The site is a half-mile west of The Strip, bordered to the east by the back-sides of casinos and malls and to the west by I-15 and old industrial buildings, the back-side of the city.
By positioning the project in this residual space between various images and communities of Las Vegas, it becomes a zone of access both for the greater city and for The Strip. It also allows the project to be positioned in the “in-between” zone of an unresolved but potentially urban condition.
This could be considered one of many interventions, one moment in an archipelago of new spaces for Las Vegas that work together to create new community space. This location in particular offers connectivity to a wide range of resources in the city, both physically and socially, due to its “centrality.” The threshold between visitor destination and residential city in particular provides fertile ground for intensifying relationships in a tectonic setting.
PROGRAM > REVEALING PROCESS
The program for the site overall is a civic space for multiple user groups. Specifically, this will be accomplished through the intersection of two typologies:
casino and community dance center.
Given that this is an exceptional and iconic type of bracketed space in Las Vegas, the casino border will be the starting ground for a unique tectonic and temporal strategy of place-making.
A community dance center will be the main design focus, as this will be the “border program.” Working with the new Smith Center, soon to be the home of the Nevada Ballet and Philharmonic, a more community-oriented center can provide an ancillary space for rehearsal and performance but moreover for the involvement of community activities with more formalized practices. In terms of arts education, the center will provide a full range of body-learning activities, including step dance, youth dance, parkour, yoga, and so forth, in addition to more typical offerings. The main purpose of the design will be to foreground process and activity in as many ways as possible to add a new experience to that of public Las Vegas.
URBAN BORDER ZONES > REAPPROPRIATING “LAS VEGAS”
Civic space has long been the site of political coexistence among different individuals and, in facilitating productive confrontation, has provided the ground for social change and progress. However, given the changing relationships of human interactions with space and with one another, largely brought about by the rapid urbanization of cities and the filtering of new technologies into to all aspects of everyday life, most traditional forms of civic space are no longer relevant. Yet while “public” life is now accessible from nearly anyplace through digital technologies, civic space still depends upon physical expression in the city. As such architecture continues to play a vital role in establishing civic space in urban environments through the exploration of new forms and strategies.
Most challenging to the creation of urban civic space has been the spread of enclaves and privatized public space throughout cities, which has created urban “border” conditions. As a result of the proliferation of these highly controlled spaces with clearly established boundaries, active public space has become more scarce. Las Vegas is an extreme case of this condition; not only is the city physically fragmented in its suburban sprawl, but also the domination of its city image creates a deeply dividing border condition between many of the urban spaces and users.
However, moments of intersection do occur at the “access zones” of enclaved spaces, the moments at which private entities are forced to interface with immediate conditions and physical contexts. These moments are opportunities for place-making, a temporal and tectonic grounding of diverse local and extended networks of relationships.
I speculate that is through architectural manipulation and spatialization of the enclave border and its moments of access that a new shared territory can emerge in the city. At a site in Las Vegas in the zone in which the Strip and the city meet, I will reconsider urban civic space by redesigning the relationship between private and public institutions in order to create a charged urban zone of interaction. By reconfiguring the relationship of the market-driven (the casino) with the institutional (a dance center), privatized space might be leveraged to empower and connect new hybrid civic spaces for the city of Las Vegas.
AESTHETIC KNOWLEDGE > DANCE
In appealing to and providing for these diverse characters, a cultural program could be an interesting opportunity for creating novel relationships and interactions between various users and user groups. Art, but more specifically the physical movement art of dance, can offer subjects fresh engagement with physical space.
Dance is necessarily spatial and temporal, and as such necessarily place-bound and present. Its physicality is a function of the body’s contact with space and its relationship with other bodies; the dancer’s experience of the space, specifically the interaction of the body and materiality, is the essence of dancing. For viewers as well as dancers, the human body is the only spatialization of dance itself; just as politics are not possible without the confrontation of persons, the dance is not possible without the dancer. Due to this fundamental corporeality, the dance is a spectacle, mediated by visibility, that is constructed not around modes of social interaction but “around ways in which bodies can be visibly meaningful.”1
From primitive times, dance has been a fundamental part of human interaction. The term “dance” can describe any movement that is not always directly functional but rather ritual, a mental as well as physical and emotional behavior. Movement is predominant in all forms of human intellective activity, and skilled movement can be considered a form of thinking as well as an expression of inner feeling.2 Dance is then a way of thinking, as a mode of communication, utilizing a repertoire of signs that are understood by a specific species or culture to signal emotion or drive.3 Dance, like image, can encode and decode myth and rituals; dance rituals become integrative events that provide identity markers and establish boundaries and that “help develop or reinforce bonds among kin and community members.”4 Rituals and ceremonies thus empower individuals to understand their own roles within the community, and they can facilitate personal and community transformations. In this sense, one can enter into a society through his or her embodiment in such rituals, through physical engagement with a particular social group. Furthermore, because important roles in the community are represented in such rituals, there is a direct correlation between ritual or cultural expression and understanding the values of society.
Dance, as a form of body intelligence, is thus simultaneously a form of aesthetic education. In contemporary discussions, aesthetic education in movement arts has been argued to strengthen the spontaneous faculties of expression and foster artistic expression in the young. By fostering an awareness of the body with regard to space and rhythm as well as the ability to communicate more effectively with peers, dance does more than simply encourage creativity in that it heightens one’s potential for awareness within society.
This awareness is heightened in dance because dance is a synthesis of corporeality and theatricality, of physical movement and visual reception. As a formal enterprise, these translate to the fundamental design concepts of technique and expression (form), both repeatedly cited as the two main elements in choreography. Choreography is the process by which these come together, the process of describing a volume that dance makes physically manifest—the context for the dance.
Choreography, therefore, is a difficult concept to capture representationally. Typically, dance can be permanently recorded by video, which shows the visual aspects but not perhaps what is essential in a dance, or it can be notated, conveying descriptive properties but not how movement is organized or the symbolic system of feelings, ideas, and other movements contained in dance. In this way dance shares the architecture’s problem of describing/inscribing subjective relationships to its experience. Just as the physical traces of global networks mediate understandings of the larger networks themselves, richer dimensions of understanding, meaning, and significance are mediated in and through the particular features of a given work. And like one’s subjective experience of the built environment, the full preservation of dances generally relies upon human interaction and memory.
