Travel February 2001

Las Vegas, 'Tis of Thee

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

Craps used to hold center stage in Las Vegas casinos, but it has been eclipsed by the more solitary and competitive blackjack. (A clever academic could probably derive an entire sociology from this.) Craps remains the social game, and in the right circumstances the most fun. At the craps table you root out loud for the shooter, and the shooter talks to the dice, and the woman in gold lamé who's been making the reckless bets jumps into the air when the dealer intones, "Eight the hard way, eight."

The new wisdom in Las Vegas is that people don't come here for the gambling, they come for "entertainment." Logically this has to be true in some sense, since gambling is now so widely available elsewhere. Yet people gamble here who wouldn't gamble elsewhere. They feel free, historically licensed, to do so—that's what the place is for. And gambling still pays the bills: it accounts for about 60 percent of the revenues at an average large hotel. Purists—those who like their corruption uncorrupted—object to the new tourist-paradise Las Vegas, but it may be that the fantasy architecture, like the absence of daylight and clocks inside the casinos, only enhances that sense of suspended reality that can make a hundred-dollar bill look so insubstantial. In any case, whatever the architecture does for the gambling, there is little doubt that the gambling enhances the architecture—it provides the charge in the air, the sense of living dangerously, that keeps the place from being the Disney World it sometimes seems to want to become.

Las Vegas meets one fundamental criterion for a great city: it imposes its own reality on you. The cityscape effectively cuts you off from the outside world, but from time to time you may look down a long side street, get a glimpse of the red mountains beyond, and feel curious about the desert in which the city has grown. One day I rented a car to look around. The desert used to begin right outside the Strip's back door, but Las Vegas has sprawled. Its metropolitan area is the fastest-growing in the country, with a population now of about 1.4 million. (Forty years ago the entire state of Nevada had fewer than 300,000 residents.) To the east and the south development stretches for some twenty miles, all the way to Henderson, and so the drive down toward Hoover Dam (thirty miles from Las Vegas) has become rather dispiriting, in a landscape whose long, treeless views forgive nothing.

On the highway I thought about the theories of the architect Robert Venturi that appeared in a controversial book of a generation ago, Learning From Las Vegas (1972), celebrating the free spirit of Strip architecture and chastising reflexive critics of the style. There's something to be said for the Las Vegas aesthetic, which essentially holds that nothing is ugly, and in the city itself you get caught up in this liberating abandon. Even a billboard looks somehow organic, God-given. But the magic wears off at the city line, and I think that's the trouble with Venturi's argument. The Las Vegas aesthetic doesn't travel, isn't "scaleable."

To the west of the city the desert lies closer at hand. It begins abruptly just on the other side of a planned community called Summerlin, which is still under construction. This is one border that will be maintained, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, which looks after a 200,000-acre tract here called Red Rock Canyon. You can get to it from downtown in less than half an hour. A local resident had mentioned Red Rock to me; the guidebooks give it short shrift, reasonably enough, because most visitors, if they are traveling outside the city, want to see the region's monumental, world-class sites: the Grand Canyon is a four-hour drive to the southeast.

Red Rock isn't monumental, just a place of great and serene beauty, its sparsely vegetated hills undulating toward the bold, wrinkled faces of the Spring Mountains. A sinuous road takes you close to the feature that gives the place its name: a gorge with walls of layered red and tawny sandstone. At numerous outlooks hiking trails head off into the desert, and though I hadn't come planning to hike, I found the idea irresistible. I walked into the mesquite, with one eye on my watch because of a late-afternoon appointment, for as long as I reasonably could. The next time I saw the city, I was dusty of shoe but clearer of mind. Knowing what I know now, I'd save most of a day on even a short trip to Las Vegas for a visit to Red Rock Canyon.

It's easy to hate Las Vegas, and it's just about as easy to love it, with a Venturi-like, campy embrace of all that glitters. But as I settled in, I came to wonder if the city doesn't deserve the respect we pay other places, the honor of ambivalence. It was the luxury hotel Bellagio, where I started spending most of my time, that got me thinking this way.

My introduction to Bellagio came through a visit to its Gallery of Fine Art, which announced a show of twenty-six paintings from The Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., including works by Monet, Matisse, Bonnard, and Picasso. It is a mark of the way Las Vegas addles the brain that after paying a $12 admission fee I more than half expected the paintings to be forgeries. But they are real, and in this context seem somehow hyper-real. The show, which runs through March, is an experiment the hotel hopes to repeat with paintings from other museums. The deal: the hotel turns over all the gallery proceeds to the lending museum, which stands to make about a million dollars this time.

