Beyond the Neon Billboard: Sidewalk Spectacle and Public Art in Las Vegas Cher Krause Knight Here we have the principle of commodity fetishismy however, that it is without its philosophical entangle- absolutely fulﬁlled in the spectacle, where the perceptible ments. Instead, Vegas’s great popularity—and alter- world is replaced by a set of images that are superior to that nately, the great derision against it—has drawn rose- world yet at the same time impose themselves as eminently colored accounts or twitchy academic attacks. The perceptible. (Debord 26) issues framing its public art are not nearly as cut and dry as either the casino entrepreneurs or the scholarly In his seminal work cited above, The Society of community would have us believe. the Spectacle, Guy Debord offers a description of From its beginnings, Las Vegas was packaged for simulacra applicable to Las Vegas. As a city that plays public consumption. As early as 1905 its ﬁrst lots for ´ on cultural cliches appealing to the lowest common sale were in high demand at auction, these being denominator, it offers sort of ‘‘one-size-ﬁts-all’’ offered as part of Senator William Clark’s Las Vegas entertainment. This is abundantly evident in its kitsch Townsite scheme, which sought to make the city a hub architecture, contrived public spaces, and ‘‘tacky’’ for steam trains traveling through the desert (Schultz art, all thoroughly postmodern and simultaneously 49, 51). Today Vegas is the nation’s fastest growing lowbrow vernacular. On the surface it may be urban area with about 7000 new arrivals each month. tempting to make fun of Vegas and its trappings. Although the American exuberance for—and spend- But with the publication in 1972 of Robert Venturi’s, ing at—Vegas waned in the mid 1970s, by the 80s it Denise Scott Brown’s, and Steven Izenour’s wildly mounted again, reaching a fever pitch in the 90s. But inﬂuential Learning from Las Vegas, populism as annual gaming revenues topped 12 billion dollars became a welcome antidote to rampant modernist in Clark County, casino owners still reckoned with pretension. Izenour reﬂects: increased competition as gambling became more To architects like us, who had been trained in the hermetic, widespread in the United States, especially on Native hard-edged, black-and-white, concrete-and-steel vocabu- American reservations. Traditionally, Vegas was lary of Modernism, downtown Las Vegas was liberating. It derided as an adult pleasure palace where question- became our classroom. (Izenour and Dashiell 47) able—if not illicit—pursuits like gambling and prostitution were openly practiced. Its visitors Vegas ruptures the ‘‘normal’’ societal fabric as it wrestled with temptation, ﬁnancial frustration, and suspends time, economics, and disbelief, thus begging unchecked crime. In short, Vegas’s high-gloss veneer a larger critical examination. While it may be the hip could not hide the seedy core within. But today the thing to out oneself as a Vegas enthusiast in certain city has reinvented itself as a respectable place for circles, it is still difﬁcult to convince many scholars middle America to holiday: it has become Disneyﬁed. that the city is worthy of serious study: that its public And it has done so with great success. Although the art has deeper meanings for, and repercussions $1.99 buffet and cheap souvenir shops persist, they within, our culture; that commercialism does not are overshadowed by themed hotel-casino complexes necessarily beget mediocrity and a ‘‘dumbed-down’’ offering children’s activities, upscale shopping and society. Critics cite Vegas’s mass appeal as evidence of dining, and exciting sidewalk spectacles. Over the last its corrupted nature, which affords them superiority decade or so Las Vegas has consciously become a through separation from the ‘‘common folk.’’ Yet the ‘‘user-friendly’’ destination run by a conglomerate of millions of people who love Vegas—myself in- ‘‘helpfully competitive’’ entities, sharing in the wealth cluded—are not lemmings. We love it not because (‘‘Dynamite’’). we ‘‘don’t get it,’’ but rather precisely because we do. The Strip, once a vehicular thoroughfare, is now a The city extends opportunities to transcend daily destination in its own right. Its ﬁrst public art (and existence, to play, to revel in life. This does not mean, icons of 50s design) were ﬂamboyant neon signs 9 10 Journal of American & Comparative Cultures competing for the speeding motorist’s attention. property includes lush palms, waterfalls, and a fake Bright, colorful, easily seen and understood (i.e. volcano erupting at convenient 15-minute intervals in gaudy), they