Theatrically, dance is comprised of performers and audience, occupying separate spaces but interacting in a shared space—that in which the audience visually accesses the performance. Vision is a powerful sense; only the eye can focus, shape space, and create social and psychic organization. Our other senses are integral and unconsciously weave experience into “an organic totality”—there are no “voids” in sensation—but the eye can “isolate,” intensify one element among many, and establish hierarchy.5 Our understood reception of the environment will always be primarily visual, and architecture, without losing its capacity as a spatial entity to integrate body knowledge, should continue to learn from art the myriad ways by which visual expressiveness impacts the subject.
The movement of dancers is visually inscribed on an audience as a dance; it is through this movement that space changes from a two-dimensional static image to become visible in three dimensions. Thus dance is experienced dimensionally, as an exercise constantly restructuring space. At another level, participating in or watching dance also entails an understanding of interrelated aspects of experience that are vectorially ordered.6 Experiences are attained through mediation of the components to conceive of the whole, while understanding and interpretation come from a return to a fresh analysis of the parts, which is then followed by a reassessment of the whole, and so on in a continuous cycle in which the particular features mediate overall significance and vice versa.
When the zone of mediation is removed—as in the market-driven spaces that present us with a pre-mediated image to consume—the subject is denied this important process of understanding. One can conceive of the parts and of the whole, but they are disconnected rather than understood through individual cognition. Formal dance productions often mask the backstage workings, highlighting only the re-production in a singular, but repeated, event. This has allowed much of dance, especially the kind performed in Las Vegas resorts, to become “at a deep level standardized and packaged.”7 However, a performance always has a backstage, where the shared experience of those involved in creating the production occurs, from the loading docks and parking garages to rehearsal and dressing rooms. Expanding one’s understanding of who is involved in dance reveals that formal dance structurally offers multiple facets of involvement.
Broadening one’s thinking about dance further, the many forms of dance can appeal to all characters of people, and more informal opportunities for involvement can make it widely accessible. As an individual or a collective activity, dance has the spontaneous potential to happen anywhere with anyone. As a fundamentally spatial act, dance is a claiming and even an appropriation of space. It occurs in dedicated social spaces like bars and party-venues as well as in basic public spaces like parking lots. Entire cultures of bodily appropriation of space have emerged in the last decades, known worldwide as parkour, free running, and freestyle walking. Even yoga can be an appropriation of space akin to dance in its presence and performance. In these types of “dance” action, presentation is not the end-purpose or context for the practice, but rather self-awareness and empowerment. Social dance is in this sense contiguous with artistic dance; as an activity it is something everyone can do, and so it becomes not an expression of our individuated share in humanity but a part of our individuality itself, our individual animality. In this mode, the primitive nature of dance again becomes relevant, as dance is a bodily assertion of one’s place in the world without concern for one’s constitution in social relationships.
Similarly, in one’s reception of dance, contemplation is not a public manifestation but can be an individual act of free thinking. Formally or informally practiced, dance is today a public act, a “loose package” open to a wide variety of responses and interpretations. The identity of dance has thus evolved, as the question of what makes a movement a dance movement is one of character and context, the attitude of performer or spectator rather than formal guidelines—one of the subject and subjectivity.
1 Sparshott (1993), 233.
2 Seitz (2002), 37.
3 Hanna (1983), 42.
4 Kealiinohomoku (1997), 70.
5 Marshall McLuhan referenced in Sanford Kwinter, Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture (Barcelona: Actar, 2006).
6 Jerry H. Gill, “On Knowing the Dancer from the Dance,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 1975), 128.
7 Sparshott (1993), 231.
CULTURAL INVESTMENT > LIBERATED URBAN ZONE
In establishing civic space, architecture must engender this shift to the in-between, foregrounding the possibilities for new confrontations in urban environments by grounding the fluidity of global networks in spatialized projects. One such project then becomes that of liberating Las Vegans from the domination of the “Fabulous” image, a project in which civic space might highlight cultural processes and formations rather than the luxury product of the city’s entertainment culture. Specifically, if the city is indeed to become “one of the foremost metropolises in the world,” it must begin to make a greater investment in the future of its communities at an infrastructural level though cultural education and opportunity.1
Dance has a history of conflict between freedom and control, “the ideal of a body moving in freely expressive health and nakedness” against an idea of perfectly trained bodies “submitted to a refined and codified choreographic discipline.”2 Thus dance found itself struggling to identify an in-between of its own, a territory in which it might symbolize something greater, the total liberation of spiritual energies. Dance and the variations previously described are all centered upon the idea of attaining the ultimate physical freedom, mastering one’s environment so that nothing impedes the body as it moves through space. As with other physical art forms, in its freest and most informal sense, dance becomes a mode of democratization because it is a liberated claiming of shared territory, and as such enables public transformations.
In contrast to this ideal of freedom, dance has become another example of bracketing, a packaged art to be received in a very specific way by the Las Vegas audience. Culture itself has become defined by territorial lines of global capital, rather than political boundaries of the nation or region. Cultures have been hijacked to transport commercial messages and commerce hijacked to transport culture. Although architecture once could have been considered the storehouse for culture, we now accept that something else has become that storehouse, and so architecture can instead be repositioned as an agent of cultural intensification and expansion. Given that the role of government in establishing cultural programs from a nationwide infrastructural level is likely to grow in the near future, architecture can further help to spatialize these projects as another type of global network.
Moreover, at a time when the city has been badly hit by economic crisis and foreclosures, Las Vegas needs to invest in existing members of the community for the future enhancement of the city’s life. By taking into account the hybrid city as a whole and providing residents and tourists alike tectonic engagement with physical space, the built environment can engage a new public awareness and expand the experiences of the many different characters in the city. Even in the city’s most popular escape spaces, a more thoughtful tourism might be introduced to lure visitors into a more multifaceted experience of the city.
