Luxury And Catastrophe

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North of downtown Las Vegas, set within 320 acres of silent flat desert, an immaculate little yellow flag hovers 30 ft below, across a lake. The lake is a mirror of still water, the green, a saucer (3,000 sq ft) of billiard smooth grass, gently pitching and rolling into three grades of trimmed border against a mountain waterfall cloaked in aspen pines. There are swans on the lake and a pheasant pecking in the long grasses under a willow tree. To the right there is a bunker, a pure dish of fine sand, above, treetops give way to the purple hues of the distant Spring Mountains, a pastel backdrop to the deep shadows of the trees glancing long over the fairway.

This is the view from the seventeenth tee of Shadow Creek, the private golf course of Steve Wynn, CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc. Left to nature it would be a scalding rattlesnake pit, enough to suck the breath from any casual visitor; now the tee markers at your feet are floral arrangements of violets, every blade of grass lush (springing from imported sod), with clumps of pampas grass lining the fairways and trees individually selected to replicate the natural wooded sand hills of temperate North Carolina.

It is a unique aesthetic experience, as Wynn explains:

The seventeenth is an obvious crowdpleaser because it's so theatrical. I'm not sure people will believe that Mother Nature created something this nice. Had we delivered this kind of treatment too often, it might have been excessive. But, it was irresistible to do it once.1

1 S.Wynn and T.Fazio, Shadow Creek from Barren Desert to Desert Oasis, Las Vegas, Mirage Resorts Inc., 1995, p. 124.

For most of us our only chance to savour this unique experience will be through the pages of a lush Mirage Resorts publication.2 If you do drive out to the site, there is nothing spectacular about the miles of barren chain-link fencing behind which low pine trees appear to struggle for ground. Shadow Creek is miraculous, invisible from the dusty track that leads to its unassuming gate house but vivid in the imagination.

2 J.L.Smith, Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn, New York, Barricade Books, 1995, p. 244. Playing Shadow Creek by invitation may demand a healthy expenditure of over $100, 000 at the tables of Mirage Resort Casinos. Otherwise play is restricted to friends. The souvenir publication is $40.

Despite Wynn's deference to Mother Nature, Shadow Creek is considered an affront to nature and to those values associated with the natural. The profligacy of buying and slowly draining the artesian well to sprinkle each green, contrive each soothing view and support over twenty thousand trees in a pit of desert scrub is one thing, the unusual selection of wildlife another, and the politics a third.

An expert on Los Angeles gangland warfare, and author of City of Quartz, is perched on a desert rock in blue jeans and sneakers to deliver the unequivocal doomsday scenario: years of relentless and extravagant expansion by greedy corporate developers, moneymen oblivious to the beauties of the desert and blind to the value of its most basic resource, dictate Las Vegas will simply dry up. An art critic from Harper's Bazaar sips cappuccino on the terrace of Spago, enjoying artificial sunrise and sunset every half hour in the convivial atmosphere of Forum Shopping at Caesars. He savours a Biblical apocalypse; a shrinking water table under the desert flood plain finally cracking to swallow the entire city.3 A journalist for the Las Vegas Review Journal wonders, at a cost of $48 million and with a membership of just one (Steve Wynn himself), what the real purpose behind Shadow Creek might be.4

3 Virtually Las Vegas, BBC Television, 1994.

4 John L.Smith, author of Wynn's controversial biography is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review Journal

Las Vegas, Spanish for 'the meadows', once marshy plains amidst the Nevada desert fed by artesian wells, must now strike deals with neighbouring states to pump water to the greens of upwards of thirty golf courses, into the luxurious plumbing of 100,000 hotel rooms, associated spas and pools, into artificial buccaneer bays, volcanoes, tropical rain forest and even the south west's largest privately owned lake; to cascade surrealistically down the side of a stucco submarine surfacing from the desert floor,5 and then to fizz from the rows of tiny nozzles that aquify the air over the heads of the crowds on Las Vegas Boulevard. Steve Wynn can boast of the 150,000 gallons a minute pumped through the lagoon at his Mirage casino resort for the benefit of his customers; for Mike Davis sitting on a rock, the town has only ten years left before it sucks the Colorado River dry.

