The Beacon and the Labyrinth

Observations by James Middlebrook
February 22, 2002


The very name conjures images for those who have and have not traveled there. For the majority of Manhattan's cosmopolitan sophisticates, Vegas is to be avoided, as the antithesis of the metropolis they call home. But as cities driven by similar motivations, extreme cities, are there possibly also spatial translations between the old, dense, sectional city and the flat, automotive desert-city? And just what is the relevance of the work of architecture in the Age of Instant Gratification? Spin the Reels!

The terrain of Las Vegas is that of a plateau. The dry desert basin upon which it was built is topographically featureless and utterly flat. The intensely dry air is very clear, and the combination of these elements flattens all elevations. The mountain backdrop appears to be at the outskirts of the city proper, and, although the recent suburban development extends that far, the range is actually 40 miles away at its closest point.
Buildings are between one and three stories everywhere in the city, except for the hotel/casino complexes along and beside the "Strip." There are no sign of basements or subterranean levels in the flat and baked rocky desert ground.
The typology of the massive hotel/casino/shopping complexes, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars each to build, are consistent. There is typically one extremely large ground floor which contains all programmatic functions except for the hotel rooms.
The center of this space is the casino, which doubles as circulation, linking all of the other programmatic elements. Above this is a tower, sometimes two, which stacks the hotel rooms and suites utilizing a footprint that is only a small fraction of the first floor area.
Vegas is home to 13 of the 20 largest resort hotels in the world and currently boasts in the range of 90,000 hotel rooms. Two thirds of the 75,000 hotel rooms along the Strip are owned by three corporations.
While the typology does not change, the image of each complex does. Each sports a specific theme; the thematic iconography is inscribed into every element. This constructed exotic, whether it be medieval, Parisian, Venetian, Imperial Roman, Hollywood, World's Fair, or New York City, gives identity to the establishment utilizing distinctive yet easy-to-swallow tourist-friendly imagery.
The architecture works as a collection of images in the form of signifiers and icons; symbolism is imbued later by the masses and the media. In other words, the spectacle is created, and the mental image and reputation follow.
The New York-New York Hotel and Casino employs recognizable imagery of the glamour of 1930s Art Deco New York, with some more modern landmark fragments thrown in for fun.
The towers, which are much taller (and therefore more expensive) than they have to be, act as beacons. Because the cityscape is so flat and the "Strip" is so linear and the "Strip" is comprised of a series of unmistakable iconic images, it is easy to locate oneself relative to the destinations along the Strip instantly and at any time from anywhere within the city. There is a mental awareness of the respective location of the self relative to the images.
These enormous visual cues range from gargantuan Sphinx and pyramid of the Luxor which projects a tremendously powerful beam of light into space at one end of the Strip, to the 1149 foot tall Stratosphere eight miles away towards the other end.
This orientation conveniently occurs moments after entering the city, especially from the adjacent airport. The towers are theatrically lit and animated by flashing and cascading lights or giant video screens which can seen from half a mile away.
The flatness and lack of hierarchy throughout the rest of the city's grid creates a field of monotony. The city is devoid of sectional character outside of its airport and minimal gestures within the casino/hotel complexes in order to connect to the pedestrian bridges crossing Las Vegas Boulevard. Consequently, the exclusive means for ones' gaze to rise above the two dimensionality of the city is to physically rise above it; hence the dual function of the tall hotel tower/spectacle. The premium paid for the high rise towers is rewarded by transcendence above the entire city.
On the outside, the entrances to the hotel/casino/shopping complexes are made clear through hierarchy in façade design, and often entry is facilitated by moving walkways.
On the inside, a crucial transformation takes place. The interiors of the casinos, each approaching or exceeding a hundred thousand square feet, act as labyrinths. Time is frozen; there are no cycles, no indication of how much time has past, no clocks, no windows, no apparent shift changes, no change in lighting or sound, little differentiation in the flow of people.
There is no apparent hierarchy, no apparent rules, no apparent limits. The flashing lights of the slot machines augment the hum of bells and jingle of cash paid out.
On the interiors of the building, the sights and sounds of the slot machines reinforce the image of the city. Memory and image are unambiguously exploited in a game of urban seduction. The feeding frenzy of desire results in shifting capital. Las Vegas has been called the "capitol of unregulated capitalism, one of the world's most laissez-faire cities" The casinos pay back approximately 90% of the money which is gambled, the remaining ten percent supporting the massive infrastructure and profit of the system.
The image of the New York Slot Exchange within the New York-New York Hotel and Casino may be more than just a play on words. A February 19, 2002 news article reported that the majority of human activities, particularly those operating through a system of gratification, operate unconsciously according to their own psychochemical processes: "The number of things people do to increase their dopamine firing rates is unlimited, neuroscientists are discovering. Several studies were published last year looking at monetary rewards and dopamine. Money is abstract but to the brain it looks like cocaine, food, sex or anything a person expects is rewarding, said Dr. Hans Breiter, a neuroscientist at Harvard.
One of the most promising areas for looking at unconscious reward circuits in human behavior concerns the stock market…. Economists do not study people, they study collective neural systems in people who form mass expectations."
The endlessness of the casino feeds this condition of gratification, and the lack of a visible escape routes or lulls in the action maintain the zombie-like delirium. The proximity of other people, many of whom make spontaneous and perceivable winnings, encourages the risky behavior; possibly there may be a sociological connection to the recent studies of close interaction on trading room floors.
The beacon / labyrinth system operates in a sociological system to reward basic desires; the city offers the chance to participate in gambling, drinking, sex, and various debauchery without guilt or boundaries.

What relevance could this strange dualistic condition have for the site in Manhattan? Possibly the strong contrast between conditions, correlating the exterior and interior, recalls the public and intimate spheres of memory.
The clear direction of life within time is contrasted by the unknown, the endless condition expected of death. The rules and derived logic of a linear movement becomes unclear.
The "meat packing" district along the West Side possibly implies a similar spatial duality. Unlike Vegas, Manhattan as a city cannot be spatially comprehended from the inside. Its images are either inherently fragmented or taken from outside the city itself. The river offers one such escape from its interior, and the West Side Expressway, a linear element like the Strip, allows this perception.
Immediately off the expressway, the narrow streets enclose and the shifting grids confuse Manhattan's predictable directional systems. The dynamic images of highway and river are replaced by the static images of the neighborhood, forlorn buildings which bear the long memories of history.
Inside and outside, procession versus placelessness, illumination versus saturation: these differences suggest the transformation of self during the journey. Individual and collective paths weave the golden tapestry of fate, and its memories spun are evident around us. The transformation offers a chance for redemption, for as a path can be enlightened, a labyrinth can mean sanctuary.