Yet dance could be understood in other ways, embracing the dialogue between body instinct and visual understandings that Gill describes. Rethinking the space and interactions related to dance could impact not only participants and observers but the discipline as well. Choreographers have stated that they could create different kinds of dances if different kinds of spaces were offered; dancers, choreographers, and companies cherish non-traditional spaces.
As the world shrinks into global villages and cultural identities blur, there is a growing awareness in even the formal dance community of dance traditions outside the mainstreams of ballet and modern, recognizing these “others” as artistic realities. These others could range from rough street dance to even the darkly appealing exotic dance that for which Las Vegas is so well-known. In terms of art in the city, dance could be the ultimate conflation of high and low, of “nobrow.”3 If it is made accessible and desirable to the many characters of the city, a community-oriented dance center could assure consistent and diverse use through intelligently designed spatial and temporal divisions and overlaps as various programs are productively interlaced.
A new civic-minded urban “center” could thus be loci of physical activity with a fully-loaded roster of overlapped uses. Productive confrontation could occur not only within such an institution but in its varied relationships to the city and other programs as well, taking advantage of urban border conditions to create extremely active zones of interface. The “image” of a new development, of a hybrid community dance center, then becomes one of revealing process and sharing territory, encouraging new formations for collectives as well as new individual experiences as formerly dissociated networks of flows and persons hit the ground and become architecturally manifest.
1 Mayor Oscar Goodman, Union Park website.
2 Sparshott (1993), 228.
3 Term used by Klingmann (2007), 125.
ENGAGING CONTEXT > COGNITIVE MAPPING AND GLOBAL POSITIONING
Because architectural representations inevitably become tools for thinking about cities and urban projects, it is relevant to examine the prevailing models for engaging social and spatial interactions, exploring the realm between culture and form to understand contextual relationships.
Recognizing the shift toward fragmentation, postmodern architects struggled to redefine the contemporary conditions of society and to establish architecture’s relationship to those conditions; as such the crisis was in finding a methodology of working that could address the gap between cultural analysis and form. As the cultural environment became confined within artificial, staged realms, there was an alienation of the individual from her surroundings—a symptomatic loss of connection. In finding a methodology that addressed the superficial relationship between alienated self and environment, some members of the discipline turned to language, treating architecture as an indexical act of creation, meant to be read and thus to some degree disengaged from active social life. However, some architects wished to pursue anew the physical environment as a medium for relational systems that emphasized subjectivity. These architects focused on the invention of tools for analyzing characteristics of social space, which offered new opportunities for forming relationships within architecture and social life. Specifically, by starting to map the interactions between people and the environment, architecture could begin to foreground an idea of activity or contingency, prioritizing the subjective self-conscience and empowering people in an environment of growing artificial ubiquity.
This specific concern for analyzing interaction with context beget the strategy of cognitive mapping. Kevin Lynch with Gregory Kepes investigated new ways of understanding spatial relationships in the city based on the fact that there was a ubiquitous visibility to the city and its architecture that could link visual perception directly to the formation of mental maps. For them, the primary preoccupation was legibility and the main concern disorientation. Lynch hoped simultaneously to educate citizens to be able to read visual cues in their environments and to guide urban design in producing comprehensible, unalienating—“good”—forms.
“Lynchian thinking” spawned a variety of urban diagrammers in the 1960s, all of whom followed his anthropocentric phenomenological-behaviorist approach, which first assumed city views to be part of the everyday narrative of urban life and second relied upon the mental processing of direct, conscious sensory input.1 While many of these were one-to-one, static representations of moments of experience, some recognized the city as an environment of continuous change, looking to capture the “chance occurrences and happenings which are so vital to be aware of—the strange and beautiful which no fixed, preconceived order can produce.”2 Along with temporality, these architects also entered by various means into the realm of the non-fixed viewpoint. Refuting the objective method and omniscient viewpoint of the axonometric drawing, they offered through analysis of inhabitation, observation, and interaction ways of capturing the multiplicitous viewpoint of the urban citizen.
However, this approach lacked the capacity to document any political agency or historical process. Fredric Jameson suggested instead that representation of the city focus not only on form but also more broadly on collective perception, the “social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms.”3 He distinguished between “Real” and “Imaginary” relationships to conditions of existence, and called for a map “of a new and global type” that could bridge city experience and the transcendent reality that “transcends all individual thinking or experience.”
Because phenomena other than our senses became involved in the formation of architectural and social relationships, the search for analytical tools then shifted to capturing “networks of flows” operating within the city. Rem Koolhaas then led the transformation of subjectivity-mapping, making instruments of “research” into aesthetic ends in themselves in order to capture process. He and others looked to represent moments of intensities and possible scenarios through the use of datascapes and diagrams. These attempts to map the “invisible” effects and manipulations of global networks on the subject could be termed global positioning, taking on a much larger conceptual scale in seeking to describe the “machine that is operated by no one.”4
Thus our mode of understanding social relationships to the environment underwent the same major break, driven by the emergence of global capitalist forces, that occurred in the social relationships and environment themselves. The paradigm shift from cognitive mapping to global positioning demonstrated a recognition of the fact that new strategies had become necessary in order to quantify the intangible social, political, economic—cultural—forces affecting the relationships between people, objects, and environments. The data fetish, however, has left new gaps to close. In global positioning, the architect relegates himself to the same cool surveillance of the tourist gaze, totalizing global conditions while remaining detached from local intervention herself. Moreover, the Koolhaasian technique is highly reliant on hyperbole and irony, offering a critical viewpoint but not necessarily a synthetic positive project, or a way to insert local subjectivities and constraints into the analysis. Global positioning suggests that the spatialization of these invisible forces is irrelevant, when in fact the global economy absolutely requires “places” to hit the ground and to spatialize its flows.
