#127: Night Society

The art critic Dave Hickey, praising his adopted hometown, wrote that “America is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility.” That description came to mind after a recent conversation about whether Las Vegas could possibly bounce back from a crisis that seems to specifically threaten indoor environments—although this week’s photos of Floridians playing blackjack behind plexiglass dividers suggest that the city will bounce back whether it should or not. For now, though, the pandemic presents an existential crisis for Las Vegas, probably the most architecturally important American city of the past half century, having pioneered the inversion of indoors and outdoors that Rem Koolhaas describes in Junkspace (a surprisingly relevant quarantine read): “Air-conditioning has launched the endless building. If architecture separates buildings, air-conditioning unites them.” In a pandemic, the “endless building” is precisely what we don’t want, but the fact that we’ve built so much of it, from airports to malls to offices, paints us into a corner right now, especially as we begin to emerge from quarantine and look for places outside of our homes that we can safely occupy. As Hickey observed, Las Vegas exhibits more extreme and openly acknowledged versions of the conditions that also characterize more ordinary places; we didn’t quite realize how much of life happened indoors until everything closed, and I imagine that right now in Vegas there isn’t much to do at all.

If the coronavirus’s negative impact on the public environment has any silver lining, it’s the potential to turn the contemporary city’s “endless building” inside out. This has already happened on an ad hoc basis as traditionally indoor activities move outdoors because they have to, and the informal nature of the transition has largely preceded the infrastructure to monetize those activities as effectively as enclosed spaces do (which is surely coming). Koolhaas also writes, “Junkspace expands with the economy but its footprint cannot contract—when it is no longer needed, it thins. Because of its tenuous viability, Junkspace has to swallow more and more program to survive.” As long as interior space seems dangerous to so many potential customers, it will be difficult for junkspace to swallow enough program to satisfy its appetite, but perhaps it will better adapt itself to the outdoors. Either way, it will likely keep thinning. In the meantime, the explosion of scrappy street-facing takeout business and the heightened utilization of public space in lieu of interiorized consumption has been one of the few joyful side effects of coronavirus. Ideally, commerce can escape from junkspace more permanently, indoors as well as outdoors. Probably not in the desert though.

Hans Ibelings concludes his 2002 book Supermodernism with his own reflections on Las Vegas, echoing Dave Hickey: “The urban landscape on either side of Las Vegas Boulevard, which is simultaneously hilarious and depressing, unique and redundant, kitschy and original, irrepressible and totally controlled, is no more than a scaled-up version of what is happening in countless other places.” What was happening in 2002, Ibelings argued, was “tourist-style consumption” spreading beyond tourist destinations themselves to suffuse everyday life, thanks to globalization and hypermobility, with architecture responding by orienting itself toward experience consumption as well. The internet has since intensified these trends in ways Ibelings couldn’t have imagined in the early ‘00s and now, at a moment when actual tourism has cratered and most of us are frozen in place, the digitally-mediated tourist gaze is the primary way we can access anything outside of our homes. The pandemic has made the rest of the world a bit more like Las Vegas: timeless, post-spatial, and detached from the blinding brightness of the outside world we’ll eventually stagger back into.