Can high-profile architecture survive in Las Vegas?
Las Vegas is where architecture goes to die. YouTube is full of demolition videos of casino hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard: the evening news cameraman calmly capturing the 3-2-1 countdown, the thundering boom as the dynamite ignites, the almost slow-motion pancaking of one slab on top of another, and then the relief of the final dust cloud. One such video boasts “Top 10 Las Vegas Casino Implosions.” True to the title, the Aladdin, Castaways, New Frontier, Landmark, Sands, Bourbon Street, Stardust, Boardwalk, Dunes, and Hacienda hypnotically fall in succession.
None of the hotels are particularly notable as designs. Almost all of them meet the criteria of the “decorated shed,” the term used by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown in Learning From Las Vegas to describe the blocky modern towers that announce their presence with elaborate signage along the Strip. Yet their destruction offers the opportunity for pageantry and fireworks. The Dunes’s demise in 1993 was particularly dramatic—its 180-foot-tall, minaret-shaped, glowing red neon sign, designed by Lee Klay for Federal Sign and Signal Company, was lit for the occasion. As the building came down, the sign continued to erupt electric lava as the whole assembly exploded and collapsed. Today, Steve Wynn’s once-luxurious Bellagio stands on the site. Its dancing fountain show is starting to look a bit dated. In time, the whole spectacle will go the same way as the Dunes.
There’s little nostalgia for these structures. They are dismissed as part of the city’s history, as personal memory, and even as architecture. In June 2016, the Las Vegas Review-Journal interviewed former Nevada Governor Bob Miller for a story on the demolition of the Riviera hotel, where he was once a lifeguard at the casino pool. The paper reported: “‘It’s a bittersweet moment for me to watch my past being blown up,’ Miller said before proclaiming, in line with Las Vegas tradition, ‘In with the new.’”
Works by globally renowned architects—you know, starchitects—have been closed, dismantled, or just generally dwarfed by the endless amount of construction that goes on in Vegas. The celebrity factor of Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas can’t outpace a reunion tour by the Backstreet Boys at Planet Hollywood. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The most important piece of architecture to come out of Las Vegas was not a building at all, but a research-heavy book that taught architects to find meaning in the decorative and ordinary. Learning From Las Vegas celebrated architecture’s ability to communicate through symbolic form, but the authors also chided big-egoed architects for their self-satisfied monumentality, writing:
When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck; minimegastructures are mostly ducks.
Architectural hubris doesn’t end well in Sin City. The first big blow to what we define as starchitecture—projects where the fame of the designer is as important as the design itself—was a hard, quick jab. Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s Guggenheim Hermitage Museum opened in 2000 within The Venetian casino. A monolithic Cor-ten steel wall (in which the museum’s name was indelibly etched) announced its two galleries. The largest component, a 64,000-square-foot temporary exhibition space, closed in 2001, not even lasting a year. The smaller, 8,000-square-foot masterpiece gallery that featured Impressionist art closed quietly in 2008. Conceived as a partnership between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Venetian, the more than $30 million dollar museum marked the westernmost point of then-Guggenheim director Thomas Krens’s expansion of the Guggenheim enterprise.