Together, cognitive mapping, a topographic representation, and global positioning, a power project, relegate entities to either the physical or non-physical realms. Thinking of the physical and non-physical as mutually exclusive “filter[s] out the possibility of mediating conditions, thereby precluding a more complex reading of the impact of digitization on material and place-bound conditions… Digital space is embedded in the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, imaginary structurations of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate.”5 There must be a way to better understand and intervene in our environments by “recognizing the ongoing importance of the material world even in the case of some of the most dematerialized activities.”6
We are at a moment in which we must ask, “how do we reintroduce place in economic analysis?” Ignoring this relationship will only continue to marginalize architecture and tectonics to the act of object-making rather than empowering materiality to contribute to the larger concept of urban experience.
1 Giuliana Bruno, “Haptic Space: Film and the Geography of Modernity,” Visualizing the City (2007), 21.
2 Lawrence Halprin, Cities (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1963), 9.
3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 415.
4 Manuel Castells referenced in NEXT Architects (2005), 279.
5 Digital space can here also refer to economic space or more generally, non-physical space. Sassen (2005), 148.
6 Sassen (2005), 150.
PLACE-MAKING > TECTONIC GROUNDING IN THE CITY
Having determined that architecture must reappropriate the border in order to make manifest the plurality of social relationships that can intensify in zones of access, we must determine a strategy. Specifically, in terms of tools for representing and thus for thinking about and designing urban environments, we must refocus on the connection between subject and environment. How do we reintroduce place as an intensified moment of connection between local and global socio-spatial relationships? And how can architecture temporally and tectonically ground these connections for a potential collective?
These questions emerge out of the understanding that the non-physical global economies, the motivating forces of bracketed space, must hit the ground and localize in concrete built environments in order to provide physical access. These forces spatialize somewhere, and these moments or zones are opportunities to strengthen and expand the local connections of an interface. Thus, although “place” has in some sense has disintegrated, in many ways it has become even more essential and transformative. Place-making then can be thought of as mapping the forces of culture into a locale and thus into direct interaction with people. This mapping is a combined facticity and subjectivity that grounds a sense of more global elements—environment, culture, community—and allows them to be affected, deformed, and transformed through the interaction of the subject. Given the pre-existing strategies of topographic analysis (cognitive mapping) and technological analysis (global positioning), this is moving toward a new strategy deploying the synthesis or confrontation of the two through a temporal and tectonic grounding.
Architecturally this translates to spatializing the enclave border and its areas of access as “microenvironments with global span,” creating a shared territory between the political and economic life of a city.1 By reconfiguring the interface of bracketed spaces with other programs, privatized space can be leveraged to empower and connect democratic, civic spaces. The borders themselves then become zones of connection that not only makes manifest cultural forces but also through these connections allows for productive interaction and participation in the constant restructuring of society. Las Vegas as a city can escape its own bordered conditions to become a unique and sustainable site for innovation and change.
1 Sassen (2005), 149.
FRAGMENTED CITIES > BRACKETED SPACE > PASSIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Border conditions have become in a sense the given condition of human settlements, particularly the city. Urban space is a fragmented, kaleidoscopic collage of “images, signs, functions and activities that are nevertheless globally connected in myriad ways.”1 This mosaic of enclaved spaces functions like a point-cloud in which movement is understood on a point-to-point basis; “urban dwellers still travel through space, but they are increasingly less aware or less dependent on noticing its content. Today, it is often only the spectacular spaces, the places with images that mirror those in the electronic space of television, that remain in the mental maps of urban dwellers.”2 In most cities we indeed move from one bounded space to the next, from one image to another, in a closed circuit that assures users little to no interference.
This fragmented condition represents a global shift toward enclavation that has occurred over the last century, as well as a profound restructuring of virtually all aspects of daily life in the last twenty years. This paradigmatic shift, generally understood as the process of globalization, has been guided by a neo-liberal political agenda, motivated by technological development and consumption, and fueled by escapism.
Technological development has shrunk the world in terms of communications and travel, enabling specific points such as the home to become all-in-one operations bases networked to other such points in society. Thus functional and social relationships have been largely detached from local contexts, meaning that old socio-spatial relations have lost strategic significance as new connections operate in a coordinated and linked world economy. While these virtual connections make possible new encounters and types of spaces, they also allow dispersed singular entities and closed boundaries to proliferate unchecked in the physical environment.
Simultaneously, global markets have become intelligently sensitive to subtle consumer fluctuations and have conveniently learned to package and sell commodities in clear, easily identifiable images around the world. The “commodities” at stake are not only physical products but also environments and total experiences, the larger contexts in which the products are consumed. For instance, nature and community have long been packaged and sold as one product, the suburb, just as leisure has become packaged in the form of the resort.3 Public space too has become a product for consumption; real-estate developers and private interests have replaced the state and its planners in shaping the urban fabric by producing privatized public space.4 Shopping malls, restaurants, theme parks, and casinos now most often satisfy the demand for public space, despite the fact that as privately owned and run spaces, they are highly controlled, exclusive, and by no means democratic. In the name of public amenity, the private realm has made the city less public by favoring structures of exclusion over those of inclusion.
Underlining the forces of technology and consumption, and as such another powerful driver toward fragmentation, has been the cultural proclivity for escape. Particularly deep-seated in American culture, escapism and a global “ecology of fear” have consistently driven urban populations into increasingly segregated living conditions, prizing separation, protection, and security above the openness of democratic space.5 Whether escaping to the suburbs, a gated community, or an exclusive condo tower, the desire for sociability or physical connection to one’s urban context was long ago superseded by the desire for safety—and simultaneously the selling power of these escape habitats enhanced and fed that desire. The idea of public space did not compete with the image of the enclave, which successfully communicated nostalgic, conservative concepts of home and community. Socially, enclavation as a type of group, market-led “cocooning” offered more than anything the security of uniformity, “the visible affirmation of us all being the same, or at least of being together with others who are the same.”6 The “other” would always be safely elsewhere, outside the secure enclave.
