You could say a lot of things about Las Vegas. For some it might be the ultimate goal to visit, for others a true nightmare. It is a city of extremes, where anything is possible. You can read all about it in Dutch architect Stefan Al’s new book, The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream.
The saying for a long time was “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” but it no longer applies as the urban development model of the city, dubbed casinopolitanism, is spreading the globe. Cities all over the world now aspire to boost their economies with a taste of Las Vegas. Macau reclaimed a chunk of land especially for its very own Strip. And even Singapore, a city with serious moral objections to gambling, developed its new central business district around a Vegas-style, even Vegas-owned, casino — the Marina Bay Sands. It is crazy to think that Las Vegas was a mere ghost town less than a century ago. In 2015 the city was visited by 42 million tourists. That’s 10 million more than Paris. How did this all take shape? Stefan Al, the Dutch architect and urban designer, takes the readers of his new book on a journey through the development of the entertainment capital of the world.
Starting in the Wild West period of the city’s first casino in 1941, Al is telling two stories. One of its developers, tourist-grabbing casino-owners for whom nothing was too crazy to lure people to the middle of nowhere dessert of Nevada. It includes famous, eccentric characters like billionaire Howard Hughes. The other side of the story is where Al argues how Las Vegas has been on the forefront of broader trends in American society — “Las Vegas is a microcosm of America”. Al explains how the Vegas Strip has not only reflected trends but also magnified and sometimes even initiated them.
Vegas has mastered the idea of reinvention, as over and over again the city found new ways of staying fresh, of transforming itself. It became the implosion capital as its developers got rid of the old and invented something new. Al states: “But as outrageous as the Strip’s excesses may seem, it has always been the ultimate manifestation of a quintessentially American practice: marketing.” His tale of Las Vegas starts with cowboy saloons at the height of Western movies popularity. When suburbanization swept across America, Vegas built bungalows, pools and green lawns. When the Space Age and nuclear threats were on the front pages, neon planets and (obviously fake) atomic bombs were planted on top of the casinos.
Modernism in Vegas flourished long before Gorden Gekko’s corporate materialism in Wall Street. Disney became the number-one entertainment company, but Vegas built entire theme parks and a larger-than-life Cinderella castle. The Strip became the site of a true classical renaissance, when monuments of previous era’s were realized as heritage tourism became a hype. And when other cities started building architectural flagships to attract the world’s attention, Vegas commissioned the world’s starchitects to reshape its Strip and give it some much needed class and dignity. “The history of the Strip represents the ever-evolving architecture of the American Dream.”
The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream
By Stefan Al
Published by MIT Press
Hardcover, 254 pages