PORTLAND, OR, June 30, 2019 – As long-time readers of this website are perhaps already aware, I recently spent five days in Las Vegas covering the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 (A’19,) resulting in the five articles that we recently shared:
- What Happened in Vegas Part 1: The Portland Building
- What Happened in Vegas 2: The Fellowship and the Strings
- What Happened in Vegas 3: Community Connections
- What Happened in Vegas 4: Rise of the Timber
- What Happened in Vegas 5: Of Synergy, Shelter, and Concert Stages
Our self-directed journalistic duties fulfilled, I’ve decided to write a final editorial article, not about the Conference itself, but rather the host city of Las Vegas. The Conference was wonderful, expertly organized, and the sessions informative and engaging. However, the Conference is only part of the story of the trip – a story that deserves to be told in full in this separate piece.
When I first heard that the American Institute of Architects was hosting its 2019 annual convention in Las Vegas, I struggled to understand why. Why would any serious architecture organization that, according to its website, “stand[s] for equity and human rights” select a host city that thrives on the objectification of women and men? Why would an organization that “stand[s] for architecture that strengthens our communities” select a host city whose architecture reflects the values not of its own community, but rather those of casino owners and tourists? Why would an organization that “stand[s] for a sustainable future” select a host city known worldwide for its sprawl and blatant disregard for the environment? Why would an organization that “stand[s] for protecting communities from the impact of climate change” select a host city whose electricity and water supply depend exclusively on the water supply of Lake Mead – a lake famously dwindling in supply, in part a result of climate change?
The organization playfully described their choosing of the city because “Las Vegas is home to some of the most lavish, iconic, and influential architecture in the world.” Lavish, yes. Influential? A bit of a stretch, but alright, AIA, sure, I’ll bite. I’ll roll the dice on this excursion, but Vegas, it’s up to you to hold up your end of the bet to prove me wrong, and the odds are not in your favor.
Welcome to the Jungle
Ignoring the…adventurous…bus ride from the airport to my hotel, the fighting couples (plural) on said bus ride, and ignoring my hotel room which I quickly discovered had no TV, laughably slow wi-fi, and – notably – no air conditioning, my first stop was the grounds of the Wynn Resort, pictured above.
Remember a paragraph or two ago when I referred to AIA’s values on sustainability? So they actually had a satellite registration table for the Conference in the Wynn, through some sort of vague partnership that I still have yet to understand. The Wynn, which, sexual misconduct allegations of its namesake and former CEO Steve Wynn aside, features this lush landscape of water, grass, and trees. None of these features are native to southern Nevada, of course, and require a myriad of grounds crews to maintain. They scoot down the sidewalks in golf carts, it’s charming.
Side note about the sidewalks in Vegas – they’re incongruent. Even on the Strip, they’ll just stop, or turn into the entrance of a resort, or they’ll force you to climb a flight of stairs and take a skybridge adjacent to an intersection. I’ve never been to the heart of a major city before where it was that difficult to walk three blocks.
It’s no secret that the electricity and water in this town are provided by nearby Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam (more on that in a minute,) which is famously strained due to the increased water demand as cities like Las Vegas see a boom in population. And as more hotels build and maintain jungles for no apparent reason. Seriously, who looked at the desert landscape and said, “You know what Nevada needs? More Georgia.”
So on this trip, I spent a day at Hoover Dam, where I saw Lake Mead firsthand – the source of water for Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California. You’ll notice in the image above that the lake has seen better days. Since 2015, the lake has been flirting with its “drought trigger” elevation, which it hit in 2015 for the first time ever. The level continues to fluctuate based on the amount of water it receives from snow melt in the Rockies upstream, but in general continues to decrease over time. Should the water level drop below drought trigger elevation at the beginning of the water year, October 1st, water rationing would begin to be enforced in Nevada and Arizona. For my visual audience, here’s a GIF of the shrinking lake (and growing city adjacent) from 2000-2015. (Also, Wikipedia asked me to tell you “NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey [Public domain]”.)
