Travel February 2001

Las Vegas, 'Tis of Thee

The sweet land of liberties deserves our respect—or at least our ambivalence

In certain sectors of our society—including the sector where I hang out—somebody planning a trip to Las Vegas is apt to sound rather apologetic. "Well, actually I'm on my way to California ... going to stop off for a couple of days ... I hear they've built some interesting stuff ..." Murmuring just such face-saving disclaimers, I recently did "stop off" in Las Vegas.

I hadn't been there for a while. Returning to a place is one of the little pleasures of travel: you perceive it differently over the years, and it reminds you of who you once were, and often enough the whole experience spills over into a thoroughly pleasant melancholy. No danger of this emotional sloppiness in Las Vegas. My last trip happened ten years ago, and the city I visited then no longer exists. Not that a decade is the relevant interval: the past four years have seen the arrival of those hotels, Bellagio, Paris, New York-New York, The Venetian, without which Las Vegas would not be ... well, whatever it is. Here is one virtue of Las Vegas: it changes so fast that it makes you feel more or less eternal.

I was staying at Luxor, built in 1993—the world's third largest hotel. This is not quite the distinction it might seem, inasmuch as nine of the hotels on the world's top-ten list can be found along the Strip. Luxor is hard to miss: it's the black-glass pyramid with the 120-foot obelisk and the ten-story sphinx in front. At night a bright beam shines forth from the hotel's peak, in imitation, I guess, of the eye in the pyramid on a dollar bill. Within is the world's largest atrium, providing views from the upper stories that are not for the vertiginous. At eight years old Luxor shows signs of wear—and why not, since at any given moment 6,000 or 7,000 people may be staying there? The casino occupies most of the pyramid's base. When I arrived, its middle-of-the-night cacophony was at full tilt, and I was disheartened to learn that I had a room on the first floor. But it was the first floor of a distant wing, and the room was spacious and surprisingly quiet. In any case, the price would have made it hard to complain: a midweek rate of $69 a night. Outside my window a garden of immense columns loomed, an evocation of Egyptian ruins.

In the morning I set out on foot to tour the Strip, though Las Vegas doesn't exactly beckon to the pedestrian. (Later, when I had turned to taxis, one driver remarked that thirty-seven "jaywalkers" had been killed in the city the previous year.) But the walking tour had its rewards, letting me meet the succession of new spectacles slowly, face to face, in all their majesty. Walking north from Luxor, I passed up Excalibur, built on a Knights of the Round Table theme, to get directly to New York-New York, its half-scale Statue of Liberty rising from a rendition of New York Harbor that includes a tugboat and a fireboat and a skyline: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and CBS's Black Rock. Around the corner a bit of the Brooklyn Bridge ornaments the streetside façade.

Architectural collage has emerged as the characteristic gesture of the new wave of Las Vegas building. Bellagio has created an eight-acre lake for its entrance, meant to suggest Lake Como. Paris, across the street, features a Louvre-like façade merged with that of the Palais Garnier, the whole thing surmounted by an Eiffel Tower whose hind legs actually rest indoors, in the middle of the casino. An Arc de Triomphe (at two thirds the size of the original) dominates the hotel's courtyard. The Eiffel Tower stands only half as tall as the real thing, but like the half-scale Statue of Liberty, it is no small structure. The whole of the Paris casino, with bistros and kiosks, lies beneath a false sky intended to simulate a Parisian twilight.

As I soon discovered, down the Strip at The Venetian, the twilight sky provides another leitmotif in Las Vegas architecture these days. The Venetian, which has taken verisimilitude to new ecstasies of detail with the faux-Baroque columns and "faithful reproductions" of works by Titian and Veronese in its lobby, has also constructed on its shopping mezzanine a stretch of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers ply their trade between stores. Here, too, the light tells you it's about nine o'clock on a late-spring evening. (I'm actually a twilight fancier, but I found this light strangely depressing, no doubt because it doesn't change. With twilight, as with the rest of life, we only think we want time to stand still.)

This exuberance of fakery has its detractors, who tend to take a moral stance toward it. The criticism one hears most frequently is that it substitutes a "sanitized" experience for the real thing, offering the romance of Venice without the crowds and the stench and the language barrier. I harbor suspicions about those who advance this theory—mostly because it seems to give them so much pleasure. True, there have been days in New York when my appetite for that city could have been satisfied exactly by New York-New York, but it's hard to imagine that people think they're having a New York or a Venetian or a Parisian experience in Las Vegas. We like this architecture, if we do, for its ingenuity, not its realism. We're gratified that someone has gone to such lengths to entertain us: it's performance architecture.

And indeed, compared with most buildings, these will prove as fleeting as a song. Let someone have an idea for an even grander hoax, or let the occupancy rate fall below 90 percent, and down they will come. The famous Dunes fell so that Bellagio could rise; The Desert Inn is closed and will soon be razed to make way for something vaster and more glorious. I hate to say this, because The Venetian is so new, but even now I hear time's winged chariot over the Grand Canal.

As the Strip in all its impermanence has flourished, Las Vegas's old downtown has languished—it's the paradigm, after all, for what has happened in a city near you. And, as usual, efforts at revival—in this case an arcaded street—only make the place look more forlorn. But downtown has its pleasures. For one thing, it's a good place to go to gamble, particularly if you just want to get your feet wet: betting minimums are lower than in the big casinos; the players include some local types; the dealers, less scrutinized by cameras, feel free to reveal their consummate boredom; you see more real drinks; and in general the atmosphere achieves a high sleaziness congruent with what you're doing. I spent an enjoyable hour at a storefront casino one afternoon, betting at the two-dollar craps table. I stood next to a fellow with a glass of whiskey in his hand who was playing an aggressive game but took time to share his strategy with me: "Always bet on the come, always take the odds." This leaves you with chips spread out across the table and a chance at multiple payoffs if the table gets hot—if you "get a shooter." I followed his path for a while, and maybe stayed in the game longer as a consequence. "Okay, now we're playing with their money," my friend said, when things started to go his way. Unfortunately, though, we never got a shooter and the table never got hot, and I noticed that his stack, too, was dwindling. He left me to "take a dinner break," though it seemed early to me—quarter to five. Anyway, I was grateful for his advice, which helped me to lose more money with a little more élan later in the day at Bellagio.

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