I should hate Las Vegas, of course. I go there occasionally to see my father’s family, but I shouldn’t like it. Sprawling, car-dependent, water-wasting, Las Vegas is almost gleefully unsustainable, and its veneer of family tourism barely conceals an economy where addiction is king.
Yet walking the Strip last month, and driving it again late at night, it was hard to sustain my disapproval. In its hurling energy the Strip reminded me of giant annual herbs, like the banana tree, designed to burn itself out and collapse in short order.
The metaphor is wrong as ecology – plenty of unsustainable destruction is bound up in Las Vegas’s cycles of revision – but the admiration I have for banana trees, their ability to hurl themselves to tree-size without any of the trappings of permanence, resembles the feeling of walking the Las Vegas Strip where virtually nothing is 10 years old, where everything is an endless novelty, and where today’s new towers are dwarfed only by construction cranes promising bigger and better tomorrow.
A generation ago, every student of urbanism or architecture read Robert Venturi’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas. In a now-familiar attention-grabbing move, Venturi, an architect, sought meaning in a place that the intelligentsia had scorned, in this case the hotel-casinos, parking lots, and enormous flashing signs of Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas, he argued, heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we had all better study to be ready for the future.
The book made me notice that I usually give my own environmental values a veto power over my sense of beauty and ugliness. To me, a hot-desert city designed to waste water and power was simply delusional, and there was no point in arguing about the aesthetic merits of a delusion. I resented Venturi lumping me in with a paper-tiger intelligentsia condemning Las Vegas as ugly, but if asked I’d have said yes, any human landscape that conditions its citizens to expect unlimited cheap supplies water, power, and oil was ugly by definition. I don’t always conflate the true with the beautiful, and the delusional with the ugly; I’m vastly receptive to fantasy in literature and film, and I did a degree in theatre after all. But a city is a major act of collective imagining, one that conditions its citizens to unconscious habits even more than mass-media do. An efficient city with no imagination is dull – think
Although Venturi intended Learning from Las Vegas as an aesthetic study, the book is typical of much anti-environmental writing on urban issues. The core move is to treat environmental concerns as aesthetic arguments, and then take a long view in which these arguments look narrow and contingent. Since aesthetic judgments are always culturally relative, this isn’t hard to do. This move -- ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones -- is sadly common these days; Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Concise History is an especially painful example, of which more in another post.
But back to Las Vegas. Seen from the air, its sprawl is disastrous, engendering permanent vehicle dependence on a massive scale. But in its heart(s), and its face to the world, Las Vegas has rediscovered pedestrian scale, and swept Venturi into the ashheap.
Of the major Strip hotels that Venturi studied in the 1970s, most have now been demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale, and even today the working hotels are haunted by ghostly cranes promising still larger towers in the future. Whereas the old Strip was a standard suburban fantasy, where each property is its own unrelated composition behind a parking lot, today’s Strip hotels reach toward each other with walkways and courtyards to create a vast continuous pedestrian realm. Competing hotels find that they both come out ahead if people can walk from one to the other, and even further ahead if they plug into public transport, including both the sexy casino-funded monorail and the unremarkable but packed double-decker buses that ply the street. The effect is an extraordinary massing of pedestrians typical of San Francisco, New York, and other similar bastions of urban intellectuals.
There’s plenty to dislike about Las Vegas, but as I walked the Strip, I had to acknowledge that from a purely urbanist perspective, the city was reaching out to me, welcoming me as a pedestrian. The Las Vegas economy is still founded on addiction, but at least it has discovered the value of intense development and the pedestrian realm it creates. This new principle of design, more than the ostensible new preoccupation with “family” entertainment, is what makes the Strip seem so much less sleazy than the place Robert Venturi and I both knew in the 1980s. And I admit, I even contributed to the new economy, buying a latte and a margarita in the course of the afternoon; I’d never have done that if I’d had to drive there.