Bellagio, which has upped the ante for Las Vegas resorts, poses a problem of perception for the traveler. It contains more than enough excess to qualify as a bona fide Las Vegas experience, starting with its extravagant Lake Como, whose eight acres look more like forty in this desert city. Bridal parties make their way through the Via Bellagio shopping arcade; on past the Gallery of Fine Art and the function rooms, named after artists (tonight in Monet 1-4: the Phoenix 2000 Awards dinner for achievement in the "medical device industry"); and finally to the Wedding Chapels. Meanwhile, the gambling goes on day and night, with an annual "drop," as what's bet at the tables is called, of $1.4 billion.

But Bellagio is more than diverting. It has some amenities that would be enjoyable in any setting. In a city that has awakened to the pleasures of food, it offers an array of restaurants that could keep you quite happy over several days. Bellagio stands at the forefront of one of those very Las Vegas trends: what might be called restaurant colonization. It has invited a range of great chefs to reinvent their restaurants here; San Francisco's Aqua, Boston's Olives, New York's Le Cirque, all have outposts at the hotel. These represent major steps beyond the heaping buffets that have historically been Las Vegas's main contribution to cuisine—though Bellagio's buffet has its fans too. At Aqua, I happily violated one of my few surviving life principles (Never eat the inhabitant of one ocean when you're closer to another ocean) to have a salad built around half a Maine lobster and "heirloom" tomatoes—and it was a dish I'll never find in Boothbay Harbor. I did not eat at Picasso, Bellagio's premier restaurant, because to do so I would have needed to book a table two months in advance. Run by the Spanish chef Julian Serrano, it last year won a five-star rating. It features fourteen original works by Picasso on its walls and a brilliant carpet designed by the artist's son, Claude.

Everything is a little bit better at Bellagio. Natural light, in violation of Las Vegas tradition, finds its way into the hotel's common areas through skylighted arcades, a conservatory, and even restaurant windows with a view. Italian craftsmen were brought in to lay the beautiful mosaic tile in the lobby. Cut flowers abound, thanks to a garden and a greenhouse staff numbering 150. The casino's machines have been dimmed and muted, and its low ceiling hung with striped silk fabric. The women who serve drinks, instead of looking like Playboy bunnies, dress in little black suits that would be appropriate at Goldman Sachs, if only their hemlines were a foot or two closer to the ground.

Here is the problem of Bellagio: the hotel is not just amusing—it's kind of ... nice. The rates, of course, reflect the quality: in late fall "deluxe," meaning standard, rooms were around $300 a night.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"What Happens to Steve Wynn?" (About.com, March 12, 2000)
A profile of Steve Wynn, focusing on the future of his career after selling the Mirage hotel to MGM. Posted in the Las Vegas for Visitors section of the About.com internet guide.

Built at a cost of $1.9 billion, Bellagio is the creation of Steve Wynn, the city's best-known entrepreneur, whose Mirage was before this the ranking luxury resort hotel in town. Wynn no longer runs either place; he was bought out a few months ago by MGM. I spoke with a Bellagio executive named Alan Feldman, who has been with the hotel from the start, and he gave me a bit of the history: "Unlike The Venetian, Bellagio is only lightly themed. The theme that we had in mind was really just 'romance.' We had thought of classical French styling, but we had also thought of something very modern. In fact, we had a design and announced a hotel built in the shape of a great wave. But then Steve Wynn went to Italy, and he was sailing on Lake Como, and he looked back at the shore and said, 'This is the most romantic place I've ever been. Let's build this.'"

Feldman and I were having a drink—in my case a $16 glass of Chardonnay—on the terrace of Picasso, looking across Lake Como to Paris, on the other side of the Strip. It was early evening. Each night Bellagio puts on a water show on the lake, geysers erupting from the surface with loud reports, the water exploding into the air like liquid fireworks. The whole show is choreographed to music heard by means of speakers discreetly placed on the perimeter of the lake. The scene we were watching was accompanied by a section of Appalachian Spring.

The jets rose and fell in perfect consonance with the swelling music, and in a little interlude just before the Shaker theme is repeated, the sprays dissolved into a cloud of mist. Then, as the stately finale began, the water erupted again, with more force. My companion had of course seen this many times before, but he was smiling with what seemed to be unaffected pleasure, and so was I. "Simple gifts indeed," he said. Boom! and a new fountain arose before us. Hearing this music, I can never keep the words out of my head, and there they were again. 'Tis a gift to be simple—the water shot up on every beat—'Tis a gift to be free ... By the close a wall of water stood before us, obscuring all else. Then, as the last chord resolved itself, the water dropped back into the lake. The mist cleared, and the Eiffel Tower was visible once again, its lights glowing in the dusk. At that moment I could not recall having felt before such an emphatic sense of being where I belonged: in America.

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