“Las Vegas: Room with a sphinx”, The Australian, 17-18 Feb 1996.

Fabulous Las Vegas by Ross Harley

Las Vegas is America’s most fabulous city, no doubt about it.

A neon wilderness. Paradise for the misbegotten. Helldorado. Sin City. Lost Wages, Nevada. Call it what you will, Vegas continues to fascinate a public eager to fork out for cheap thrills and spectacular diversions.

Imagine a new-improved Babylon resurrected by Disney’s imagineers, plonked in the middle of an air-conditioned desert and regulated by clever State gaming laws and you get a sense of what Vegas is like in the 90s. Attracting close to 30 million tourists and 50,000 new residents each year, this $5.5 billion dollar per annum gambling resort lays claim to being the fastest growing city in the 20th century.

But it hasn’t always been the middle-class mecca it is today. In fact, Vegas has been through innumerable transformations, cleaning up its image as a glitzy mob-run casino town in order to attract larger crowds of more respectable suckers — the mass market of middle America mostly. That it’s coming into its own at the close of the century says a lot about what it takes for a city to prosper in these increasingly difficult economic times. It might not be a comforting thought, but maybe we can learn something from this rapidly evolving environment of slot machines, over-size flashing signs, gigantic facades, and totally “themed” entertainment design. In Vegas, instant architecture rules.

Few cities see as much construction and total makeovers as Las Vegas. While most of the US construction business is building prisons, Vegas corporations are busy morphing the landscape into a huge recreational hallucination.

1993/4 saw the opening of three of the largest and most successful hotels-casinos-themeparks in this boom town’s history. Luxor is a $400 million Egyptian extravaganza, complete with a 10-storey Sphinx, a laser beam that eternally pierces the night sky, and a winding Nile Riverboat cruise in the basement. It’s designed by Veldon Simpson who also came up with the plans for MGM Grand — which takes its architectural theme from the MGM movie studios. This walk-through “Wizard of Oz” casino also happens to be the largest hotel in the world, with 5005 rooms. Then there’s the $450 million Treasure Island which bills itself as an “adventure resort”, and takes its buccaneering theme to ludicrous extremes. That is if you consider once-hourly battles on the British frigate floating between Las Vegas Boulevard and the hotel’s entrance a little excessive.

Together they added 10,500 additional rooms and more than 300,000 square feet of casino and attraction space to the accommodation hungry city. (The city boasts an incredible 90% occupancy rate year round.) 1996 promises to see the opening of that much space again, with an additional $1.3 billion worth of construction scheduled to commence this year.

Steve Wynn, Chairman of Mirage Resorts (who own the three new complexes) waxes lyrical: “This city is going to see a burst of attention and publicity like it has never seen before.”

He should know. With an annual paycheck of $34 million (according to Fortune magazine at least), Wynn is one of the highest paid corporate executives in America and a powerful force in Nevada politics. Everyone thought he was crazy when he built the 3050 room Mirage in the late eighties, financed by $650 million of Michael Miliken’s junk bonds. Now it rakes in a cool million a day. He as much as anyone understands the formula for successful entertainment architecture in this increasingly infantile culture: make it big, make it loud and make it spectacular.

OK. So imagine this full-scale pirate ship floating near a fifty-foot volcano that erupts every fifteen minutes. To the rear lies an indoor rainforest with artificial palms, a giant aquarium, a “European” shopping boulevard, a couple of captive white tigers, a meeting space for a few thousand and enough hotel rooms for the same bunch of happy-go-lucky conventioneers. Just minutes down the busy Strip lies Luxor’s sleek thirty-storey glass Pyramid. On the way there you pass an Imperial Palace, Aladdin’s golden carriageway, a massive New York construction site, MGM’s gigantic art-deco lion straddling the hotel entrance, and a pure white Lego-looking medieval castle (Excalibur, also designed by Veldon Simpson). That’s just for starters.

I must confess I’m still astonished. Here, as elsewhere in the American entertainment landscape, money is no object. And yet it doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference to Vegas, which still stands for everything cheesy and tacky in American culture. Sure, you can still spot a few high rollers out for some serious gambling in their snappy outfits, or take in the ambience of a bustling casino where millions are won and lost every night. But it’s a far cry from the aura of organised crime, “classy acts” and showbiz-sex recently mythologised in “Casino”, “Showgirls” and “Leaving Las Vegas”. As Scorsese despairingly shows at the end of “Casino”, all the gold-lame odalisques, Western sports jackets, and fifty-eight year old men wearing cowboy boots and Texas ties have been replaced by matching turquoise track-suits, Airwalks, fluoro bum-bags, and 49ers baseball caps. And you thought Bobby DeNiro had bad taste.

Let’s face it. Nowadays Vegas is “low-roller heaven”. The city’s staggering 100,000 hotel rooms accommodate at least that many disoriented tourists all wanting to eat, shower and be entertained (cheap) at the same time. Not a pretty thought. Perhaps it’s just as well we leave such an epic feat to the well-oiled corporate theme park machines that run Vegas nowadays.

A dusty watering hole less than 70 years ago, Las Vegas has been transformed into an elaborate series of interconnecting resorts — what the tourist hype calls “the hottest vacation spot for the entire family”, second only to Walt Disney World. I see it more like Gen X author Douglas Coupland: Las Vegas is “the subconscious of the culture exploded and made municipal.”

