Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Understanding Las Vegas

Works referenced:
Learning From Las Vegas, Robert Venturi et al
Neon Metropolis, Hal Rothman

Understanding Las Vegas

While Venturi et al’s “study of method, not content” (6) is an incredibly valuable investigation of a tangible, concretely expressed Las Vegas, it falls short of laying a groundwork for the new intellectual organization that Rothman insists is necessary to understand Las Vegas. Rather, their study could perhaps be better understood as a catalogue of specific visual symptoms endemic to a society mired in the unreality of the postmodern world. This situation is nothing new: In his essay, From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930, T.J. Jackson Lears asserts “the first and simplest source of a sense of unreality was the urban-industrial transformation” (6) that drew workers from the traditional social moorings of agrarian communities to nineteenth century industrial centers. Rothman’s characterization of Las Vegas as a site for the consumption of experience is a contemporary incarnation of the “commodified titillation [of] cabarets and amusement parks” that modern-era workers sought as therapy for their feelings of alienation. It follows that in addition to exploring visual signs, as do Venturi et al, another element of a fruitful strategy for understanding Las Vegas would focus on the causes of feelings of displacement, both in Las Vegas itself and in other locales that are points of departure for the desert oasis.

One starting point would be addressing the rapid development of Las Vegas itself, as Rothman does, and examining how it relates to the implacement – to borrow a concept from Edward S. Casey – of the individual. As the photos that accompany Venturi et al’s study demonstrate, one hundred years ago the city was hardly more than a railroad depot and a few haphazardly constructed houses and buildings around what is now downtown Fremont Street. Rothman notes that the history of (the citizens of) Las Vegas is elsewhere, in the coastal cities that became too expensive, or the Rust Belt cities that ceded their industrial activity to developing nations. He continues to illustrate the suburbanization of the area and the ensuing atomization of society that is manifested in gated communities, status-seeking through material acquisition, and notably, in the “space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other” (50) that Venturi et al describe. In such an environment, a human connection with the “place” would be very difficult to foster and therefore feelings of alienation would likely abound. Of course, most cities have not and never will expand at the same rate as Las Vegas, but with similar development patterns being the norm, it is helpful to consider Las Vegas as model of what could potentially happen if unchecked suburbanization is permitted.

Lears remarks that in the late nineteenth century, the burgeoning urban leisure industry served “the anxious businessman as well as the bored shop girl.” Similarly, the Las Vegas of today, as a hermetic place in the desert, designed around rapid movement via automobile and itinerant visitors arriving and departing by plane, that presents itself as an alternate reality – “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” according to a recent advertising campaign – is a favorite destination for professional conventions and personal vacations. These forms of tourism are the backbone of Las Vegas’s economy and are increasingly important ingredient of local economies around the country. One needs to look no further than the recent and planned expansions of the Washington State Trade and Convention Center, the “starchitect”-designed Seattle Public Library and Experience Music Project, or the perpetuation of luxury hotels (The W Seattle, Four Seasons) and fine arts venues (Seattle Art Museum expansion, Olympic Sculpture Park, Benaroya Hall) to see how important impressing well-heeled and classy visitors to Seattle has become. Moreover, faced with a rapidly declining population and increase in crime, Detroit recently chose to emulate Las Vegas’s success by legalizing gambling and encouraging resort construction to attract the convention crowds. As these cities become tourist destinations and development that caters to outside money trumps the needs and desires of residents, it is likely that feelings of displacement will increase, thus exacerbating the need for new forms of leisure and escape.

A third lesson to learn from Las Vegas could revolve around uniqueness. While Madison Avenue advertisers encourage each and every one of us to express our individuality – a concept that, as Rothman explains, many visitors to and residents of Las Vegas have taken to heart – the fact remains that Las Vegas actually is a unique city, like Seattle, New York or Chicago. The real danger facing Las Vegas and other cities – both developing and established – seems to be the importing and exporting of successful forms and economic models, rather than expressing local nature and culture (the indoor ski slope in Dubai comes to mind). Though some may not approve of its identity as an ever-changing place where hedonism is encouraged, that is what Las Vegas is, and it should express – not necessarily export – this and any other unique characteristics. For example, it could be said that the temporary nature of a visit to an impermanent, always-changing place like Las Vegas reflects the ephemeral nature of life itself. This very aspect of its identity stands in stark contrast to the more established cities of Europe and the East Coast, and should be celebrated.

It is in regard to the concept of uniqueness that Venturi et al’s work shines. Where some would argue for more trees and grass in the medians along a major thoroughfare, the authors conclude that making these changes would be detrimental to the city. They consider the signs one of the best (read: most unique) parts of the city and do not want to block them with foliage; they note that grass in the medians would be difficult to maintain and suggest that they be paved in gold, in homage to the identity of the place. Combining such an examination of the visual aspects of Las Vegas with other social, economic and political studies reinforces the need for interdisciplinary education and could lead to an intellectual organization robust enough to understand Las Vegas and other developing cities.

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