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 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
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
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.