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Bell-jar urbanism

Posted: 12 April 2010 in Uncategorized
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Having just returned from my first trip to Las Vegas, I’m still sorting out my multiple, contradictory reactions to Sin City.

I admit I was intrigued by the place—both the New Strip (for its energy and excess) and the downtown Old Strip (I found it grittier and friendlier and it hosts a great collection of the classic neon signs)—which I didn’t really expect.

And I was struck by the enormous scale of it all. The number of people (even in the midst of an ongoing crisis), the size of the built landscape (inside and out), and the amount of money (being sucked out of all those people’s pockets and displayed on and in the buildings).

One of the places I visited was the recently opened City Center, the best analysis of which has been written by Christopher Hawthorne. But let’s start with the names and numbers (which give a sense of how City Center mirrors our times, or at least our recent pre-crisis past):

  • It was developed by MGM Mirage (which owns 16 gaming and hotel properties in Nevada, Mississippi, and Michigan and a 50- percent stake in 4 other properties in Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois, and Macau) in partnership with infamous Dubai World (which, in the midst of construction, sued MGM for breach of contract).
  • The conceptual master plan was designed by Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects. The complex includes the work of such designers as Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, David Rockwell, Cesar Pelli and Rafael Vinol, and such artists as Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Henry Moore, Nancy Rubins, and Claes Oldenburg.
  • The largest private-sector development in U.S. history, the complex has approximately 2,400 condominium and condo-hotel units and approximately 4,800 hotel rooms, distributed within several high-rise towers around The Crystals, an ultra high-end retail and entertainment district.
  • It includes a staff of 12,000 employees, reflecting the single largest hiring effort in the country.
  • It consists of 6 buildings on a 76-acre campus (with its own monorail, fire station, and central energy plant).
  • The initial budget was $4 billion, and the final bill was somewhere between $8 and $11 billion.
  • 6 deaths occurred during its construction (which caused workers to walk off the job on 3 June 2008).

And the list could go on.

There are all kinds of things to enjoy in looking at, walking through, and sitting in the place. But I think Hawthorne got it right:

If we now expect every major hotel-casino in Las Vegas to have a theme, the one that applies here isn’t difficult to make out, despite the architects’ collective attempt to scrub the project free of kitsch and historical ornament and coat it with a high-gloss, homogeneous and faintly corporate sheen.

CityCenter’s true theme is leverage. Ranking as the largest private development in American history, big enough to fill the tallest building in Los Angeles, the U.S. Bank Tower, roughly a dozen times over, the complex is a palace—a series of connected palaces, actually—for the age of towering debt and easy credit. They should have put Alan Greenspan’s face on the poker chips. . .

The goals MGM Mirage is chasing at CityCenter–walkability, density, verticality and sustainability among them, along with an interest in connecting the development to its neighbors and the rest of the city—are laudable. But in the end what the company and its architects have created is a kind of bell-jar urbanism, a complex that is closer to an eye-popping, full-scale mock-up of sophisticated city life than the real thing.

That about sums it up. I guess I’ll just have to head back to Fremont Street and the Old Strip. . .

* * *

For my money, the two best books about Las Vegas are the classic Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour and The Grit Beneath the Glitter edited by Hal Rothman and Mike Davis. Here’s Eugene Moehring, from “Growth Services, and the Political Economy of Gambling in Las egas, 1970-2000,” in the Rothman and Davis volume:

For the past decade, the powerful gambling interests and their various allies, concerned about their own taxes being raised first, have quietly opposed most of the fiscal proposals needed to cope with state and local growth. Governor Miller noted that, thanks to his policies, Nevada remained “the third lowest-taxes state” during his ten years in office—a position that largely ignores the demands for services resulting from Nevada’s chaotic growth during that period. Today, paradoxically, while gambling continues to create new jobs and attract new residents to Las Vegas, the political economy of gambling threatens the city’s future as well as the state’s. Polls indicate that residents want their elected representatives to do more about the crises in higher education, infrastructure, and public services. Unfortunately, the people of Nevada may not have the influence in Carson City to achieve this, because the real power lies in Las Vegas, not in the metropolitan area as a whole, but rather on the Strip.

Unfortunately, that’s just as accurate an analysis of the fiscal crisis in Nevada now as of a decade ago.