Vegas Then and Now

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

It is the themed hotels and casinos that have transformed Las Vegas from the two dimensional 1970s 'Sin City' urban landscapes to its current incarnation that embraces and celebrates various forms
of hyper-reality.

Submitted: October 05, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: October 05, 2017



Dillon Sookbir: 

Las Vegas Then and Now"




There are few American cities that are more evocative or more galvanizing in their immediate image association than Las Vegas. The gambling town that was founded in the Nevada desert in the 1930s during Prohibition was the epitome of reckless, free spirited living, as Las Vegas became the largest center in the only state where gambling and prostitution were legal activities. By the late 1960s, the Vegas 'Strip' was a tacky and tawdry collection of motels and casinos whose architecture was distinguished only by the large and ever-present neon signs that gave Vegas a unique iconography (Lasansky and McLaren, 2004).


It is the themed hotels and casinos that have transformed Las Vegas from the two dimensional 1970s 'Sin City' urban landscapes to its current incarnation that embraces and celebrates various forms of hyper-reality. Las Vegas has re-invented itself as a place of boundless adventure opportunities for all ages and income levels through the promotion of architectural forms that pay homage to older and accepted styles. Contemporary Las Vegas casino architecture provided a series of modern examples of how the design of the structure a symbiotic relationship between the consumer and the unlimited ability to recreation or pleasure in every part of the facility, at any time.

This thesis is advanced in this paper through an examination of how the themed facilities have evolved from the simple motels and gaming establishments that were built in Las Vegas after 1930. The question is considered whether the construction of increasingly elaborate themed casinos was driven by public demand for escapism, or whether these businesses altered the American consciousness of what activities could be included in a holiday visit to the city. It is in this context that the key terms 'theme' and 'hyper-reality' are explained.

Part One of the paper provides the necessary definitional framework; the basic architectural features of Las Vegas in its 'Sin City' period circa 1970 are identified. In Part Two, the casino examples that reflect the contemporary Vegas pursuit of hyper-reality are discussed, with the leading authorities on themed facility architecture evaluated. The conclusion provides a summary of the points advanced in support of the transformation thesis.

Part One

Hyper-reality is a term that has acquired distinct shades of meaning as it has been considered in the academic commentaries published since 1980. Simulation and the simulacrum is the most fundamental hyper-reality concept, where the simulation occurs when ‘reality’ and representation are blended together into one form (Baudrillard, 1994). As the Vegas hotels and casinos designs confirm, hyper-reality provides the no clear indication to the inhabitants of the space where reality stops and representation begins. The simulacrum is defined in the literature as "a copy with no original (Baudrillard, 77)", or as an "image without resemblance (Ventura, 2003: 97)."


Hyper reality reflects some of the features of postmodernism; it is best understood as a concept that emphasizes signification over authenticity (Baudrillard, 79). As the Las Vegas themed casino resorts confirm, the experience associated with the place or structure is more important than its function – the essence of hyper reality is that its experiences out do reality (Schmidt, 2006: 346).

The Las Vegas Strip as it existed in the mid 1960s gave little indication that it would be the epicenter of a remarkable collective outpouring of frantic urban expansion and determined marketing of the city as a place where reality was made almost irrelevant. When Venturi and Brown travelled to Las Vegas in 1968 to study its architecture, they observed a city that catered to gamblers in the most functional manner possible.  Ouroussoff (2009) describes the photographs that Venturi and Brown took during their studies in this way: "…The actual (Vegas Strip) buildings… look banal — like afterthoughts. The single white hotel tower of the Dunes casino, for example, seems a pathetic testament to a Modernism that has run its full course (3)."


The city was also notable for the lack of activity on the streets and the busy and entirely functional casinos, "…the result of the horizontal rhythm of empty lots and cheap, low structures (Ouroussoff, 3)." The Las Vegas architecture of the 1960s epitomized reality; its casinos offered visitors escapism, not hyper-reality, fuelled by the lure and the immediacy of the gambling industry (Rothman and Davis, 2002: 24).


Pearson (2005) offered a similar observation in 1972, where "…Las Vegas was a two-dimensional experience--colorful, but flat as a billboard. There wasn't really much behind the neon signs, except oceans of undifferentiated gambling space and all-you-can-eat buffet pens (2)." Pearson also makes the connection between the seemingly far off days of the uncomplicated gambler's haven to the modern hyper-reality of the city that has taken its architectural and design inspiration from every other culture and region in the world.


Pearson (2002) concluded that "… Today, Las Vegas has developed its third dimension, offering fun that goes beyond the facade. In fact, the most interesting architectural experiences now occur deep within the sprawling casino complexes--in the remarkable restaurants, bars, lounges, and stores that have been designed by big-name architects from around the country (3).”  This sentiment is shared by Emmons (2000), as there is no limit (save for those that arose in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis), on what themes may be incorporated into the Las Vegas architectural fabric (1).