Technology has consistently benefited from enclavation, attracting urbanites with its promise to further buffer them from real space.7 But moreover, private enterprise has taken advantage of escapism to restructure the fabric of the physical world. By empowering the global market, escape has undermined the virtues of productive confrontation in the city and the values of civic space. Suburban development and privatized public space have proliferated throughout American cities as the main components of urbanization, which as a result has become a totalizing force, rapidly growing with the expediency of market-driven concerns and with little to no support infrastructure for the non-interiorized public domain. For Davis this “apocalyptic urbanism” is the equivalent of grafting suburbia onto downtown, a “militarization of urban space” in which homogenized market-driven space dominates over civic space, creating segregation in the name of security and extinguishing the space of democratic mixing—the risks, grime, and odor.8 Motivated by escape and dominated by image, the urban population has thus facilitated the disappearance of civic space and the emergence of the fragmented and highly controlled point-cloud as the dominant understanding of the urban environment.
Las Vegas is an example of this condition manifested to an extreme, and as such positions the city as an exception yet at the same time, ironically, as the city most representative of America. All-inclusive city “imageability” and the packaging of a total experience has been the main priority of the city from its inception. Created essentially by and for private enterprise, escape was really the only motivating force driving development, and so enclaves grew here more definitively than even in other American suburban cities. “Urbanization” has taken the tabula rasa approach of either building tracks of custom homes on fresh ground or deleting built fabric by leveling it to the ground to make room for something new. It is easy to say that the city “encapsulates much that has gone wrong in American urban development.”9
The absolute sociological liminality of the “Fabulous Las Vegas” image fed geographical liminality, and even today Las Vegas faces the challenge of addressing the local societal segregation imposed by the Strip in addition to the widespread separations typical of contemporary urban environments. Las Vegas has sprawled in low-level development to the edges of its valley, with its growth primarily fueled by the powerful—and profitable—enclave of The Strip as a node in the global market of the gaming industry. It is a single-market-dominated, car-centric city, in which for most the visit to an enclosed mall or casino resort is the most “public” space that they will experience, not unlike so many other American cities.
Physical public domain obviously still exists (although the Strip has an underage curfew, plenty of streets and spaces in the city are not guarded or exclusive), but civic space has largely disappeared as the most prominent third places in the city are those in which space, experience, and interactions are bracketed. Public space may be mimicked in these spaces, but in reality they are all tightly controlled and mediated, and as such exist on a thin line between invitation and exclusion.
The tight borders of control both along the perimeters and within the interiors of these spaces firstly serve to remove connections to other realities, especially those involving the local context. The mall or casino strives to be a “weightless realm,” its only substance or meaning carried not in its environment in and of itself but in its commodities and packaged experience.10 They are for this reason able to purposefully conceal the limitations of space and time that define the rest of our physical world, “putting everything into the present time” by using the banality of their edges to constantly push consumers back into the “endless” field of consumption.11 This is true of the objects as well as of various programs embedded within the bracketed field; restaurants, theaters, and arenas embedded within casinos, for example, are completely absorbed and commodified by the bracketed space one must move through in order to access them and so are decisively separated from any local exterior realm.
Without concern for intrusion by local contexts or conditions, these environments can then objectify cultural meanings, artifacts, and places in order to create a strong, marketable image. By using already-known symbolic codes, simulations reproducing some affect of reality can draw associations between “images and places, resemblances and meaning,” the artificial and the authentic—thus reframing urban realities and taking the place of these realities in the spectator’s mind.12
The clarity of the image and its associated expectations, reinforced by the physical environment, induces a bracketed experience in which desire is automated and experience can be lived out as if according to script. The lived experience becomes another of many “undigested, unedited narratives,” the constituent elements of which are meaningful only in that they affirm a predicted image: that which was sold to the consumer before arriving. Image thus dominates experience to the point at which the experience itself becomes unidentifiable in memory; the individual is coerced into seeking nothing “unique” but only that which fulfills the promise of the image. Image, branding, and theming have changed how expectations are formed by manipulating the total subjective experience, by focusing on “you.”
Knowing this, the consumer has become willingly passive; aware of the set-up, the fakeness of the scenario and the role that one is play-acting, understanding that all of one’s possible interactions and engagement with context are carefully controlled, one does not see to engage. Rather than try to assert individuality or make unexpected observations, the subject in bracketed space is fine with being an “inattentive viewer” who is “just looking,” observing the spectacle in passing—essentially a tourist.13 Tourism and the concept of the visitor, who as a member of the urban population is motivated by escape and dominated by the image, have inspired many critical analyses of the impartial, permissive, safely unaccountable “tourist gaze” that has become commonplace for all transient inhabitants of environments through which we move ever faster.14 Such travelers—literal tourists but also simply the mobile subject—are perhaps more sensitive to sensory input when traveling, but also less likely to critically engage their contexts. In the superficial, visually acquisitive experience of the subject, attractions offer “pure visibility” and reassurance, the “promise not to burden the spectator with the seriousness of reality.”15 Spectacles are meant to be quickly scanned rather than analyzed, because “the pleasure of the view suspends critical judgment,” as the subject is given a permissiveness to get lost in an idealized image and to ignore completely existing contingencies. This emphasis on visibility allows the subject to be present as a consumer, yet disengaged from any presence in a different common reality—escaping from any experience outside the limits of the spectacle or between “featured” moments. This “tourist” perception transforms context, tradition and cultural significance into flat iconography without consequence.
The design of these spaces is not according to a plan or composition but rather according to a highly choreographed experience; it is not about programming but about creating a “mood.” Las Vegas was among the first tourist destinations to jump scales to the total choreography of leisure in its megaresorts, and the choreographers have it down to a science; they know everything you will “need” (code word for “desire”) and how much you will want of it.16 They know how to ensure that everyone is playing the role of the next big winner or the object of desire, willingly dressing the part in preparation for the anticipated packaged experience. In casinos subjects anxiously consume the feeling that they are part of some nefarious activity, getting away with something, maybe even getting something for nothing.
