While watching Alan Yentob’s BBC 2 profile of Las Vegas last night (The Lure of Las Vegas, 2009) I got to thinking about the reasons why this ‘city of illusions and ghosts’ is just so damn fascinating to me. In truth I should loathe the place. As a European surrounded by ‘genuine’ culture and history, the mere sight of the faux indulgence that Vegas city planners and architects lavish on the neon-lit landscape like a gaggle of children hopped up on hallucinogens should make me retch. And although wandering on foot up and down the strip with its undulating and disconnected hodge-podge of ‘architainment’ really is unsettling, the sheer magnitude of Vegas’ conviction of its own significance does cast a spell perhaps because, as Yentob suggests ‘it radiates that longing for a world of infinite possibilities’. From its early settler period through to its decadent glory days as a gambling mecca for mobsters and crooners to its current incarnation as the family friendly gaming (not gambling) capital of the world, Vegas is in a constant state of flux – raising, wrecking and transforming it’s topography faster than a card player’s losing streak, endlessly attempting to prefigure the wish fulfillment of those seeking an escape.
I could point to Robert Venturi’s 1972 book ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ as a primary reason for why the city is now looked at with genuine interest rather than simply derided as a commercialized and tacky roadside attraction, but academic analysis only goes so far in helping us to understand our unique relationship or emotional response to a given place. Granted the more I read about and around the city’s history the more I’m inflating the bubble of mystique and significance of it in my own head, but recent visits to Vegas in support of a book project have helped me to balance out the theoretical with the actual physical experience of being there.
I can’t say that my visits have been pleasant experiences (I’ve either been too ill, too tired or too much of a miserable sod to make the most of what Vegas has to offer) but they have been learning experiences, and ones that seem to make more sense to me when looked at in hindsight and form a distance, which brings to mind Roman Polanski’s oft quoted remark about Los Angeles. As a design lecturer I’m still blown away by the neon signage that radiates across the city at night-time and had the opportunity to visit the phenomenal collection of signs at the neon boneyard, where hundreds of iconic relics whose lights have long since faded still pulsate with historical importance and relevance. I also managed to meet with local Las Vegas residents to chat about what the city has to offer beyond the strip and outside of the escapist transit of tourists, hucksters and players. Photographs I took there of derelict and stalled building sites due to the current economic climate sit uncomfortably alongside shots of recognizable Vegas movie locations, and a folder of reference material collected prior to my trip that includes excerpts from Michael Light’s book ’100 Suns’ about the nuclear tests carried out in the Nevada desert from the mid 1940s to the early 1960s jar when placed beside a $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet receipt kept and brought back. I’ve realized though that perhaps this odd juxtaposition of artifacts, historical oddities and lived experiences is precisely the reason for my fascination with Las Vegas, in that it throws up more questions than it can ultimately answer – and what enquiring mind doesn’t like questions?
For now I’ll keep sifting through my photographs, read with interest of development plans for the city’s future and look out for the next probing documentary that inevitably searches for some of the answers I seek.