Part Two


At the time Venturi and Brown were chronicling Las Vegas Strip architecture, the first of the famed Vegas themed casinos was near completion. Caesars Palace was constructed in 1965; over the next 30 years it would undergo a series of expansions that expanded its Roman Imperial theme to include a Hindu shrine and King Tut Egyptian motif in part of the facility (Malamud, 1998). Caesars was positioned to face the Strip from a distance of 135 feet to heighten the sense of majesty that was conveyed in the oval coliseum-styled structure of the main building. A copy of the Winged Victory of Samothrace was placed near the entrance; the original porte cochere (carriage entrance) included scalloped niches where reproductions of classical soldier statues were positioned (Malamud, 1998: 12).

By the time the Mirage was constructed in 1989 (the first new hotel on Vegas strip in 15 years), the transformation of Las Vegas from gambling center to hyper-real creation was well underway. The Mirage was designed to promote a Polynesian theme (Lasansky and McLaren, 89). The facility featured a compact volcanic island, lagoon, jungle palms, ferns, and active waterfalls. A nightly feature was the volcanic eruption that produced geysers of steam that were ejected 100feet above the water, with gas jets activated to shoot flames across the lagoon surface. The awe-inspiring water features were clearly intended to convey a sense of more than simple fantasy or escapism – this casino was a credible replication of an entirely real place thousands of miles away.


The completion of the Bellagio hotel and casino in 1998 may have been the final note sounded in the transformation of Las Vegas into a hyper-real space. The Italian / Tuscan theme is the dominant feature of the Bellagio; a replicated lake, with hundreds of fountains, and village on the lakeside are the architectural features that are promoted by the facility.


The obvious rivalry between the large casinos in Las Vegas to build grander, more determined themed facilities was almost a contest without limits. Lampert-Greaux noted that "…the world's greatest cities have a new habit of reinventing themselves as Las Vegas hotels", where she cites the Bellagio replication of Lake Como as an example. Feldman observed in 1997 that Las Vegas had opened itself to innovation and that the transformation of the city was not likely to ever reach a static point (Feldman, 2).

The theme emphasis that became the most dominant feature of the Las Vegas casino culture is a development that has run parallel to the trend in American culture generally to embrace themes in preference to specific tangible goods or services. Gottdiener (1997) describes these themes as "overarching symbolic motifs' that are most often taken from commercial media products, with the theme having little functional relationship to what is actually sold in these spaces. The Vegas casinos and their various depictions of Polynesia or Tuscany are excellent examples. Gottdiener advances the attractive thesis that "…due to increased competition, businesses increasingly use thematic and symbolic appeals in order to sell their product" (74). He suggests that "theming" is an outcome of 20th century capitalism (77). Artifical (or in the present context Hyper-real) devices are needed to continually stimulate the consumption of mass produced goods. As a result, "…artificially generated symbolic-value of products has increasingly overshadowed their intrinsic use-value" (79).


Themes are everywhere in modern day commercial America. Corbin (2002) commented that Americans never appear to tire of their exposure to themed experiences (34). It is as if the consumer who is faced with almost limitless choices as to how they can spend available income, are more likely to grasp the appeal of a specific theme in a commercial presentation than they are equipped to evaluate the intrinsic merits of the products or services offered.

  1. Conclusion

The use of the term 'transformation' in the study of the changes witnessed in Las Vegas hotel and casino architecture since the 1960s is proven accurate when the points developed in this paper are evaluated. Transformation is the term preferred to evolution, as this second option suggests that the 'new' city has grown in a positive way out of the bones or biological material of the old. Transformation is a better and more clinical term, as it does not necessarily imply a value judgement that the 'new' Vegas is an improvement over the former version.


The development of Las Vegas from desert gambling strip to an otherworldly combination of architectures, amusements, and various forms of recreation has an escapist element but it is escapism reinforced by a legitimate effort to replicate other places and times to place any visitor into the exact milieu that would be experienced in the original. As noted in the definition of hyper-reality, the use of the word original may be misleading. A condition of a true hyper-real experience is the disconnection between the replica and the new form. The consumer who knows that they are not actually walking along the streets of Rome or sitting beside a Polynesian lagoon does not direct their mind or consciousness to the reality. Instead, the consumer is prepared to be overwhelmed by the immediacy of this present hyper-reality experience. There is no comparison necessarily made with the 'original', as the consumer may never have experienced the form on which the Las Vegas version is modelled. The consumer therefore takes the sensory delight in what the themed facility offers as it is, and not as it might be in comparison to another place or time.


It is suggested that this latter point goes to the heart of the appeal of modern Las Vegas and its themed casinos. These enterprises illustrate the fundamental distinction between an attempt to imitate and the ability to replicate, as the replication achieved in the hyper-reality becomes the freestanding experience desired by Vegas visitors.

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Dillon Sookbir

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