5'Dive' restaurant, a joint venture between Steven Spielberg and Steve Wynn, rises from Las Vegas Boulevard.

Las Vegas' phenomenal growth within the most affluent Western economy, almost entirely funded through the leisure industry, is accompanied by a chorus of critical disapproval marshalled with respect to the balance of nature but extrapolated to render Las Vegas an economic, social and aesthetic catastrophe. There is little mention of Mirage Resort's comprehensive high-tech water recovery systems that ensure upwards of 97 per cent of water is recycled, or even to the water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam which is threatening to rise by five feet during 1997. Whatever the political and technical realities behind the city's water usage Las Vegas is considered profligate against the 'nature' of its physical geography.6

6 Nevada water rights from the Colorado were first negotiated in the Colorado River Compact of 1922, prior to the planning and construction of the Hoover Dam. The Colorado, fed from snow fields to the north flowing 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California, once tamed by the dam, would feed the explosive growth of California and Los Angeles as well as Nevada and Las Vegas. Presently those original agreements regarding water allocation to each state are disputed by the water hungry Las Vegans, who believe that any water shortage is political rather than natural. For history see J. Stevens, Hoover Dam, an American Adventure, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. For immediate threat of flooding in 1997, see Las Vegas Review Journal, 12 February 1997.

Meanwhile, within the global economy, the city flourishes with over 30 million visitors per year and an unprecedented building boom. For every pair of hotel rooms built it is estimated that 1.5 jobs are created, and while almost as many people move out as well as move in to the city of last chances, they do so with the certain knowledge (or experience) that it is a city devoted to a principle, common in the minds of its millions of visitors as well as their hosts, that it is in their mutual interest to accelerate the exchange of wealth.

Risk has become an everyday encounter in modern economies. The balancing of risk was the preserve of a few investors as recently as the last century, but today active participation in investment markets, and the awareness of the consequences, is commonplace. This has made the percentages represented by the gaming tables more respectable, and the casinos have changed their emphasis, paradoxically, toward value for money; presenting a high-quality supportive environment where gaming means quality time.

Coinciding with the Reagan administration, the liberalisation of the gaming industry in the USA began in earnest in the early 1980s; the early years of this administration were marked by a recession where Las Vegas suffered under competition with a resurgent Atlantic City, with an image tarnished by the fatal MGM fire in November 1980, and a second fire at The Hilton in 1981. This recession set the context for the boom that broke in Las Vegas in the mid-1980s. The talisman of that boom was the $650 million Mirage, created by Steve Wynn.

The mid-1980s also saw speculation in financial markets symptomatic of the laissez-fare policies of 'Reaganomics' and epitomised by a vigorous re-capitalisation based on the issue of so-called 'junk bonds'. The innovator in this field was Michael Milken, then working with the New York firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert from Beverly Hills CA, where Milken preached his economic theories to ranks of aspiring corporate raiders via his 'Predators Ball' seminars, and where he met Steve Wynn.

The events on Wall Street and in particular the crash of Black Monday in October 1987 restored debate surrounding the boundary between 'real' and 'illusory' economics; a 'conventional wisdom' represented by J.K.Galbraith and the

'unconventional wisdom', 'voodoo' or even 'casino economics' of Michael Milken.7 In particular the freewheeling economic policies of the time found representation, literally, in the luxury of The Mirage, as junk bonds raised the fresh capital, newcomer Steve Wynn needed to build America's finest casino resort.

7 For background see J.K.Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria, London, Penguin, 1990. P.Bronson, Bombardiers, London, Secker and Warburg, 1995. B.Burrough and J. Helyar, Barbarians at the Gate, London, Jonathan Cape, 1990. C.Bruck, The Predators Ball, New York, Penguin, 1989.

