On March 20th, Penn IUR hosted a book talk to celebrate the launch of The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream written by Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Stefan Al, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, School of Design. Penn IUR Faculty Fellow David Brownlee gave opening remarks, summarizing his cross-disciplinary work as an architect, historian, and designer. Using vivid imagery from the book, Al walked the audience through the architectural history of the now-famous city. While often considered a display of architectural freaks, the Las Vegas Strip serves as a mirror of larger social, cultural, and economic trends.
From its onset Las Vegas has used a series of popular images to domesticate the risky and immoral reputation often attached to the pro-gambling city. These phases followed trends in American culture and influenced the architecture in each passing decade. The 1940s saw the rise of Western themes casinos and motels, only to be replaced in the mid-1950s by modern suburban-inspired buildings and pools, and later followed in the 1960s by a Pop City phase that repeatedly used atomic imagery that was top of mind at this point in American history. Each phase saw larger and larger signs and buildings as developers consistently co-opted the existing theme and tried to outdo their neighbor. The next several decades saw new themes including the 1970s Corporate Modern style, the late 1980s Disneyland theme park approach, and the late 1990s Sim City attempt to copy famous landmarks from existing cities.
With each passing phase, the Strip’s architecture highlights contradictions typical of our society as a whole, Al explained. For example, the fake lakes and mountains of Las Vegas casinos are celebrated, while the neighboring Lake Mead consistently shrinks because of the city’s growing footprint. The architectural changes of the Strip also mirror and magnify America’s throwaway consumer. As phases come and go, perfectly fine existing buildings are routinely demolished in favor of the newest and best model.
In addition to reflecting societal trends, the Strip, Al argued, has even initiated trends of its own. Casino capitalism, he noted, has spread from just two states with casinos in the 1970s to today’s proliferation of casinos across the country. The Experience Economy, in which an entire experience is crafted for the consumers at Las Vegas hotels and resorts has begun to spread to other companies that are now focusing on more than just a product. The event wrapped up with audience questions focusing on the Las Vegas of today and whether the economic shift towards nightclubs and away from casinos will have an effect on architectural form. Copies of “The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream” are available for sale online here.