is more than skin-deep. It really does make you smile, makes you believe in Las Vegas, even after its various ironies burn off in the sun.
But there are other grand ideas, shimmering toys underneath our heavy sun. Most I like. The Clooney thing out by Hard Rock, Las Ramblas Resort — that’s a nice bit of urbanism, actually. It still has nothing to connect to, and now that CityCenter and Cosmopolitan are on the scene, it’s a tad dated — such is the capriciousness of style in this town — but it still gives off a dependable, grown-up vibe. I never go there unless I’m looking sharp.
I also rather like the Sheraton Desert Kingdom … it’s grand and whimsical, the closest thing in America to Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome (too bad the Xanadu name was already spoken for). I drive by those thin gold spires and just think, for a moment, this really is the greatest city on the planet.
Then again, we’ve got so much land here that, inevitably, someone’s going to screw up. We’ve caught the bug here for those outdoor New Urban lifestyle centers. We built one called East Village, out by the airport, but it’s a real piece of generic, pretending to ape yet some chunk of its Manhattan namesake (there’s a lot of that here). And then, we embarrass ourselves sometimes with casinos like the WWF Tower, across from Mandalay. A schlocky boondoggle. Even Las Vegans hate it — and we have a pretty good sense of humor about this stuff.
So I got thinking more about what we’ve built in the last generation or so that makes this place. There is, of course, the monorail. People are surprised how extensive it is. It was a pretty ballsy move to build in such a libertarian state. Running it from the airport to downtown has been crucial to reactivating downtown as a really viable urban center. True, there are only four stations north of Sahara: the Stratosphere, Charleston and Main, Bonneville and Main and Fremont. It has truly tied together our Symphony Park with the arts district with the core of the tourist downtown.
Can you believe at one point the city was in favor of stopping it? That they almost didn’t build it to the airport or downtown? What would it have been otherwise? A line that went from MGM to Sahara? On one side of the Strip? Talk about a bridge to nowhere. Who the hell would have ridden that? A disjointed set of partial districts downtown instead of a unified and cohesive whole?
Thank God more visionary heads in the city, county and among the casinos prevailed. It’s not a perfect system — I’d have built it right down the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard; that would have been the greatest public transportation line on Earth. But the full monorail’s the first thing I’ve seen in this town that made me think, “That’s built to last. We’re built to last.”
Speaking of the monorail, I’m glad you got to see a bit of Symphony Park rising. That, too, is significant. There’s always a danger with these instant master-planned districts turning into brittle bits of crap urbanism, but so far we’re doing pretty well. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is a nice anchor. And while the rest of the architecture going up is not great, as urban design it’s really helped anchor the entire core west of the train tracks. They call it Symphony Park, but locals are starting to call it West Downtown West. It’s really the first significantly well-made urban space in the entire city.
Of course, some have argued that development west of the tracks has stymied development east of the tracks — in the heart of the downtown. But you’ve been down there. It’s doing well. Really, the only thing holding us back are those damn canals Steve Wynn bequeathed us, some 15 years ago.
Look, I’m glad you enjoyed the canals, but frankly they’ve always been a nutty idea. I still can’t believe they built them. Oh, it’s recycled grey water. Oh, it’s environmentally friendly. Give me a break. I remember, they opened in 1998 — this was years after Wynn first pitched it — and for a while it was cool, it was a sign that we cared about our downtown.
But now I see it as a sign that we didn’t care at all. Twelve city blocks given over to this thing? The viaducts that carried the traffic over the canals were inelegant, value-engineered hulks. The problem was the lack of street life. Still, you think that if you turn a street into a canal your job is done. You have created the draw, the spectacle, and the rest doesn’t matter.
But there’s something missing. It’s a gimmick in what could be a working downtown. What they don’t tell you when they take the tour is that no one rides the gondolas in July and August, or in January and February. The upkeep has turned out to be a real bitch, and debris continually clogs up the canals. Of course, Wynn has moved on to his casinos on the Strip — a better setting for water, all told.
There’s been talk of extending them over the years, trying to turn it into the Riverwalk in San Antonio, but you know what would have been really bad ass? If they had just gone ahead and built a casino with the canals inside them. That might have been cool.
You mentioned the condo towers when you were out here. None are great, but collectively they are important. They’ve built, what? Twenty or thirty such towers? Some thought of it as the Manhattanization of Las Vegas, which is a ridiculous thought if you’ve ever been through Manhattan. What the condo towers really were about were the attempt to Miami-ize Vegas, and thanks to the economy — still going strong — they kind of did it. It’s the same profile — splashy glassy, vaguely tropical party towers forming a long and linear skyline. Ours are more dispersed, more like a glade dotted with slender young trees than a thick, old-growth forest.
By and large, let’s be honest, these towers aren’t great. Some stand out — the hi-tech vertical lines in the W Hotel are pretty bad ass, honestly, roughly on a par with the design language of a CityCenter or Cosmopolitan. Most of the condos are fine but not great. H.U.E. Lofts, Aqua Blue, the Stanhi, the Icon Las Vegas. Too many to count, really.
Look, I like the energy of the towers. I like the way they punctuate the skyline. Las Vegas, I’ve always said, has an underappreciated skyline. It’s long and linear. The Strip skyline is flat but meaty, capped by the Stratosphere. Think of this as our Midtown Manhattan, anchored to the south by the singularity of the Empire State Building. But these towers have blossomed out around the Strip and downtown are helping us see our city in a new way.
