A recent trip to Las Vegas left me overwhelmed, exhausted and a tad bit irritated. What the hell did Venturi mean, legitimizing tackiness through clever tags (less is a bore)? Over 30 years ago, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and the late Steven Izenour wrote Learning from Las Vegas, a case study that attempted to open the world's eyes to vernacular architecture and iconography-the "ugly and ordinary" structures and signage born to satisfy the needs of regular people, not architects. Having re-read it upon my return from the sensation overload, I realise that what the book was commenting upon was the irony that Americans hate signs; that they are enormously afraid of being vulgar because of their signs in their cities, and of being thereby materialistic, commercial, and all that. It is this commercial signage that the book sought to celebrate, within the framework of 'place' and the 'city'.
Today, the Las Vegas they wrote about no longer exists despite its ugliness. The buildings and the signs they studied have merged. The former Strip is now officially "the Boulevard." And the city is less iconographic, and more merely scenic -in a sense Las Vegas is now City as Scenography; it's a Disneyland. Most cities are to some extent scenographic, but few are as explicitly theatrical. It doesn't hit our funny bone, our crazy bone anymore - it has become sentimental. Everything reminds you of someplace one was lucky enough to travel to - only a cheaper version of it. If the ordinary itself succumbs to its insecurity at being ordinary, what is the point in glorifying it?
Incredibly, there is a return - somewhat. A moment where faux is legitimized. The Guggenheim Las Vegas begins where the opulence ends. The Venetian Resort's gilt moldings, faux marble columns and scroll patterned carpet come to a dead end at the unmistakable sign of contemporary art -- steel. An array of steel doors is surmounted by the name of the new museum spelled out in metal letters attached to the entrance ceiling. All very industrial, cool and utterly foreign to the average casino junkie, despite architect Rem Koolhaas' assurance that "it is all part of the same thing, including the casino." The Dutch architect is known to be interested in the urban context of his buildings and as one of many of his admirers I was curious to see what he would come up with for a museum cut out of the side of one of Las Vegas' most spectacular fantasies, a hotel that has recreated what it calls "San Marco Square," along with canals with live gondoliers offering rides under an ersatz Bridge of Sighs. The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum is what he calls the "jewelbox" (in contrast to the "big box") and appropriately enough, it opened with jewels from the collections of its namesake in St. Petersburg and from the Guggenheim collection in New York. From the outside, this is signage as architecture. A wall of brown Cor-ten steel cuts along the front of the Venetian's faux terracotta surface, giant letters proclaiming "Guggenheim Hermitage." Inside the lobby, within 7,660 square feet, Koolhaas designed a museum both luxurious and modern. The interior walls are also made of CorTen steel but appear to be as soft as sienna velvet. They are suspended several inches from the floor, so that light seeps in from below, lending a flavor of airy Japonisme to the space, enhanced by the angled ceiling of blond wood. Narrow slot windows allow a diffused light to enter. How skillful and restrained is Koolhaas' comprehension of space, proportion and surface! Speaking of surface, the masterpieces are attached to the walls with giant magnets, a fact as ingenious as it is quirky.
The museum was empty when I visited - lack of funds in a city which literally throws its moneys around. A mind-boggling 35 million tourists visit Las Vegas each year. If a fraction is willing to spend $15 for a ticket, the Gugg and the Hermitage may be able to pay rent to the casino for their spaces.