So Vegas gets its water from a lake that is basically disappearing, which cannot bode well for its residents. Also, the level needs to be at a certain elevation for the Hoover Dam to turn the water into electricity, and the lake continues to fall ever closer to that elevation. That doesn’t bode well for the neon signs of the Strip. So as architects charged with looking out for the health, safety, and welfare of the public, how is it that we can rest easy designing buildings that rely on an infrastructure that may very well cease to exist in the not-so-distant future?
And how do the owners of these resorts rest easy knowing that they’re taking one of the most scarce resources around, and using it to maintain artificial landscapes, drab water fountain shows, and fake canals splitting the fake streets lined by fake storefronts under the fake sky of a shopping mall? Great segue, John, lets talk about Lil’ Venice. (Side note – did you know that Moscow, Idaho dubs itself the “Venice of the North”? Lol, sure, Moscow, whatever makes you happy.)
Tears in My Eyes
My mom, talented in cake decorating in her own right, is a fan of the show Cake Boss, so while in Vegas, I opted to stop by Carlo’s Bake Shop in the Venetian Resort to
pick up a chocolate cupcake for myself snap a photo for her. This took me through the…streets…of the Venetian, pictured above, and this is where I need to set the humor aside for a minute and be brutally honest with you. I only took a few steps into this…it’s a shopping mall, let’s call it what it is, before I couldn’t walk any further. My eyes were tearing up and I was hurt – heartbroken at the sight in front of me.
It struck me all at once that, being a person who places high value in authenticity, being genuine, being honest, and serving others – I was in the heart of a city whose values couldn’t be more opposite. In the people, of course, but beyond that, the culture of the town goes against every fiber of my values. And unique to myself and, presumably, other architects, these feelings extend into the architecture and urban design of the city.
All the buildings I was seeing, and now, experiencing firsthand, trying to look like they’re in Venice, in Rome, in New York or Paris…it’s so unbelievably offensive. It’s…ick. It makes me feel like I need to take a shower. I value honesty in buildings just as much as I value it in people. So to be surrounded by an entire environment and culture that are that offensive…it hurt, and it hurt a lot. And I wanted to cry.
The desert southwest is such a beautiful and special place. To build an entire city sensitive to the landscape and environment, and celebrating it – cherishing it – would be such an incredible design challenge, resulting in a beautiful landmark in and of itself that could be an inspiration to desert towns all across the southwest. To build a city with indifference to the landscape and ecosystem would be tragic. And to build a city, as Vegas has done, that not only disregards the landscape, but actively does everything it can to work against the natural environment, is criminal.
Did I mention they’re building a football stadium?
Who is this City For?
For an organization that “stand[s] for architecture that strengthens our communities,” the AIA picked about the worst location possible to walk the walk. Vegas is a place where buildings are commodities – built, demolished, abandoned mid-construction, all based solely on how much money it’s going to make for the guy at the top. Take a closer look at the picture of the Wynn hotel, a few pictures up. See that building under construction with the two cranes on the far left? That’s Resort World, a project that’s gone through an incredible number of changes and delays dating back to 2007, when the former occupant of that site, Stardust Resort, was imploded. Stated best in its Wikipedia entry, “[Stardust Resort] was demolished on March 13, 2007, a short lifetime even by Las Vegas standards, where casinos are torn down and rebuilt on a regular basis.” Not pictured, but just beyond Resort World stands The Drew, a skyscraper that was abandoned mid-construction in 2009 and has sat vacant ever since. It was eerie.
So the environment and urban planning are poor, the city exploits the precious resources responsible for its very existence, the architecture is gaudy, false, and hurtful, and entire casinos appear and disappear like that of a tragic magic act.
How did we get here? Why is it so appealing for owners to build the most audacious, the most outrageous, the biggest, just because they have wealth that allows them to do it? At what point did “we can” become “we should”? And who exactly is all of this for?
What Happens Here Goes Everywhere
The unfortunate truth is that, unlike the unlimited 20% Denny’s discount that came with my hotel for some reason, what happens in the Vegas architecture community doesn’t stay in Vegas. The lavish and irresponsible design gets featured in movies, is the backdrop for novels, TV shows, and is indulged by millions on our favorite platforms – Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. It’s fun to watch a casino implode. It’s fun to gawk at the grandiose. It’s fun to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But after we get our 15 second thrill, we continue scrolling, and the video, the image, the meme…it fades away into memories of Instagram past.
