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Title: The Strip

Author: Stefan Al

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03574-3

Length: 254

Price: $34.95

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

The architecture of Las Vegas offers critics a moving target. No city has reinvented itself as frequently or as thoroughly as the gambling capitol of the United States, moving from an idealized representation of the American West to a mix of corporate monoliths, replicas of other places, and modern installations designed by leading architects. The authors of Learning from Las Vegas, published by MIT Press in 1977, discovered how capricious fashion could be when many of the buildings on which they based their commentary were demolished and replaced with the next wave of design concepts.

Changing Tastes

Author Stefan Al, a Dutch architect who is an Associate Professor of Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania, organizes The Strip as a longitudinal study of Las Vegas architecture from the early 1940s to the present. Specifically, he divides Vegas's architectural transformations into seven periods:

  • Wild West (1941—1946)
  • Sunbelt Modern (1946—1958)
  • Pop City (1958—1969)
  • Corporate Modern (1969—1985)
  • Disneyland (1985—1995)
  • Sim City (1995—2001)
  • Starchitecture (2001—Present)

Al devotes one chapter to each period, bracketed by introduction "Las Vegas as America" and conclusion "America as Las Vegas". His discussion of each period focuses on how casino developers and designers changed their attention-getting tactics as technology, customer tastes, and competition evolved. The Wild West era, for example, started out with hotels such as the El Rancho and Last Frontier offering a pastiche of idealized and partially fictionalized Wild West culture, but that phase barely made it past World War II as returning soldiers settled in the suburbs and adopted a "Sunbelt modern" lifestyle with swimming pools and beach vacations.

Varying Tactics

It's interesting to note how quickly each of Al's periods passes. The longest is Corporate Modern, exemplified by the enormous MGM Grand with its seemingly endless green walls, but it only went on for 16 years or so. The Sim City era with the Luxor, Bellagio, and Paris casinos lasted only six years, just a year longer than the original Wild West positioning. Within each period came a series of competitions among designers based on signs, neon, swimming pools, porte-cochères, and attractions such as the volcano in front of the Mirage or the Bellagio's dancing fountains. In an industry where money is made as a function of the number of individuals you can convince to step up to a gaming device, all of these features become tactics in the struggle to convince visitors to choose your barn over the next guy's.

Although it would be easy to rely on the compelling source material and write this kind of book on automatic pilot, The Strip is not a dry recounting of Las Vegas casino design trends. Al weaves social commentary, architectural insight, and wry humor throughout his text to very good effect. As someone who has visited Las Vegas on a semi-regular basis since 1996, I've witnessed the transition from the end of the "adult Disneyland" phase exemplified by the Arthurian-themed Excalibur through Sim City, culminating (for now) with Starchitecture projects such as the Cosmopolitan and Aria. It truly has been a sight to behold, and I've only observed the last 20 years of the process.

Value of Good Design

Now that less than 35% of Strip resort revenue comes from gambling, casino resort architecture must attract customers for reasons other than betting on the Super Bowl or playing craps with your buddies. While the "adult Disneyland" phase has faded to little more than an unpleasant memory, Sim City and Starchitecture projects with their associated shows, fine dining, shopping, and golf attractions offer many reasons to visit Las Vegas that don't rely on a lucky roll of the dice. Like Professor Al, I look forward to observing the next transition initiated by designers who distill the cultural zeitgeist into buildings where the light bill is paid out of slot machine winnings.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

 

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