It used to be the Strip and the rest of the city. They used to say Las Vegas was Times Square surrounded by Orange County. The tourism board talked about the Resort Corridor for years, but you’d never hear locals use the phrase. But these new towers are widening the sphere of energy out from the Strip. It’s a nice transition between the Strip and the neighborhoods. True, vitality only counts if it spills out to ground level, and some say the towers are just catering to the wealthy. But I think it misses the point. They have created a visible new layer in the urban fabric. It’s sophisticated and may be a bit chichi for everyone, but there are good restaurants and lounge spots on the ground floor. What’s more, we’re beginning to see some lower-rise, more affordable development nibble near the edges.
You didn’t get out to the burbs. Maybe you don’t care, but I figure you’d appreciate me being thorough in my discussion of our significant buildings. There is, frankly, not much to say. Most of the big-ticket buildings in recent years were built on the west and southwest side, along the curving 215 Beltway. There’s a lot of blank canvas in this stretch of the city; there’s room enough to envision a significant “second downtown” of shopping, office and residential. Even at its best it wouldn’t be as urban as the central city, but the highway and the arterials are sturdy enough that the county could have shaped its developments in a way to create park space and make the area reasonably friendly for pedestrians. (Bike sharing would actually be a genius idea down here.)
And, yes, they’ve tried. But the results are an insular set of paint-by-numbers mixed-use projects. There’s Sullivan Square — some vague piece of mixed-use trash at 215 and Durango that is supposed to evoke the 19th century Chicago Loop. WTF? Two exits farther on is Manhattan West, a kind of New York-New York façade pastiche cut off at the knees. It’s designed by people with no real interest in cities or good design or … anything.
Only up at Red Rock Casino has a sort of suburban downtown taken hold. There are some nice condos, the Red Rock Residences. There’s an outdoor mall/lifestyle center going up there; coupled with the large park on the other side of the street, it’s a nice bit of suburban urbanism. It’s not trying to be more. But it’s a place where you can imagine people on the far west side would come to, that kids who grew up there might look back on fondly as somewhere with some sense of identity.
I haven’t really mentioned the Strip. I don’t know that it really matters. The Strip is a fixed commodity — its very impermanence is part of its appeal. No one building makes the Strip. The new towers, CityCenter and Cosmopolitan, Echelon and Fontainebleau, fill out the Strip nicely.
I am surprised that you did not mention the newest building planned, down at the south end of the Strip. The Moon. Have you read about this? It’s billed as the most expensive casino-resort in the world. Ten thousand rooms. Five billion dollars, though that was an early estimate; news reports are putting the figure at closer to $15 billion.
It’s a giant curved glass hotel framing a 20-story replica of the moon. It’s like the Hayden Planetarium in New York times 10. It’s insane. A terrestrial biosphere? An indoor vineyard? A domed tennis center? Shuttle-shaped trams? An aquatic center done up to resemble a NASA zero-gravity training center?
It is the most significant proposal in the city in a generation, maybe ever. I have to confess, it looks great on paper — I still find the promo video astounding. It’s like America’s last gasp of balls-out spectacle — it re-creates for us that feeling I talked about earlier — the expansion of what is possible. I mean, they want to build full-size replicas of the Apollo Program rockets that took us to the moon.
Still, the feeling fades, and I’m left wondering, is that the best we can do? We used to actually go to the moon.
Just to fake it, at this price? It’s too much. Too expensive. It’s scale and expense are vulgar. With each week of delay I get more hopeful the project will crater, so to speak, that the funding will dry up, that county officials will grow a pair and say, No. We’ve earned the right to be smarter about our tourist offerings. It’s like we have spent so much time making Las Vegas the entertainment center, we have put so much faith in the immensity of one building, that we have given ourselves nowhere left to go. We have a vision of a Las Vegas where bigger doesn’t mean better. To ignore that lesson is to start down a slide to irrelevance.
Sorry, I went on far too long here! I mean, it’s hard to imagine Las Vegas without these buildings. How would the city be changed if these projects hadn’t been built? I don’t know. Maybe there’s some alternate-reality Las Vegas where none of these projects got built, where there is no full monorail, no condos. Maybe in this Las Vegas they didn’t build the damn canals downtown (someone years ago floated the idea of putting a giant canopy above Fremont Street; I wonder how that would have turned out). It’s easy to put too much stock into one building, or a couple. Cities are more robust than that.
So, whether it’s my Las Vegas, or the one I dream about — where we got everything right — at the end of the day, it’s the people that make the city. The buildings help frame people’s dreams and desires, help them make them believe something better is possible. That’s the only criterion that matter.
All the best …
Las Vegan T.R. Witcher often writes on architecture and urban planning issues
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer relied heavily on research found on the website Vegastodayandtomorrow.com — run by Mark E. Adams — and is happy to offer a shout out. Here are references to some of the projects mentioned in the piece:
TITANIC CASINO AND RESORT
LAS RAMBLAS RESORT
SHERATON DESERT KINGDOM
also a small reference in:
spelled here as StanHi.
THE ICON LAS VEGAS
RED ROCK RESIDENCES
Actually references here are thin
(several newswire links from here)