So in privatized public space, where everything experienced is pre-mediated and carefully bracketed, the house always wins. The market has determined a “final vocabulary” for all visitors to its space: a singular, predetermined way of understanding the re-presented world that does not allow the factoring in of contingency or multiplicity.17 Despite the appropriation of “artifacts” and evocations of “place” from various originals, no unexpected formations like those that could appear in the original referents will occur here; no surprises are possible when the perimeter and entire floor area are carefully surveilled.18 Within these spaces, like meets like and like interacts with like.
Therefore, in bracketed, image-dominated urban space, inflexible identity and predictable difference take the place of alterity; sociability becomes mutual accommodation through dissociation, the peace of mutual indifference, the free-pass of no engagement and no consequence. Put more aggressively, the Utopia of tourism is akin to that of totalitarianism, utilizing the same tools of mental vacuity and manipulating meaninglessness and meaning to gain the economic and political advantage.19
It seems that enclave-urbanization has become the “ultimate and inevitable fate of the contemporary city,” driven by the market rather than public-interest or even divergent partisan views.20 If bracketed space is becoming the authoritarian figure in the public domain, people are being withdrawn from conflict—from political public life. This seems contradictory to the pervasive idea of connectedness imbued in the idea of city-living and propagated throughout society by various information technologies. Yet as more people are more “hyperconnected,” rarely if ever experiencing true isolation, there seems to be a simultaneous detachment from societal involvement, a loss of belonging to the physical environment’s increasingly alienating “public” places. Additionally, the pervasiveness of the image fuels “a queasy sense of ourselves as liminal creatures with no boundaries, while conversely promoting privatized anxieties about increased isolation and personal insignificance in the urban spaces we inhabit.”21
Given my initial account of civic life and the coexistence it enables, alienation can be attributed to the loss of confrontation and loss of ownership, to the self-replicating networks of global connection in which encounters are strategic rather than spontaneous. In these networks confrontation with “otherness” is premeditated, mediated, and often romanticized, diminishing or trivializing the reality of political engagement. It is left to designers to find opportunity for civic space in the city to assert its value as site of coexistence, mutual attachment, the balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces.
1 Swyngedouw (2005), 125.
2 Lawrence A. Herzog, Return to the center: culture, public space, and city building in a global era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 5.
3 Margaret Crawford, “The world in a shopping mall,” Variations on a theme park (1992), 21.
4 Swyngedow (2005), 136.
5 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).
6 NEXT Architects, “The Image of Metropolis,” Future City (2005), 280.
7 Herzog (2006), 5.
8 Mike Davis, “Fortress Los Angeles: the militarization of urban space,” Variations on a theme park (1992), 156.
9 Davis (2000), 97.
10 Crawford (1992), 17.
11 Marc Auge, “Contemporary Tourist Experience as Mise-en-scene,” Architourism: authentic, escapist, exotic, spectacular, ed. Joan Ockman and Salomon Frausto (Munich: Prestel, 2005), 88.
12 M. Christine Boyer, “Cities for sale: merchandising history at South Street Seaport,” Variations on a theme park (1992), 189.
13 Boyer (1992), 192.
14 Referring to Benjamin’s “optical consciousness,” Foucault’s “quasi-perceptions,” Evans “optic sensation” (vs haptic sensation), Herzog’s “ordinary perception” (vs simultaneous perception), etc.
15 Boyer (1992), 192.
16 Easterling (2005), 24.
17 Rorty (1989).
18 Lowenthal (2002), 11.
19 Easterling (2005), 26.
20 Aureli (2008), 104.
21 Marcus and Neumann (2007), 2.
SHARED TERRITORY > APPROPRIATING THE IN-BETWEEN > ACCESS
Since traditional roles for architecture have failed to produce new formations of civic space in Las Vegas thus far, architects must seek new ground for involvement. In looking for opportunity for architectural intervention, rather than trying to predict future living conditions or patterns, we should prioritize the present in order to find moments for capitalizing on existing multiple “realities,” with the knowledge that these realities are inevitably changing entities to which future adaptability is essential. In seeking opportunity for complex and productive interaction, we must consider the sites of confrontation, and thus of vulnerability, that do exist in the fragmented city: the moments in-between enclaves, in-between bracketed spaces, the negative spaces formed by their boundaries.
While the characteristics and operations of enclaves are fairly definable, in-between space is one area where “realities” emerge as the space is continuously in transition of use. Whereas the bracketed public space of the mall or casino may never be considered “territory” because there is no sense of ownership on another’s property, the not-private spaces in-between offer anyone in a sense the chance to stake a claim, to recognize the space as his or her “territory,” at least transiently.1 Such physical shared territories of the city have the ability to promote a system of random benefits and rewards that encourage sociability based on contact and collectivity based on need. In Las Vegas then—where ongoing change or process is constantly smothered by the perpetual, timeless image of the city—the sense of shared territory in the city has always been unclear, a dispersed, ambiguous idea, and so political coexistence (as confrontation of difference) is wholly dependent on the claiming of territory, which has become a critical act of collectivity in the city.
As it has always developed exclusively under the domination of tourism and private entities, Las Vegas is a spatialization of the market that has been infiltrated by a substantial residential population. In other words, people are inhabiting a city that was not built for them, but rather one that was “born dumb” to the requirements of sustaining an urban population.2 Throughout its past of changing imagery, the city has never focused on the image of healthy, long-term communities. The city lacks in large-scale public infrastructure, let alone large-scale conservation efforts, because the stable urban population was never of foremost concern. If “citizens” are typically those belong to the cultural substance and civic life of a city, and “non-citizens” are excluded as the functional side of a city, then Las Vegas residents have most typically been the non-citizens of the urban environment.3
Yet these residents are citizens of some urban sphere, even if it is not readily apparent, and the city seems poised to acknowledge them with its aforementioned calls to redefine the city through “urbanization.” The introduction of commendable art collections, for example, allocates “a portion of casino space as a refuge for culture junkies and art hipsters,” and it “demonstrates the desire of the new Vegas to redefine itself—reimagine itself for a new type of consumer.”4 However, because diverse social relations are still “restricted to particular areas of consumption” such as casinos, coffee shops, bars, and so forth, they still operate in the realm of bracketed.5
Civic collectives then must be formed through the appropriation of non-interiorized space. As described earlier, political protest activity can make itself heard most strongly in the physical fabric of the city, and so squares and parking lots become sites of collectivity. A different example specific to Las Vegas is Critical Mass, a group of young cyclists that arrange dates via digital communications to ride en masse in downtown and along the Strip, reclaiming streets from traffic and commerce in protest against the loss of public space resulting from commercialization and privatization. Even more broadly, teenagers are one example of such acts of collectivity. Liberated from fixed time and space engagements by the ability to spontaneously connect over cell phones and instant messaging, they can “float” through cities, aggregating opportunistically as need arises.
