A couple of years ago when I was working on my book Live Architecture, I spent a week in Las Vegas looking at new performance buildings designed by the Canadian company Scéno Plus. Vegas (why is the ‘Las’ left off so often – you don’t hear people saying Newington and leaving off Stoke?) is like Bovril – you either love it or hate it – I hate Bovril but I love Las Vegas.
Its a city like no other I know of. For an architect it is absolutely fascinating because it’s a place that seems to effortlessly gestate new states of urban existence that are simultaneously exciting, novel, banal and worrying. For me, walking around provides an overload of ideas, which culminate in a state of stupefaction and wide-eyed wonder leaving me gasping out loud (which has passers-by avoiding me on the sidewalk!). The Strip is the focus of this amazement with its mega-cities (palaces) which are easy to enter but hard to leave (fortresses) and the in-between landscapes (pleasure gardens) that provide street-side entertainment you would have to pay big bucks to get in to see anywhere else in the world. Off Strip the sprawl of vacant lots, cheaper hotels and support businesses are difficult to navigate by foot, providing a buffer to the burgeoning sprinklered suburbs. Downtown has the now neon-covered, and surprisingly short, Fremont Street with the famous cowboy and showgirl neon signs that make it onto every vacation website about the city – but it also has old western bars, a pleasant municipal zone every city has, and an outpost of the University of Nevada in a restored historic school building.
On my recent trip to Vegas my intention was to visit performance buildings like the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel (which made it into the book) and others that didn’t like BB King’s in the Mirage, the House of Blues, in Mandalay Bay, and the Access Showroom, an out of town venue with casino (‘for locals’ as explained to me by the manager). Being in Vegas for a reason, i.e. to work on something rather than simply have fun or gamble, gave me an in with people who worked there and I got to meet venue managers, some musicians, public relations people, even an owner of one of the big places. The stories they told provided a fascinating insight to the architecture in which they worked, quite different from what the architect might tell you. For example, Chas Smith, director of operations at The Joint spoke of his ‘crit-list’, a very personal set of specifications based on years of feedback from musicians – he knew instinctively the optimum parameters for getting the best possible performance from a specific space.
People in the entertainment industry in Las Vegas are real experts who have travelled the world working in complex theatrical and musical tours. They end up there because everyone eventually gets tired of touring and after an early life building up excellent experience in a competitive industry they look for somewhere to settle down where they can earn a crust, and Vegas with its myriad of shows and venues provides it. These people are real professionals and they know what works and what doesn’t. The city’s best performance spaces have been created by responsive designers working to briefs shaped by the information such individuals provide – so this sparkly fantasy land, paradoxically operates so well because of the clever application of hard-earned industrial expertise. Las Vegas exists because of an endless stream of visitors coming to the city for the entertainment it provides, but it survives because of the resident population of hardened veterans providing first-class services based on global experience.