- The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream by Stefan Al
The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream
Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2017.
254 pages, 82 color and black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-0-2620-3574-3, $34.95 HB
When asked to review The Strip for Buildings & Landscapes I initially demurred. I assumed it was a sequel in the mold of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972). While indisputably important and groundbreaking, perhaps this earlier work’s most enduring takeaway, the alluring deduction that the Las Vegas Strip is composed of “Ducks” and “Decorated Sheds,” continues to pose the danger of being applied without one fully grasping its authors’ sophisticated thought that led up to it. This was eerily demonstrated by several international architecture students, a few years ago, when I was teaching in Tokyo. As we walked down a street lined with machinami (traditional merchant buildings), each time we passed a structure bearing a business sign, to my great surprise, someone would call out in English, “Decorated Shed!” After reading Stefan Al’s The Strip, such too-quick reduction and application would be far more difficult. Here the reader is deluged with a barrage of fascinating facts and stories, in a series of chapters-cum-typologies, linking social and economic history, owner and designer biographies, and many other factors with the design evolution of Las Vegas’s casino resorts and the audiences they are pitched to attract.
The first chapter, “Wild West (1941–1946),” chronicles the early casinos that began springing up in the Mojave Desert, just beyond the official town border of Las Vegas, to form what is today’s Las Vegas Strip. Casino number one, the El Rancho, was built by Thomas Hull, a California hotelier, and opened up in 1941. Planned as a motel, with a casino added “as an afterthought” (15), the El Rancho sported an interior featuring a nostalgic décor of cowhide curtains and wagon-wheel chandeliers. The Western-themed Frontier followed shortly in 1942. Designers of these early resorts took their thematic cues from the adjacent former mining town of Las Vegas, which was busy promoting itself at the time as a tourist destination that was “Still a Frontier Town” (11).
Next the late forties morphed into “Sunbelt Modern (1946–1958),” where characters such as gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel built hotels like the Flamingo with its scalloped-edge, Olympic-size pool. Siegel, along with other entrepreneurs, often with Mafia financing according to Al (30), lined the emerging Las Vegas Strip with “clean modern forms” (29). Cowboy town was out. The Frontier’s stonework was covered over with pink paint (33). “By the late 1950s, the Strip had become a catalog of modern suburban homes on steroids” (30). Wagon wheels and buffalo heads gave way to “Cadillac-like grilles and tail-fin shapes” (30).
Then came “Pop City (1958–1969),” initiated by former bootlegger Toney Cornero and his brainchild, the Stardust casino. Now dazzling giant neon signs— the Dunes’ sign was twenty stories high (59), the Thunder-bird’s electric-sign-covered façade as long as two football fields— along with lots of cheap rooms lured middle-class patrons increasingly arriving by jet plane and interstate highway. At Teamsters Union–funded Caesars Palace, which offered visitors experiences including the Circus Maximus theater and “cocktails inside a moving Cleopatra’s barge” (95), in the words of Caesars’ owner, Jay Sarno, “Everybody is a Caesar” (95).
Moving on, the author points out that ironically, at the same time observers like Venturi et al. “celebrated the Strip’s Electro-graphic Architecture and Decorated Sheds” (107), the Pop City era was already beginning to decline. Mafia influence, while not disappearing, waned, and corporate ownership [End Page 115] increased. Things were headed in a new direction— “Corporate Modern (1969–1985).” The result was the evolution of a new, sanitized, less flamboyant Las Vegas Strip. This change accelerated as a consequence of the huge quantity of electricity needed to power Pop City Strip’s dazzling array of neon and energy-guzzling incandescent lights...