On the Road, Part 5: Las Vegas

by Kiko Matsing

Las Vegas
Source: Google Maps

Hoover Dam

What surprised me about the Hoover Dam was not the dazzling engineering feat that greeted us from the winding roads on the Arizona side–the impermeability of its smooth curved walls that choked the Colorado River on the north–but the Art Deco embellishments of its surfaces from up close. It sits within the 1930’s Modernist/Constructivist/Futurist aesthetics of the Rockefeller Center–one of the most remarkable public spaces in New York. But this dam is right in the middle of nowhere; to decorate it must have been a superfluous move. There were brass doors to the toilets that belong to an opera house. What’s more, the motifs were patently occult–from the 30-foot bronze angels/sentinels, the Southwestern Indian designs, to the astrological symbols in the terrazzo work. It is interesting how much superstitious feeling is invested in this most formidable of utilitarian constructions–almost an appeal to the spiritual in order to deflect the materiality of industrial production and the banality of its supporting bureaucracy, not unlike the appeal of séances and magic tricks that were in vogue in 19th century (industrial) Britain.

Hoover Dam #2 River
Bronze Angel #1 Alcyone (Detail)
Power Lines Nevada Time

Las Vegas

There is nothing equivocal about the colors of Las Vegas. They are primary, candied, gaudy. At some point, this city has stopped being solely for the gambler–now appealing more generally to the sensualist. Its attractions may be adult, but they cater to the same infantile pleasures as Disney theme parks. Driving down The Strip, you wonder whether you made that wrong turn in Children of the Corn and what ever happened to the grown ups. While the Hoover Dam convey the grand, heroic architecture of the Modernist project, the irreverence and mishmash eclecticism of The Strip is thoroughly postmodern. Las Vegas is unabashedly fake; its façades reproduce in compressed space the skyline of New York, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramid at Giza, a Venetian palazzo–all in polished, hyperreal surfaces.

In Las Vegas, in its inclusiveness and allusiveness, its intertextuality, visitors can be flâneurs, explorers, rediscoverers of the architecture of the past… Las Vegas becomes a liminal space, of between and betwixt, where anything can happen, the oriental oasis in the desert where usual identities in the United States is sloughed off: ‘for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesar’s Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a sales person at Des Moines, Iowa, or an architect at Haddonfield, New Jersey’.

(John Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History, p. 88, a review of Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown, Learning from Las Vegas)

I don’t know how much simulated fantasy I can take, before I need a splash of cold reality in the face. It does seem like anything can happen in Las Vegas, except, that is, real life. I’m sure it is there, hidden behind the curtains, in the backstage, where the performance ends. My problem with places like Las Vegas and Disney is that I have a hard time buying into their apparent fakery. There is this overriding feeling of being cheated. I always want to peek behind the curtains, to uncover the nuts-and-bolts that prop the prestige.

On the northern end of The Strip, we bore west, and ended our short detour into Sin City. From a distance, the desert oasis is veiled in the brown haze of its smog, like a mirage playing tricks with the mind.

Mandalay New York, New York MGM Grand
Flamingo Paris Wedding Chapel

Red Rock Canyon

Charleston Boulevard turns into Highway 159 as you leave Las Vegas and promptly enter Red Rock Canyon. This quick change of scene reminds you that this fabulous city really sits on a desert in the middle of nowhere. This must be what it looked like when Bugsy Siegel built The Pink Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946. The canyon is thick with Joshua trees. Their spike-tipped leaves and hairy ramifying branches heightened the otherworldliness of the desert at sunset.

Joshua Tree #4 Red Rock #4
Joshua Tree #3 Joshua Tree #2

View all Flickr photos of my trip to the Southwest.