These are examples of spontaneous grouping, a coexistent cultural intelligence, that redefine collectiveness and thus shared territory. In contrast to “community,” which must be understood to presume a large number of shared relations, “collective” now implies a larger range of relationships through which people might connect more freely, that “emerge out of the dynamics of pluriform urban dwellers’ real life patterns and preferences.”6 Collectivity thus arises when use gives way to appropriation, where formal structuring of meeting gives way to more random encounters. More importantly, the physical public domain becomes “opportunistically assembled out of individual movements and experience…tied to immediate individual need rather than collective meaning.”7 Civic spaces, as sites of the collective, then are never static but rather constantly changing, with new meanings continuously generated according to changing contingencies. These in-between groundings of new collectivity and sociability present one set of opportunities for meaningful architectural intervention.
In addition to the need for interaction, collective human settlement has always been driven by the need for access. Even today, from the market standpoint, the aggregation of fragments in the form of a city is necessary in order to offer the commodity of accessibility.8 Distinct borders are essential to the survival of the enclaves, and because of this, accessibility becomes the most significant characteristic of a place, whatever its loaded image may be. So it is at the moments of access at the borders of these spaces that a critical confrontation occurs between the controlled, interior bracketed space and the less certain, exterior “other” space. These points are the moment at which the global market network that shapes bracketed space must make contact with locality, where the node in the point-cloud must be grounded in order to become spatial and to enable physical access.
It must be on the borders of bracketed spaces where opportunity lies for making civic urban spaces manifest. David Michalski calls these moments along the edges of the products of consumer culture “microborders,” as they are microcosms of “borders” that occur on national and global scales.9 In his analysis, these are not only acting as determinants of social behavior, but offer greater implications for moments of identity formation, power, and social relations precisely because they are moments of confrontation between disparate user groups. In bracketed space “service areas exist as islands within seas of customer areas,” so workers travel through customer spaces and customers see the signs of workspace. Of course, wherever possible these “islands” are connected to the exterior by dedicated employee access routes, masking the signs of work in the play area, but these overlaps nonetheless occur. Where they do, the visual language of these support pieces distinguishes and regulates structural relations among consumers as well as social relations and space. Their articulation, the boundary lines, are then simultaneously new places of escape, potential sites of independence for either user in between societal demands.
Moments of access on the edges of nodes or enclavic formations allow detection of new subjects and collectives from within. Likewise, the concentration of activity in and around certain nodal points in global networks, be they the home or corporate structures, offer opportunities for re-evaluation of their local contexts, so that those secured within increasingly bounded spaces are not limited either. Thus the access zones along the borders of the in-between, as heightened moments of potential confrontation, seem poised to maximize upon the confrontational nature of these collective potentials. If borders at various scales are the given condition, their moments of access are then moments for potentially reconfigured connections between bracketed and democratic space, moments in which the civic might take form—in as much as this reconfiguration could potentially spatialize the complex, diverse relationships that occur at multiple levels in zones of access. So doing could create a contemporary “heterotopia,” or the paradox of simultaneous sameness and otherness, real and unreal.10 This potentially translates to creating physical space with the power to enable “simultaneous perception,” taking in one’s surroundings and experiencing a place more completely by understanding its contingent relationships.
Access moreover offers an inroad to the image, to its malleable border so that deformations and transformations can occur. By enabling the spontaneous collective to focus reappropriation at sites of access, these areas become richly pregnant with anticipation of social developments, allowing transformations to take place as confrontation and sociability ensue. The city again becomes the ground for mediation between emancipation and (dis)empowerment where diverse populations, dissociated from the “other” by enclavic environments or by marginalization, can engage a shared territory.
1 The homeless for example will be removed from their “claimed territory” by the city. However, I am speaking now about space that is used transiently as third place, neither work nor home.
2 Davis (2000), 104.
3 John Friedmann, “Transnational Migration: Spaces of Incorporation,” The Prospect of Cities (2002), 39.
4 Cass (2004), 251.
5 Scott Burnham, “The VJ of the Everyday: Remixing the Urban Visual,” Visualizing the City (2007), 183.
6 NEXT Architects (2005), 281.
7 NEXT Architects (2005), 281.
8 Webber (1964), 86.
9 David Michalski, “Employee Entrances and Emergency Exists: Exposing the Invisible Imagery of Consumption,” Visualizing the City (2007), 198.
10 This concept of heterotopia began with Michel Foucault, and has been recast in a number of ways. For Foucault, whereas utopias are fundamentally unreal, “placeless places” (i.e. the image of bracketed space), heterotopias “have the curious property of being in relation with the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect;” one is “at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point.” Foucault (1986), 24.
PASSIVE ARCHITECTURE > IMAGE-BITES
New ground for shared territory must be engaged at the scale of the individual building in addition to larger urban scales.
As discussed, architecture itself is largely responsible for social passivity. Unable to capture new modes of socio-spatial relationships, architecture has most often been “relegated to the construction of controlled environments that actively discourage social heterogeneity.”1 Without a clear direction for participating in new territorial formations, most architecture has continued to operate “automatically,” responding to global market conditions by prioritizing image-production over space-making. Image creates “architectural commodities that consumers need not interpret for themselves because ‘the mass culture of the consumer marketplace’ has already dictated their semiotic significance and cultural meaning.”2 The physical manifestations of bracketed public space, for example, are generic products of capitalism, as the architecture’s primary role is to reinforce the image. The modern city thus promotes the advancement of “skin architecture,” which gives surface variation to the global networks of shops selling the same commodities around the world and so gives a face to the standardization of public consumption.