Think about it. Much like Hollywood, Vegas started as a nowhere pueblo. First settled by Mormans who lasted all of two years before abandoning their Fort in 1855, things really didn’t start happening till 1904 when the railroad laid its tracks through the valley. The town became a small watering stop with a few hotels, a saloon and a couple of thousand residents. When the government appropriated $165 million for the construction of the Hoover Dam (nee Boulder Canyon Project) in 1928, Las Vegas received its first wave of residents. Round about the same time Nevada made gambling legal for the mostly blue collar population, at the same time easing divorce laws in order to increase state revenue.

Unlike other gambling towns such as Reno in the state’s north, — “the biggest little city in the world” — Vegas grew beyond most people’s initial expectations. It was, after all, in the middle of an inhospitable desert, miles from any major city. In 1941 the first hotel was built on Highway 91, which was to become known as the Strip. It was shortly followed in 1945 by the infamous Flamingo, conceived by gangster Bugsy Siegel to be the greatest gambling casino in the world. Although initially a financial disaster, the flashy joint soon prospered, attracting dozens of other equally flamboyant establishments to the burgeoning Strip.

In the 1950s when the US government started detonating atomic bombs a few miles away in the southern Nevada desert, Vegans began to worry about more than just the gambling takes. As one of the hotel managers from that time recalls, “we were afraid the bombs might shake the tables so hard that the dice would be tipped over and the roulette balls would bounce out of one number into another!”

Somehow Vegas survived. By the end of the 1960s, it was the only town in the world whose skyline was made up of electric billboards rather than buildings. A city of signs, Vegas drew criticism from almost anybody who had the good taste to see that what this place really needed was decent Architecture. It wasn’t until a seminal Yale architecture seminar led by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi questioned this logic that authorities began to realise that the greatest architectural virtue of the metropolis was its chaotic signage.

Scott-Brown and Venturi published their lesson in the seminal “Learning from Las Vegas”. Not exactly a big seller with the tourists, it has nonetheless had its fair share of influence on contemporary architecture. Cruising up and down the incredible electric sign gauntlet of the Las Vegas Strip may still rate as one of the defining experiences of late twentieth century culture, but the signs that used to tower twenty storeys over two storey casinos have been eclipsed by buildings that are themselves signs.

The “medieval” Excalibur for instance has absolutely no need for a flashing neon billboard. The Disneyesque building may not exactly conjure a mystical world of noble knights, fair maidens and magical wizards, but caste aside your adult scepticism and you’ll get the general drift.

It’s like the Mirage Hotel PR person Alan Feldman says. It’s not just the kids being targeted here. The resorts are after “the kid inside all of us. We are building adult theme parks. We are playing in the tour and travel market now, not just the gaming market.”

One of the most important changes the city has undergone in the past several years has been to modify its image as the ultimate adult playground into “a first class resort-styled destination with something for everyone in the family”.

In the sixties, Tom Wolfe observed that Las Vegas had become “the American Monte Carlo — without any of the inevitable upperclass baggage of the Riviera casinos.” He was dead right. Only now the corporations have resolved to build their own version of 19th century elegance right there on the Strip. Who needs to go to Europe when the 3000-room Monte Carlo opens in June on Mirage-owned land?

We could ask ourselves the same question about Manhattan when the New York New York resort opens down the Strip at the end of this year. With a budget of $600 million, the 2200 room hotel is bound to be safer, cleaner and more comprehensible than the Big Bad Apple could ever be. It’s so accessible you can already buy a postcard of the completed resort in the MGM Grand lobby (who also happen to own NYNY).

But not everyone sees theme-parking as the future of gaming in Vegas. Paul Rubeli, Chairman of Aztar (who co-own the Tropicana resort) is something of a lone voice in this regard. “I don’t think we should structure this industry to be like Disney and become something we are not.” In his opinion, the current emphasis on family- oriented marketing has perverted the formula that made Las Vegas famous: cheap rooms, cheap food, and plenty of places to gamble.

The famous all-you-can eat $2.95 buffet meals or hotel rooms for $10 a night haven’t completely disappeared. Not yet. But the hundreds of specialty theme stores, Hard Rock Cafes and Planet Hollywood restaurants are beginning to make their mark on this corporatised landscape. Even the legendary casino lounge Caesar’s Palace (recently bought out by ITT Corp for $1.8 billion) opened its own $100 million mall — Caesar’s Forum Shops. Who knows. Maybe in the future the animatronic Roman gods, laser lighting and fibre-optic musical instruments that perform in the shopping mall will get higher billing than the other acts at Caesar’s.

When gaming became legal in other parts of the US, some thought the death knoll would sound for Las Vegas. Forget it. Gambling remains the main source of income for Vegas — though retail entertainment is fast catching up. As it’s not really in conflict with the gaming establishments, many companies now focus on making their own stimulating environments, megastores and technological displays which can milk every last cent out of even non-gambling visitors.

So what else is new? All this added competition has only enhanced the city’s reputation as the gaming centre of America. The fabulous first temple of the American dream looks set to radiate its splendour well into the next millenium.