- If You Build It, They Will Come
Last year I found myself staggering down the very long sidewalk of the Las Vegas Strip in a somewhat disoriented state, an Antipodean on his first trip to the United States. There I was, during the middle of a scorching Las Vegas July afternoon, foolishly trying to walk from Circus Circus to the Luxor Hotel—a case of culture schlock perhaps? While this moment of pedestrian delusion was partially attributable to the intense desert heat, it was no doubt helped along by some of the “delirious” sights I passed on my foot journey. The structures facing on to the Strip, such as the extraordinary New York New York casino-hotel with its giant replicas of Manhattan buildings and associated landmarks (Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge) neatly wrapped up in a rollercoaster ribbon, present themselves to the contemporary would-be flaneur like purpose-built entries in a giant VR encyclopedia devoted to the subject of the postindustrial/postmodern city. Celebrated urban critic Mike Davis recently described the city as “the brightest star in the firmament of postmodernism” (54),1 and indeed Las Vegas has long provided theorist-tourists with a productive stomping ground for engaging with postmodern urban forms, experiences, and structures, which manifest themselves in this place with a peculiar luminosity and intensity.
Among the first to “discover” this exemplary postmodern landscape were the architects Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, whose seminal manifesto Learning From Las Vegas (1972) provided the blueprint for a number of ongoing debates on postmodern aesthetics and the built environment. Almost three decades, however, have passed since that book was published, and Las Vegas itself now exudes quite a different kind of postmodernity. Regardless of whether you prefer the older and seedier Vegas or the more recent “Disneyfied” version, the city continues to exert a strong attraction with new residents, tourists, and cultural theorists (myself included in the latter of these two categories), who continue to travel there in ever increasing numbers. However, as Mike Davis has slyly noted, the philosophers who celebrate Las Vegas as a postmodern wonderland—presumably he is referring to Baudrillard?—don’t actually have to live there and deal with the city’s less appealing aspects. It’s an important critical point, yet as John Hannigan’s suggestive and welcome new book, Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis, indicates, there is in fact no need for postmodern philosophers to live in Las Vegas because the chances are that many of the urban trends spectacularly visible there will be probably coming to a city near those philosophers soon (if they haven’t already done so). Centrally, Hannigan proposes that we are witnessing a new phase in the development of consumer societies: the introduction of an “infrastructure of casinos, megaplex cinemas, themed restaurants, simulation theaters, interactive theme rides and virtual reality arcades which collectively promise to change the face of leisure in the postmodern metropolis” (1). According to Hannigan, this development trend, which one finds in a heightened form in Las Vegas, will become a fully-fledged global phenomenon as we enter the new millennium. Certainly my own delirious pomo walk on the Las Vegas Strip was not framed just by an experience of the now “clichéd” tropes of simulation, hyperreality, and time-space compression, but also mediated by my own experience of a new casino-entertainment complex that had recently opened a hemisphere away in my home city of Melbourne.
Yet while Las Vegas may epitomize many of the elements of this new entertainment infrastructure in the city and is a regular reference point in Hannigan’s book (a pre-redevelopment image of downtown’s Fremont Street graces the cover), the neon capital is but just one stop on a much more ambitious urban tour which ranges across a large number of North American cities and also does a quick comparative circuit of select cities in the Asia-Pacific Rim. At its best, then, Hannigan’s book sketches out a complex differential history of a new kind of “uneven development” in which postindustrial cities...