At the same time, cities also tend to prize incredibly singular works of “Architecture,” the iconic centerpieces that can become featured attractions or souvenirs. When a building aims to be thus consumed by the tourist gaze as “the most iconic object of desire in the tourist installation,” it becomes another facet of economic enterprise.3 In this way architecture is frequently reduced to an “image-bite,” and general understanding of architecture becomes naturalized with image rather than the creation of space. Architectural authorship has become more often measured by the object rather than by the space it creates. Brands for example favor the creation of architectural objects, the identities of which are severed from the complexity of the social fabric, over more comprehensive urban interventions.
This obsessive focus on creating distinct outward appearances means that spatial relations become secondary and are often allowed to be market-driven into banal stereotypes. In order to free architecture from reproducing banality, it is vital that the subject, in terms of personal identity and personal growth, becomes even more crucial than form or function in the assessment of architecture’s value. Until the relative success of design is instead measured in the sensation derived from it, in growth and pleasure, then architects will remain unable to adequately engage the problem of bracketed spaces, which rely entirely upon effect and sensation. Bracketed spaces—in which meaning is carried not in the architecture but in the commodified objects, experiences and images offered for consumption—must be evaluated and critiqued for its failure to facilitate new encounters or understandings. The fragmented city, in its emphasis on image-based architecture, seems to be working against its own potential for progress. While this is by no means the singular condition of architecture’s relationship to the city, the emphasis on image and visual reception in architecture are pervasive issues that must be confronted, and we must critically engage conceptions of building exterior versus interior, as well as the fragmentation of the building envelope.
Traditionally, public spaces were engaged as abstract form, giving priority to the inner structure of experience itself as the factor that determined how visible things would be. By contrast, the visible forms of mediated spaces give priority to the visibility of things as a fundamental datum of experience. Learning from Las Vegas communicated an understanding of the issue of visual impact in terms of signage. At the time of that analysis “architecture” in the traditional sense still existed, though its power had been largely supplanted by signage. However, the power of signage itself has been supplanted by the power of image, which now necessitates a much more complex consideration. In Las Vegas and elsewhere, architecture is not merely forced to confront signage but has been fundamentally altered by image manipulation as the boundaries between image and built form have become increasingly obscure. The dichotomy between building and sign has ceased to exist and instead the language of architecture has been removed entirely from context, isolated so that it can be re-presented again as an architectural image. Klingmann’s terms for this contemporary shift are the “inverted shed” and the “inverted duck,” in which buildings have become three-dimensional carriers of information catering to audiences within as well as without. The building envelope “is no longer strictly explicit, but becomes a three-dimensional event space of visual signifiers that flows seamlessly from the exterior to the interior of the building.”4 Signs constitute their own material realities; the image does not dominate space but has become the space, is the “stage set.”
Image can defy cultural convention, inciting the desire for an experience even against cultural norms. But the true power of images lies in the fact that they can change and shift over time, largely because stories and masquerades must continually refresh in order to best serve a shifting market. Because image is not locked to a single referent, as simulations must be, image has the potential to be at once stronger than context yet at the same time responsive to changing conditions. Images do not have to be limited to packaging and commodification of real conditions, but rather affect experience and thus architecture can play a critical role as a catalyst to generate an authentic identity for people and places. It can make process visible and capture the psychological coercion that occurs when one is placed between sign and signifier. Thus, although imageability can contribute to the growing homogenization of people and places, it can also be a powerful strategy to craft a unique identity within the global economy, where it is vital that people and places differentiate themselves. Image may threaten the values of architectural space and tectonics, but at the same time might freshly empower architecture to redefine its role in society. The question becomes one of creating new images of empowerment rather than appropriating those of the past that serve only as filters, of creating place and connection in order to incite unity and ownership rather than nostalgia and consumption.
As vision is our most powerful sense, we trust images much more highly than any other data, despite our awareness of how easily they can be manipulated. Prioritizing architecture’s relationship to the subject, architecture could thus be politicized by reappropriating image and using its projective power to enhance civic spaces. Because image is generally used to communicate and sell a bounded entity, its emphasis is wholly on some exterior or interior border zone. If the “image-bite” critique is that architecture is failing to address the design problems of spatial and subjective relationships between and around buildings, the answer might be the manipulation of these borders to become in-between space as well, to address simultaneously that which is on either “side” of the border as image does. Jill Stoner questions whether we might make urban architecture that “contains its exterior inside itself;” more importantly, we could aim to make the interior outside itself in order to give visibility to that which is inside, ongoing.5 By this strategy we could re-connect that which has become bounded within bracketed space or any closed network to the “realities” of particular localities and contexts, enabling a simultaneity of connectedness and thus new possibilities of consciousness and empowerment for the subject.
The identity of architecture has shifted from the function of the object (performance/efficiency) and the object’s ability to incite symbolic meanings (projection/identity) to act as a catalyst (experience/transformation). The potential of architecture lies in its capacity as a medium to create an identity for people, communities, and places. In Las Vegas, the “indifferent” interactions that characterize most visible relationships to people and space are in fact “replete with both meaning and feeling;” what is needed “are translators and interpreters to help us make sense of them.”6 In this way architects have the opportunity to create civic spaces for the city that are not simulations but that offer the opportunity for richer experiences and interactions to emerge in the space itself. Architecture is then not about perfection of the object but the transformation of the subject, designing the human interactions (software) rather than the physical objects (hardware). Rather than mutual indifference, architects can seek specific strategies for designing built environments that foster the mutual attachments that beget productive societal interaction.
1 Klingmann (2007), 45.
2 Cass (2004), 246.
3 Easterling (2005), 26.
4 Klingmann (2007), 194.
5 Jill Stoner, “Rain in the City,” Visualizing the City (2007), 223.
6 Marcus and Neumann (2007), 3.