Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

May 5, 2021

What happens in Vegas: escaping to the desert

The anodyne is juxtaposed with the lurid in the desert playground that is Las Vegas


Architecture, Articles, Dave Hickey, Denise Scott Brown, Elon Musk, Reyner Banham, Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour

Las Vegas plays so much better on the page than in person. In concept, Vegas is an escape, a desert playground, but reality can never match the fantasy. Prose lubricates, distances actuality, and forms a glow around dubious experience in the same way that three miniatures of Southern Comfort loosen up a seatmate on the 45-minute flight from Burbank to McCarran International Airport. Writings arch towards hyperbole in an attempt to capture decades of spectacle that rise on the Strip, neon-trimmed, already pulsing with lurid symbology: spires, pyramids, Venetian canals. 

A text, even Learning from Las Vegas with its embrace of populist architecture through modalities of analytical abstraction, shields a reader from the perfume of weed, vomit and tropical air freshener in the back of an Uber. The actual experience of Vegas is an exercise in searching fervently for some kind of authenticity, some kind of fun, only to be frustrated, haunted and impoverished by the tawdry glee of nickel slots and an all-you-can-eat buffet.  

The fantastical projection of Vegas as an urbanism catering to a desire is the ultimate seduction – the draw for tourists and gamblers. It’s the reason why what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas, as the tagline suggests, because present-day realities tend to fall short of what is promised. 

Art critic Dave Hickey, who lived in Las Vegas for many years, described the resort town as a dream within the dream. Mythically founded by crime boss Bugsy Siegel in the 1940s, the city was always a con. An Inception-like utopia folded within the expansionist imaginary of the Great American West, it lured tourists with a spectacle of brightly lit casino signs and possible riches. Then emptied their pockets and gave them a free drink. ‘I am interested in the architecture of desire – in the multitudinous ways in which human beings, given the opportunity, always build their dreams, and in the extent to which every building is a little utopia and every modern city a republic of little utopias’, he writes in a 1998 essay for Harvard Design Magazine. 

The go-to cardinal sins of Sin City – lust, greed, gluttony – are easily fulfilled, architecturally satisfied by casino floor shows, roulette tables and four-star restaurants. ‘Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets’, writes Joan Didion, with the suggestion that the drive for gratification is more than a weekend bender put on the credit card. There are darker forces snaking through the desert playground. The root of the city’s psyche is an unslaked desire for annihilation. To truly escape is to lose everything.

In his 1982 book, Scenes in America Deserta, Reyner Banham writes very little about Las Vegas, preferring the less flashy oddities of the surrounding Mojave Desert. He repeats a joke told by actor and satirist Stan Freberg, where a rivalry breaks out between two casinos on opposite sides of the Strip: El Sodom and the Rancho Gomorrah. ‘The floorshows get more and more complex, and when finally, the El Sodom re-stages the Arab-Israeli War “live, on-stage, every night”, there is only one thing that the Gomorrah can do to cap it’, writes Banham. ‘You don’t actually hear the atomic bomb, what you do hear is the wind in the awful silence after the blast.’

The photograph of a lone mushroom cloud billowing upward from the desert floor like The Stratosphere casino is an indelible part of Cold War consciousness. This is the afterimage of Las Vegas, the unspoken death drive captured in Banham’s nuclear parable. For decades, between 1951 and 1992, atomic testing both atmospheric and underground, took place at the Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles north-west of Las Vegas. Today, what remains of that history sits about a mile from the glitz of the Strip. The National Atomic Testing Museum offers visitors tired of the thrills of Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil the opportunity to experience a simulated atmospheric atomic blast – an entertainment available weekly, Thursday through to Sunday. What could be more emblematic of a need to flirt with disaster than to watch the world explode before going back to your hotel?

We think of Vegas as an architecturally ingenuous place rising from the sand, but self-destruction is always inherent in Manifest Destiny. The continual push for territory, for novelty, that non-stop expansionism built on extractive practices and fuelled by American exceptionalism, leads headlong into desert, to an oasis full of possibility. How else to explain a 12-mile back-up on Interstate 15 in the middle of a pandemic? People were dying to escape. The traffic jam took place on the highway leading from LA to Las Vegas the weekend after Nevada state officials loosened restrictions on restaurants and gaming establishments to allow 50 per cent occupancy. Those looking to conflate games of chance with risky acts flocked to the city, they spent their stimulus cheques, then were stuck for hours as they headed home. 