To answer the question of who the architecture is for, I would argue that it’s in large part built for the sake of keeping Vegas…Vegas. This is their brand. This is how they get tourists. Outrageous “architecture” and absurdity is their shtick. The problem is that while the movies, the videos, the images come and go, those buildings stay in Vegas. That’s the environment, that’s the city. That’s the place that nearly 650,000 people call home. How do you connect to a home that’s designed to be a destination? How do you grow up learning about your culture, when the environment that surrounds you is an amalgamation of any number of other cultures from around the world – and paper-thin false facades (literally) of those cultures, to boot? And how do you connect to the ground and the earth, when that ground is artificial, manicured and curated?
It’s no wonder that Vegas is known as Sin City, where all that matters is money, where values are a myth, where the adventurous go to escape reality. The entire built environment is designed to promote this, all the while feeding the likes, the subscribes, and the follows that it thrives on, all as one giant advertisement for itself.
The danger, of course, is that as we continue to consume this content, it’s easy to forget that this is a real environment with real people. In some regards, if I’m in Portland and I look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or a picture of the replica Eiffel Tower in Vegas – it doesn’t much matter which is which. On my phone, they look identical. They have the same shape, same form. They’re both about 2 1/2″ wide and maybe 4″ tall. Same with the replica Chrysler Building in Vegas. If I’m looking at a picture of the building’s iconic crown on my phone, what do I care if it’s a picture of the replica or the real thing? However, in reality, these structures exist, and if I’m there, then it sure does matter if I’m in Paris, New York, or Vegas.
Why It Matters
The reality is, while it’s easy to pick on Vegas, the problem exists all around the globe. Why do I need to visit the Parthenon? I’ve seen it in books and slides in architecture school a million times, I get it. Why do I need to visit Thorncrown Chapel? Price Tower? Salk Institute? The Robie House? Farnsworth House? Mt Angel Abbey Library? I can hop on Wikipedia any time and see them there. I can build or download a digital model and drop the camera inside and look around – what more is there to see? What more is there to understand?
At Thorncrown Chapel, I remember sitting in the pew listening to the wood structure creek in the wind. I remember the leaves of the late Spring trees surrounding it casting dancing shadows across the polished stone chapel floor. I remember the soft music playing, the woman crying in front of me a few rows up. I remember trying to capture the shadows in my sketches as they moved rapidly across the space that late afternoon.
At Price Tower, I remember staying in one of the rooms overnight, lights out, curtains open as I watched the thunderstorms roll across the prairie through Wright’s iconic panoramic windows. I remember the bathroom and shower that were barely large enough to accommodate my 6 foot tall frame. I remember the gin and tonic I drank as I sat at the top floor restaurant, looking over the Frank Lloyd Wright Red concrete floor. And I remember the tour that took me into the former office of Mr. Price himself, and the tour guide explaining the globe that Price had in his office, to the heavy protest of Wright, who had placed a ban on circles within the building.
At the Salk Institute, I remember the parasailers in the distance, the meeting I walked in on while trying to find the bathroom, and I remember security being jerks and guarding me from going anywhere other than the central court.
At the Robie House, I remember the near-zero temperatures as I walked the grounds, the beautiful windows, and the deteriorating walls of the living room, kitchen, and other spaces, which have since been restored. I remember the tight vertical and wide horizontal mortar lines of the brick, the dramatic overhang, and the detailing of the ceiling lights.
At the Farnsworth House, I remember taking my shoes off on that brisk day, and stepping on to the radiant heat-warmed floor, much to my surprise and delight. I remember the tour guide not letting me sketch while the photographers with their photo passes took pictures inside. I had to stand outside during their shoot, so as not to clutter their pristine images with my body, a policy that seemingly forgets that in a glass house it doesn’t much matter whether I’m inside or outside to the lens of photographers.
And at Mt Angel Abbey Library, I remember a visit getting caught in the pouring rain on my way out with some friends. I remember another visit where the staff kept the library open late to allow myself and my then-girlfriend to finish our sketches of the library. And I remember a haunting concert by Third Angle New Music through the stacks, and an engaging lecture by renowned architect Juhani Pallasmaa after.
