2008 National Planning Conference: Closing Session

Learning Anew from Las Vegas

By Suzanne Rynne, AICP
Senior Research Associate

The 100th National Planning Conference ended on Thursday with a thought-provoking speech on the urban meaning of Las Vegas by Paul Goldberger, architectural critic for The New Yorker.

Goldberger began by recognizing that planners were somewhat ambivalent about the conference taking place in Las Vegas, and he shared his own perspective of the city many years ago, recalling that when flying into Los Angeles after a trip to Las Vegas, he felt he was "returning to a real world."

Goldberger brought no presentation to accompany his talk. "For illustrations," he said, "look around you."

Four Generations of Las Vegas

Goldberger discussed Las Vegas in terms of four generations. The first generation was prior to the 1960s and the Las Vegas strip — a time when downtown Las Vegas was the core of the city. Since this time, Goldberger said, downtown has been viewed as a problem. Unlike other American cities, Las Vegas does not think of itself as having a historical downtown; rather, says Goldberger, the past is viewed as a nuisance. Only looking forward is valued in Las Vegas, and that looking to the future means things getting bigger and better. He also noted the soon to be developed Union Park as an example of this desire to look to the future.

In describing the second generation of Las Vegas, Goldberger drew on examples from the 1970s book Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. This second generation encompasses the Las Vegas of the 1960s and '70s, and as Goldberger noted, could still be seen in parts of Las Vegas in the late 1980s. Goldberger compared the Las Vegas Strip of this second generation to commercial strips in other post-war American cities, noting the wide boulevard, open vistas, and signage all oriented towards the automobile.The Las Vegas Strip was simply an "American commercial strip on steroids."

Goldberger explained that second-generation signs mattered more than space, and that the signs grew bigger and bigger as to not be blocked by competition. This generation is now all but entirely gone as the Las Vegas Strip exploded in scale in the third generation. In this generation, buildings became signs themselves, Goldberger said, putting the Luxor; New York, New York; and Paris in that category. Each is an icon, in and of itself. In the Las Vegas of today theming has taken the place of signs.

Yet in this auto-oriented environment, something unexpected occurred.

"No one expected thousands of people walking the strip like pilgrims wandering from church to church in Rome," Goldberger said. He noted the pedestrian bridges to accommodate the hundreds of pedestrians in the auto environment, calling it "urbanism in spite of itself." If we make walking pleasurable, and even exciting, people will walk. The Strip may not have been designed for walking, but people walk it, every day of the year. Goldberger noted that this anti-urbanism then becomes an urban experience after all.

The fourth generation of Las Vegas is now beginning, according to Goldberger. The third generation is over. A new city center is going up, with complexes of buildings "exploiting celebrity architecture," Goldberger explained, continuing that he "doesn't know what they can bring to the party that is not already here." He stated that Las Vegas "treats most things like an enormous buffet" — where it can pick and choose what it brings here — and that this is now what it is doing with celebrity architecture. He related this back to his earlier idea that Las Vegas believes it is only as good as the next thing it builds. He cautioned against this attitude, explaining that Las Vegas is more tenuous than it thinks. It has no place to go "when the music stops," Goldberger said, noting that a place doesn't know its reason for being without looking to the past.

Lessons from Las Vegas

In comparing Las Vegas with other cities, Goldberger described the public realm as the most important defining part of a city. Private buildings defer to and fit within the public realm, making the whole more than the sum of its parts. The suburbs, he noted, are opposite of this, as private buildings take precedence.

Goldberger stated that he is still not sure how conventional urban theory fits Las Vegas. It is different from other places, and it has an essence and character that can never be confused with somewhere else. Yet the strip has a public realm in spite of itself. He drew additional connections to other cities. As technology makes it less and less necessary for people to gather and as cities are becoming less the places of manufacturing, choice has become the reason for people to go to the centers of cities. Cities are becoming more places of tourism and entertainment, Goldberger explained. "Other cities are becoming more like Las Vegas."

While Goldberger doesn't forgive Las Vegas's shortcomings, he said it does show us what people want out of cities. They want "grandeur, excitement, novelty, stimulation, visual splendor, surprise, and to see other people," Goldberger explained. "This is not a bad set of things to want," and other cities should think about providing these but with "the nurturing things this city lacks."

"We can, even now, be learning from Las Vegas," he concluded.

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