Soon, perhaps, there will be a zippy way to make that fated commute, to ditch work and play more quickly. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle quoting from Teslarati (a web publication focused on Elon Musk’s activities) reported on the mysterious signs that point to Musk’s Boring Company building a tunnel between LA and Las Vegas: a tunnelling machine and some large tents in the high desert outside LA – a place notable for a large detention centre and  immigration processing centre. Another clue in this speculation comes from a project already under way, the Vegas Loop mega tunnel, also constructed by Boring Company, which will link the Las Vegas Convention Center to the Strip via a pair of mile-long tunnels. Excavation on the tunnels finished in May 2020 and once operational Tesla autonomous electric vehicles will run underground between the two sites – at speeds up to 155mph. A map pulled from the Las Vegas Loop website shows proposed stops at the Fremont Street Experience, at Strip hotels and at McCarran International Airport, with a possible extension to LA. 

On 24 January 2021, with construction of the high-tech subway nearing completion, Musk tweeted, ‘Fallout-themed opening party for Vegas Loop happening as soon as allowed!’ In referencing the post-apocalyptic role-playing game, the billionaire unwittingly consummated Banham’s haunting prediction. The video game Fallout: New Vegas debuted in 2010 and continues to be a cult favourite: Musk is a fan. Set in 2281, neon still buzzes above the Strip, but conflict between several factions renders the street a combat zone full of militias, rogues and robots. 

‘The search for authenticity, for fun, is frustrated, haunted and impoverished by the tawdry glee of nickel slots and an all-you-can-eat buffet’

In its violence, Fallout: New Vegas echoes the 2017 shooting in old Vegas, which killed 58 people and injured more than 500. In a premeditated act, a gunman on the 31st floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino fired into the Route 91 Harvest country music festival. The shooter broke the gold-tinted windows of the hermetically sealed hotel to take aim, while the 20,000 people who had gathered to see musician Jason Aldean play raced for refuge. Across the street, the Luxor’s Sphinx silently looked on. No wonder Musk went underground. 

Gaming floors, packed full of slot machines and poker tables, are strategically devoid of natural light. Remove the disorienting mirrored surfaces, flashing lights and ringing bells, and the interior is dark, cave-like, bunker-like, a retreat from the sun. Yet over the last decade or two, there have been initiatives on the part of civic leaders to transform Vegas into a kind of place that scores high walkability ratings and attracts corporate investment. This means leaning into the live-work-play philosophies spouted by urbanism gurus and mayor forums, which advocate denser housing over suburban sprawl, vibrant neighbourhoods, and boutique cafés. It means making Las Vegas as an urban brand more normative, more cultural. Indeed, for several years there was an effort to establish an art museum – a partnership with the Reno-based Nevada Museum of Art. The names of high-calibre architects swirled around the $250 million project. David Adjaye, maybe. Or Johnston Marklee. But in August 2020, museum trustees, facing severe Covid belt-tightening, suspended plans for the Las Vegas outpost.

Ultimately, it was the Downtown Project that had the most visibility and drive to change street life in the city. The brainchild-cum-wager of former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the Downtown Project bundled tech start-up enthusiasm with Richard Florida creative-class urbanism. Hsieh moved Zappos corporate headquarters to Vegas, then invested $350 million to revive the area around dodgy Fremont Street – historically, the old town – and make it a hip place for his growing tech workforce and hipster tourists. Efforts included coffee shops and gastropubs, the makeover of the Gold Spike casino in the spirit of the Ace Hotel brand, an Airstream trailer park, and most famously, a retail-art hub made out of shipping containers.

Fuelled by hype and experimenting in a trendy urbanism popular in the early 2010s, the Downtown Project staggered under its own ambition. In 2014, just two years after its founding, the organisation laid off 100 employees and Hsieh seemed to step away from decision-making. Seven years later, the project is largely hollowed out. Some new Burning Man sculptures and fresh murals decorate the Container Park, but the Downtown Project webpage operates as a kind of memorial to Hsieh’s faded vision.

The former CEO died in November 2020. The Wall Street Journal reported that for months prior Hsieh struggled with drug abuse and grew increasingly isolated, falling into a risky habit of depriving himself of oxygen to achieve a high. Which is what he was doing in a shed in New London, Connecticut, when a fire broke out. Dozens of candles and a propane heater were found there. He died of injuries nine days later, a continent away from Las Vegas’s nihilistic utopia. Hsieh had set out to transform a city, but it refused to fulfil his fantasy. However, he was tied, like many who flock there to escape, to those inescapable urges that fuse death and desire in an atomic flash.