were unapologetic advertisements set the evening. Geysers of steam tinted by red lights, and against low-key buildings. But now the city itself has gas jets spreading ﬂames across its lagoon, enhance become a sign as its new structures, with their the eruption. But Worlitz’s volcano was even more immense physical size and grand impact, dwarf—or sophisticated, allowing visitors to explore labyrinths in ever-greater frequency replace—the signature bill- and mock horror scenes arranged for their delight. Of boards (Anderton 14). The decorated sheds and ducks course, the visitor Worlitz had to be invited by the described in Learning from Las Vegas have given way Prince, whereas any Vegas pedestrian can watch The to what architectural critic Morris Newman has Mirage’s volcano erupt as many times as he or she tagged ‘‘Flaming Volcano’’ urbanism. While the would like. Another garden, Hawkstone in Shrop- decorated shed was a workhorse building enhanced shire, England, owned by Sir Richard Hill, had a with decoration, the duck’s shape was symbolic of its 10-mile tour of novel features, including scenes function. By contrast Newman explains: representing Switzerland and Tahiti. Its exciting visitor was left perched on ‘‘Raven’s Shelf,’’ below In Flaming Volcano urbanism, environmental graphics which cliffs dropped hundreds of feet. This was in replace both sign and applied ornament. As a presence on keeping with Edmund Burke’s suggestion, published the street, the building virtually dematerializes behind the in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our spectacley. the Flaming Volcano is roadside architecture Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), that intended to be viewed by pedestrians. (84) perceived threats to one’s well-being tapped the deepest wellsprings of the sublime. And in yet another Over time, the Strip has evolved into a Main Street, contemporary publication, Designs of Chinese Build- although it was not originally planned as a walker’s ings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (also promenade: its sidewalks are sporadically laid out, 1757), author Sir William Chambers urged designers and one must continually dodge threatening auto to render the landscape as ‘‘laughing,’’ ‘‘enchanted,’’ trafﬁc. But brave pedestrians are rewarded with a or ‘‘horrible’’ by utilizing buildings, statuary and sensual bombardment of unforgettable sights and manipulated natural elements (Schama 542-43). experiences, arranged by the casino owners and resort Clearly, theming is nothing new. developers competing for our attentions. As travel Perhaps the most telling sign of our current writer David Stratton describes it; ‘‘yyou have the culture is the widely disseminated use of theming, distinctly urban feeling of being onstage or, perhaps, shifting from the private garden to the public street. in the midst of a prison riot’’ (2). We are hard pressed to escape it: restaurants, retail The sidewalk spectacle—Vegas’s particular brand stores, even entire city neighborhoods are themed. of public art—has its historical precedent in the 18th- For cultural critic Mark Dery this is a troubling century European garden. In such gardens careful development, in which the shopping mall’s food court design and manipulation produced the affectations of becomes the new town square, ‘‘theme-parked for natural growth. As Simon Schama writes in Land- mass consumption’’ (15). But in Newman’s eyes, scape and Memory, any balking at the simulacra of theming has revived spectacle-oriented urbanism, such environments was a moot point: borrowing Baroque devices that ‘‘tasteful’’ architects This was, after all, a time when the mechanical arts were eschew, and using these to powerful effect (82). In the being brought to the highest degree of ingenuity in the case of Las Vegas, it is as if the entire city has been name of proﬁt or pleasurey. The name fabrique given to themed into a pastiche of popular culture, most the synthetic landscapes of terror and sublimity created by grandly displayed at the mega-complex, where casino, these spectacle-machines perfectly captured their air of hotel, and entertainment spectacle are all brought unapologetic artiﬁciality. (540) together. In 1993, three of the then largest and most expensive complexes (the Luxor, MGM Grand, and An example of one such fabrique is Worlitz, the Treasure Island) opened within the span of three garden of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, which months. The Luxor Hotel and Casino opened in included a mechanical volcano. Fire, smoke, and lava October, with Veldon Simpson, who also designed the (actually water ﬂowing over illuminated glass panels) MGM, serving as its principal architect. As a 375 accompanied its nightly eruptions. A similar effect is million-dollar steel and glass pyramid complete with a achieved in Vegas at The Mirage, designed by Joel reconstruction of King Tut’s tomb, it is beleaguered Bergman and built in 1989. Its South Seas-themed by historical inaccuracies. But one must assume Beyond the Neon Billboard 11 visitors paying to see artifact reproductions behind explosions, culminating in the sinking of a full-size Plexiglas are not really troubled by inconsistencies: British frigate by pirates—eight times a day. While never mind that by the time of the New Kingdom, throngs watch from the Strip, diners inside the pharaohs were no longer buried in pyramids! A team building can peer through openings in the faux of Egyptologists consulted on the reproductions cliffside exterior and view the spectacle as well. When (created with methods and materials dating back issuing operating permits, Clark County had difﬁ- 3300 years), and the tomb measurements exactly culty classifying exactly what Buccaneer Bay is: a match those found by Howard Carter’s team in 1922. theme park, a theatrical production, architectural But ultimately, spectacle wins out. As Luxor interior stage set or other? Finally, a designation was reached designer Charles Silverman says, ‘‘This is not the for the stationary pirate ship: it was declared a sign. Natural History Museum’’ (qtd. in Weathersby). At a cost of nearly 30 million dollars, Buccaneer Bay Quite true. The pedestrian promenading past outdoor has paid off, drawing large crowds who then step holograms and man-made Karnak Lake is unlikely to inside to see more, to be dazzled anew. To celebrate be searching for historical fact. The Egyptology Treasure Island’s opening day Wynn even marketed proffered here is unapologetically channeled through the 1.5 million-dollar demolition of an historic Hollywood camp a la Liz Taylor in Cleopatra. building as a media event, in which the Dunes Hotel Interestingly, when only three years old, the Tut succumbed to phony canon ﬁre from one of the Museum closed for ‘‘renovations.’’ One wonders if Buccaneer Bay ships. As theater arts critic David refurbishment was needed already, or if this was Johnson aptly noted, ‘‘the pirates always win in another case of the Las Vegas revisionist ﬂu: constant Vegas’’ (35). change in pursuit of the bigger and better, the new and This wave of new, family-friendly construction improved. The history of this city is one of continual pushed older casinos to up the ante as well. In 1992 expansion, revision and demolition, not of preserva- Caesars Palace opened the Forum Shops, a collection tion and conservation. Since Vegas resorts ﬁrst of upscale stores and eateries set in the guise of a sprung up in the 1920s, they have been subject to quaint Roman town among ruins. An illusionistic zealous developers anticipating what the customer curved ceiling painted to look like the sky changes wants next. It seems Vegas often lacks sentimental- from dawn to dusk and back again—in a half-hour! ity—even for its own past. Terry Dougall, who designed the Shops asserts, ‘‘This The Old Hollywood-themed MGM Grand, built isn’t great architecture, it’s great theater’’ (qtd. in at a cost of 1 billion dollars and opening in December Shillingburg 84, 88). This fantasy realm has been of 1993, billed itself as the world’s largest hotel, incredibly successful as a retail outpost as well, casino, and amusement complex. The 88-foot tall lion outperforming many other American shopping cen- fronting its entrance, criticized by Newman as ters. Caesars has long understood the importance of ˆ ´ ‘‘papier-mache on a heroic scale,’’ has already been popular—and populist—appeal. Jay Sarno, the casi- replaced by a much smaller, anatomically correct one. no’s initial developer, purposefully left the apos- MGM’s Grand Adventures, sited on thirty-three trophe out of its name: rather than being the domain acres of prime Vegas real estate, is the city’s ﬁrst of a single ruler (Caesar’s), he wanted every guest to full-blown theme park. Amusement riders must pay, feel like sovereignty here (Stratton 29). From the start but entrance to walk around is free. Casablanca, New Caesars drew patrons in with a ﬂashy welcome. Its York, Paris, New Orleans, the Salem waterfront, and initial 1966 layout by Melvin Grossman utilized the old West are all conjured with less than sensa- symmetrical wings embracing the visitor, similar to tional results that never shake off the overarching Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s