The context for these policies was by no means parochial, recognising the technological change evident in manufacturing production as well as in the information systems of the world's trading floors. Given the events of November 1989 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, they coincided with the final collapse of the Iron Curtain economies, and victory in the ideological conflict of the Cold War.

In 1989 The Mirage opened to record monthly profits of $40 million at the tables alone. Even traditional loss leaders such as food, beverage and rooms were turning profits. While the old 'carpet joints' are nostalgically celebrated in the media as hotbeds of authentic vice, The Mirage celebrated comfort, luxury and service to make the corny con-trick obsolete. The value of pleasure was suddenly redefined in a complex equation no longer satisfied by the casino economics of banal exploitation relying on the catchalls of free rooms and cheap food.

How has the architectural profession responded to this new competitive order? Modern architecture is littered with calls for less; 'existence minimum', 'ornament and crime', even 'less is more'. Even when these aphorisms have been called into question, the tendency has been to elaborate upon fresh territories whilst applying the same sensibility. In particular there has been the struggle to define appropriate responses to geography, either advocating a quasi-mystical identification with issues of 'place', or at least formalising issues of 'context', and latterly closely associating both of these with 'sustainability'. In short modern architects have found their moral obligations, taste for the abstract, even work processes conspiring toward the appearance of bare necessity, and they have constructed that necessity as natural.

Las Vegas architecture, in its engagement with the luxury of waste on the one hand, and fakery on the other, challenges the basis of this practice, for if Las Vegas has a characteristic view of place, it is that other places should somehow reconstitute themselves across Its naturally inauspicious landscape for the delight of consumers.

Importing glamour to the desert was the original idea for Las Vegas; Bugsy Siegel brought Miami modern to the strip with The Flamingo in 1946. But transit to the monoculture of Las Vegas brings with it some spectacular shifts. All casino resorts are not the same, although they cater for almost identical, luxurious, activities. This differentiation is not dependent on architectural authorship, for where individual architects elsewhere distinguish themselves in a consistency of approach across different projects, the design hierarchy and the complexity of consultancy demanded by today's Las Vegas casino resort programmes work against architects' personal expression. In general, the work of the individual architect is invisible to the eye of the tourist on The Strip.

8 The Economist Pocket USA, London, Penguin, 1994, p. 137.

If there is a critical resistance to the consideration of luxury within architectural discourse it is because it is conservatively aligned with catastrophe; it is also because it threatens the social role and livelihoods of architects. The combination of environmental market appeal and innovation in Las Vegas is analogous to the effect of Michael Milken's junk bonds on those staid yet respectable banking institutions. Even The Economist still refers to The Strip as 'Armageddon in neon'.8 Modern architecture established protocols which ranked luxury with waste, vulgarity and poor taste. Conventional economic wisdom holds Wall Street's periodic booms as illusory; yet as the cycle becomes regular, as economic trends assimilate intangibles such as confidence, faith and even bluff (those attributes well known to the seasoned poker player), Wall Street's precocious cousin Las Vegas matures, emerging from an image sharply defined by a black and white morality into one of Technicolor ambiguity. Where once the gaudy neon appeared an anachronistic irritation to the conservative tastes of a socially responsible architecture, now it is the quality of The Mirage that outshines conventional competition. If as Georges Bataille states:

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be usedfor growth of the system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must be necessarily lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.9

9 G.Bataille, The Accursed Share, New York, Zone Books, 1967, p. 21.

Figures 9.1-9.5 Progression From Desert to Pool. The Mirage, Las Vegas. Photographs, Paul Davies.

Gaming offers a more luxurious space for waste than the literal burning of dollars, and what appear to architectural eyes as wasteful, excessive, vulgar casinos may indeed be considered as 'natural' as an adobe home in the desert. Meanwhile the scale of the development illustrates mass participation in the gaming phenomenon; a mass once represented by modernist architects as a passive, objectified whole, now crowds the Las Vegas Strip, fragmented in taste, yet united in their active search for just the right excuse to dispose of hard-earned leisure dollars.

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