I recently tagged along as “the spouse” at a medical meeting held just outside Las Vegas. I had never been to the city before and naively did not anticipate how disorienting it would be and how it would induce such a roller coaster of varied reactions.
Driving towards the city from our resort hotel located about a half hour out of town, I could see Las Vegas rising out of the dusty plain of the desert. After reaching the outskirts and driving through several miles of low houses and strip malls, massive casinos began to loom and in short order we were sucked into a disorienting vortex of buildings, billboards and fake monuments. The desert was gone, replaced by an alternate reality that could have existed anywhere including the â€œholodeckâ€ of the Starship Enterprise. Fake Paris, fake Venice, fake New York! Buildings with gold-mirrored windows! Buildings that lean outward! Notice all the exclamation points!!! Las Vegas is the architectural equivalent of using all caps when you comment online. It screams “YOU ARE HAVING A GOOD TIME!!!!” constantly, whether you believe it or not.
How different is the approach to another “V” city of even greater “fabulosity”-Venice. One of the most satisfying ways to enter Venice is to approach via water taxi from the Marco Polo Airport. As you glide over the calm waters of the lagoon, the shimmering vision that is La Serenissima grows ever larger and more solid, until you are upon it and the mass of pink and pale orange cream and terra cotta palazzos then parts and you enter a watery maze of canals. You feel lulled into a dream and yet you know it’s real.
Venice is just as much of a man-made construction as Vegas but Venice incorporates the water as much as Vegas keeps the desert out. The water is the lifeblood of Venice, the canals its vascular system moving people and goods throughout the city. You can hear the sounds of the water, watch it change as the light changes, smell it (according to some) if it gets stagnant in summer, contend with it during the periods of â€œaqua altaâ€ when the winter tides are high and the people cross the squares on temporary walkways elevated above the flood. Downtown Las Vegas on the other hand separates itself completely from the desert so it can keep people captive, distracted and entertained.
I have to admit that the forms on Las Vegas Blvd have some coherence. There is something compelling and exciting about the jumble of mammoth buildings and â€œmonumentsâ€ on The Strip. Itâ€™s as if some giant child set down building blocks and toys to construct a make-believe city.Â There is a pleasing randomness that echoes towns and cities that have evolved over a longer time. And there is a sense of fun and tongue-in-cheek humor that undercuts the overbearing nature of the monumental architecture.
However, one of the things that bothers me most about Las Vegas is all the energy and money that has gone into copying other places; an indoor-made-to-look-like-outdoor Venetian street, a Rialto Bridge replica placed next to a San Marco Campanile replica, and so on. Picasso said that â€œgood artists copy, great artists stealâ€. Thereâ€™s too much copying in Vegas and not enough stealing. â€œStolenâ€ elements are those that are taken and then transformed into something completely new, which doesnâ€™t seem to happen a lot in Vegas.
We went down to The Strip two nights in a row and made reservations for brunch the last morning. Later we reconsidered and cancelled, too tired to endure a third assault on the senses. I couldnâ€™t wait to get back to the very real and often graceful Philadelphia.
And by the way while â€œLeaving Las Vegasâ€ was easy, itâ€™s pretty hard to say goodbye to Veniceâ€¦