colonnade for St. Peter’s in commercialism. A more successful attempt at specta- Rome. In 1972, and again in 1989 (to compete with cle was achieved at the 475 million-dollar Treasure The Mirage), moving sidewalks were added, carrying Island, the brainstorm of development mogul Steve visitors through a tholos or a series of triumphal Wynn. Built by Jon Jerde Associates as a family- arches, as a recorded voice announces their entrance. oriented sister complex to The Mirage, it takes its Reproductions of famous classical sculpture, includ- pirate theme from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of ing Marcus Aurelius, the Nike of Samothrace, and the same name, although reputedly Wynn was Augustus of Primaporta, lend majesty to the whole inspired visiting the set of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. production. It is a popular culture gesamtkunstwerk The theme carries onto the street in Buccaneer Bay, (i.e. a total work of art) in the grandest sense, where pedestrians see a ‘‘free’’ special effects show sampling ancient Rome (and occasionally, and with live actors, sound effects and pyrotechnic perhaps unwittingly, ancient Greece) at will. 12 Journal of American & Comparative Cultures Perhaps the most obvious example of Vegas tangible objects: rather, those shadows take on an regentriﬁcation via the sidewalk spectacle is the existence and substance of their own, based upon, but ‘‘Freemont Street Experience’’ by the Jerde Partner- uniquely set apart from, the original model. They ship architects: a ninety-foot tall, 1400-foot long offer a new and different life experience. Vegas latticework canopy above ﬁve blocks of the formerly spectacle portends to nothing other than its own dilapidated Downtown. Previously a Main Street faux-hood. As Newman declares, along the city’s original gambling district that was the artiﬁciality exhibited in Las Vegas isn’t phony anything; open to both walking and vehicular trafﬁc, the area is it has its own resounding, relentless identityy And (it) is now restricted to pedestrians. By day the canopy arguably the most interesting American city of the moment, provides shade, and at night 2.1 million programmed the city most informed by the current state of American electronic pixels light up its ‘‘Celestial Vault’’ to mass culture. (82) create, what one anonymous critic has dubbed, ‘‘the twenty-ﬁrst-century equivalent to the Sistine Chapel’’ Likewise Denise Scott Brown, who returned to Vegas (qtd. in ‘‘Dynamite’’). This free light and sound show in 1995 to see if it bore clues to the 21st century, plays ﬁve times nightly, attracting 20,000 viewers a observed that the city, which once signaled excep- week. At a cost of 71 million dollars, underwritten by tional extremism, is now a paradigm for the American casino owners (willingly investing in urban renewal street experience (qtd. in Stungo 24). for the ﬁrst time) and the city, the Freemont Street Critically, Vegas’s efforts at public art have been Experience attempts to revitalize ‘‘Glitter Gulch’’ and maligned as tacky and dismissed as insigniﬁcant. But I compete with the Strip (‘‘Freemont’’ 88). But can it cannot help thinking that these works have something really bring the glitter and tourists back to the Gulch more to say; that they speak to the public in a way for longer than a curious glimpse? Its sustained appeal most monuments and memorials cannot. As local to spectacle-weary viewers is doubtful, and even the artist Anthony Bondi insists, the Vegas spectacles soundness of the design is in question as it blocks constitute what may be the most successful art project many views of this historic district (Leccese 96). of the 20th century, one that is not, and can never be, The art and authored spaces of Las Vegas have ﬁnished (qtd. in Anderton 12). It is true that Vegas’s far-reaching implications for our culture. Its designers public art lapses into overwrought special effects and induce an insular frame of mind, protecting us from corporate-fueled manifestations of fantasy. But one the unpleasantries—and reality checks—of the every- should consider that the sidewalk spectacles are day world that might make us reconsider that last usually privately funded affairs. Casino and real hand at the blackjack table. As a ‘‘touristic space’’ estate developers who pay dearly to have them that reassures and diverts us (Tourist), Vegas can offer constructed, in the hopes of many happy returns (of us more excitement than we have in our ordinary lives patrons and ﬁnances), do not have to answer to as we sample its themed simulacra in relative