Would I have gotten any of those experiences from a book? From a video? From an image? From a meme?
It’s important to remember that architecture is about creating places. Spaces that are occupied, experienced, and lived in. Where memories are made. And it matters because it profoundly affects us. To this day, when I’m in meditation classes and I’m at my most relaxed, I often picture myself back in Thorncrown Chapel. I can still see the shadows, I can still hear the music, I can still hear the creaking of the wood structure in the breeze.
And the odds of me relaxing at meditation two years from now, and going back to my time in a kitsch casino, remembering the scent of cigarette smoke and the deals that Banana Republic was having that day? Not great. And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not to say that I didn’t have experiences in the buildings or streets of Vegas – I had plenty – but they were not pleasant, not meaningful, not enriching or delightful. They were shallow, empty and dirty, and didn’t contain any of the values that I believe contribute to a better society.
As architects, we have an obligation not to create the flashiest rendering. Not the most photogenic facade. Not following the trends of the day. Not to strive for magazine covers or “project of the day” coverage on an architecture blog. Rather, our obligation is to create places – physical places that can be occupied – that are not only safe and practical, but also pleasant and meaningful. David Ross Scheer, author of The Death of Drawing, articulates it best:
“[Architects] are equally used to clients whose values skew towards the pragmatic or financial and who demonstrate little interest in other aspects of building. This experience, as frustrating as it can be, has not prevented the majority of architects from viewing their discipline as a fundamentally social and cultural enterprise, one which attempts to solve the ancient Vitruvian problem of tempering necessity with a measure of delight, if not meaning. This attitude is described as humanist because it takes as its object the experience of human beings, experience that is emotional as well as concrete, social as well as personal, historically conditioned as well as universal.”
So, AIA, time to face the music on your claim that “Las Vegas is home to some of the most lavish, iconic, and influential architecture in the world,” now that I’ve experienced it and had some time to process it. Lavish? Check. Just as I anticipated. Iconic? Check, but not in a good way. Iconic not for anything we should be striving for as a profession, but rather iconic just for the sake of being iconic. Famous for being famous. The Kim Kardashian of American cities, if you will.
And finally – influential? Yes. That’s where I was wrong in my initial analysis of the town. Vegas is influential in teaching us the dangers of designing or building beyond our means. It illustrates the unfortunate results when buildings are dishonest, both in materials and in experience. It reminds us that architecture is, ultimately, about the human experience. About supporting our values, connecting to our earth, and remembering that when we build, we’re not only affecting ourselves, but rather the entire ecosystem and landscape around us. And just because we can contribute to a false reality that attracts great movie franchises like The Hangover, James Bond, or National Lampoons to film in that environment, doesn’t mean we should.
So in that way, Vegas may have been the perfect location for this conference. Not in the sense of inspiring attendees with meaningful architecture, but in more of a “Oh, you like to smoke cigarettes? Here, smoke the whole carton and see how much you still like it” kind of way. AIA always has been the organization of tough love – no need to change course now. See you in Los Angeles, A’20.
Oh, and the odds of me willingly returning back to Vegas in my lifetime? I wouldn’t bet on it.
As previously mentioned, during this trip I took a day to visit the nearby Hoover Dam. It was incredible. It stands in excellent contrast to Vegas and is telling of the values between the two. While Vegas has towers that come and go, owners making billions in profits off the hard-earned money of tourists looking for a weekend thrill, with seemingly everything available for sale, illusions and tricks abound, and an entire city thriving on its reputation for all of the above, Hoover Dam stands idly nearby, steadfast and noble. Like a wise grandfather watching over his rebellious teenage grandson. The arc of the dam a symbol for its embrace of the region – holding it close and nourishing it with a steady supply of water and electricity.
In a world of Las Vegas Strips, why not be a Hoover Dam?
About the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019
Every year the AIA Conference on Architecture travels to an iconic city for three immersive days of what’s new and now in architecture and design. Industry leaders and experienced professionals attend A’19 in search of the hottest new products and technologies.
Cover image courtesy Timothy Niou Photography. All other photos by the author unless noted otherwise. Note: Our coverage of the Conference is not affiliated with or endorsed by AIA, AIA Portland, or AIA Oregon.