safety. percent-for-art programs or other dicta of taste. They But is the city anything more than a ‘‘staged answer to their clientele, one of the largest potential authenticity’’(‘‘Staged’’), which consists solely of audiences for public art. As a 1996 survey conducted ‘‘simulated’’ experiences known to, forgiven, and by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority even anticipated by the visitor? determined, 39 percent of American adults have Perhaps Vegas is the only American city that can visited the city, half of them in the 1990s (‘‘Fast intermesh fantasy almost seamlessly with daily life. Its Track’’). The evolution of the sidewalk spectacles juxtapositions of ﬂickering neon and garbage trucks, reafﬁrms how quickly things change in Vegas, yet the sidewalk spectacles and police raids, are not so presence of euphoric simulacra always persists. You jarring. The daily and the extraordinary lives have may be enthralled or even disgusted here, but you will met here. But is one necessarily more ‘‘real’’ than the never be bored. To observers lamenting the quality of other? Is there anything more real about walking Vegas spectacles, Newman retorts, down a Manhattan avenue than past New York, New If the taste level of theseyextravaganzas is often low, York Hotel and Casino’s scaled-down skyline? Yes, (they) nonetheless manage to animate public spacesy and Manhattan is more gritty and edgy, but does that engage pedestrians more readily than the lifeless ‘‘public mean the experience counts for more? In both art’’ that litters many major cities. (86) contexts, the walker propels herself through a built environment eliciting responses ranging from horror If the essential goal of public art is to ‘‘animate’’ to wonder. It is not that the Vegas visitor prefers to public places and ‘‘engage’’ viewers, then the sidewalk gaze at shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave instead of spectacles represent a new level of achievement in Beyond the Neon Billboard 13 civic design. They are resounding populist successes, Johnson, David. ‘‘Las Vegas: Buccaneer Bay.’’ TCI if not always nuanced aesthetic ones. Those of us who (Theatre Crafts International) May 1994: 33–37. make, place, and write about public art must Leccese, Michael. ‘‘Against the Odds.’’ Landscape Archi- remember to listen to what the public tells us it wants. tecture April 1996: 66–731. It seems Vegas developers are doing precisely that. MacCannell, Dean. ‘‘Staged Authenticity: Arrangements The next generation’s spectacles—Bellagio’s spark- of Social Space in Tourist Settings.’’ American Journal ling Venetian waterways and Paris’s not-so-miniature of Sociology 79 (1973): 589–603. Eiffel Tower—have already taken their places on the ——. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New Strip. York: Schocken, 1976. Newman, Morris. ‘‘The Strip Meets the Flaming Volcano.’’ Progressive Architecture Feb. 1995: 82–86. Works Cited Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Knopf, 1996. Anderton, Frances. ‘‘Hurry, hurry to see the natural Pop Schultz, Elizabeth. ‘‘Las Vegas: A City that Never Sleeps.’’ Art icons.’’ The Art Newspaper Oct. 1995 intl. ed.: 121. Telephony 16 Mar. 1987: 491. Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Shillingburg, Donald. ‘‘Entertainment Drives Retail.’’ Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757. London: Architectural Record Aug. 1994: 82–89. Bell, 1889. Stratton, David. Ultimate Las Vegas and Beyond, 2nd ed. Chambers, William, Sir. Designs of Chinese Buildings, Berkeley: Ulysses P, 1995. Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils. 1757. New Stungo, Naomi. ‘‘Relearning from Vegas.’’ RIBA Journal York: Arno, 1980. Jan. 1995: 24–25. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Venturi, Robert, Denise, Scott Brown, andSteven, Izenour. Nicholson-Smith. 1967. New York: Zone, 1994. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Dery, Mark. ‘‘Past Perfect Perfect.’’ 21.C 24 (1997): 14–17. Architectural Form. Cambridge: MIT P, 1972. ‘‘Dynamite Ducks.’’ The Architects’ Journal 20 Oct. 1994: Weathersby, William, Jr. ‘‘Las Vegas: Luxor.’’ TCI 22–23. (Theatre Crafts International) May 1994: 27. ‘‘Fast Track: Miscellaneous and News of the Weird.’’ Anthony Curtis’ Las Vegas Advisor Aug. 1996: 10. Cher Krause Knight is an Assistant Professor of the ‘‘Freemont Street Experience.’’ Architecture April 1996: Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College 87–89. in Boston. Izenour, Steven, and Dashiell III, David A. ‘‘Relearning from Las Vegas.’’ Architecture Oct. 1990: 46–51.
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