Q&A: Leaving Las Vegas

In their new book of photographs, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern eschew the famous Strip in favor of the surrounding Mojave Desert.

Book photo, Sarah Palmer; others courtesy Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern

When it comes to taking popular images of Las Vegas, the picture-postcard nighttime shots of the Bellagio with its streams of fountains on the Strip or the slightly drunken and very silly party shots in front of the Eiffel Tower replica are the probably the norm. Architecture and urban theorists Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern have taken a more serious view of Sin City in their new photo book, Urbanizing the Mojave Desert: Las Vegas, which shows a hybrid landscape reshaped by everyday urbanization, focusing on the radical transformation of the Mojave Desert. Their 192-page book (published by Jovis Verlag) features a lengthy essay and 150 color photographs of everything from billboards and abandoned trailer parks to power plants and golf courses rising out of the desert. I spoke to the authors about the book, the idea of a green Las Vegas, and how  recent developments in Las Vegas are redefining the desert landscape.

How did you come up with this idea for the book?

Ralph Stern: In architectural theory and architectural circles in Las Vegas, much of the identity is still organized around Venturi/Scott Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas, and there’s still this allegiance to the Strip as an ideal, even though the original has all but vanished. When I got there in 2004, the greater metropolitan area population was at 1.7 million and already planning for a city of four million. The Strip is certainly an element, but it’s not what’s going on here. It is this incredible metropolis that nobody seems to address in terms of its impact on the surrounding federal lands, on any land use and land policy issues, or on water issues. Our book is a response to the misplaced focus on the Strip and a lack of attention to the city on the whole.

Nicole Huber: When we were living in Berlin before moving to Las Vegas in 2005, the whole focus on green development in Germany made us change the focus of our studio to look at cities like Paris and Los Angeles in terms of sustainability. This encouraged us to move away from the Las Vegas Strip, and look at the ways in which the city actually interacts with its environment and its consequences.

If you look at Las Vegas through this lens of sustainability, what do you see?

NH: We are always astonished by the ways the city is described usually through this system of signs and symbols of the glamorous Strip, while the desert, the environment within which we developed, is always absent, even though it has a lot of potential. When we went on numerous hikes into the desert, we were always surprised at how beautiful and how rich it is–as well as how extremely arid the environment is, an issue long problematized in relation to settlement by geologists such as John Wesley Powell and historians such as Wallace Stegner, Marc Reisner, and Donald Worster.

RS: The notion of Manifest Destiny has driven so much of America’s history and attitudes towards its environment and Native American culture, and the reshaping of the landscape by real estate development, for example, is analogous to strip mining. The huge amount of rhetoric surrounding sustainability in Las Vegas hasn’t changed much in the way of building practices in the Southwest. The statistics in terms of water consumption in Las Vegas, even in relation to a city like Phoenix, is stunning. Water is incredibly cheap, and despite everybody being encouraged to save it, they have the highest per-capita water consumption in the United States.

It was important to have the Mojave Desert in the title of the book, and we felt we had to question what we do to our environment. The Mojave seems to be a very denigrated desert, so what I heard from my colleagues, people who one would expect are trained to see and understand the environment, to be discerning about issues of light and shadow, form and color, is just this flat comment of the Mojave as ugly. Period. The saguaros of the Sonoran desert in Arizona are beautiful, and one can accept that as the poster child of deserts, but the Mojave is described as just gray and ugly.

Did artists and poets historically have the same attitude?

RS: Whereas Venturi focused on the Strip in 1968, Banham’s book, Scenes in America Deserta, was focused on the Mojave. Las Vegas wasn’t that interesting at all to him. John Van Dyke’s 1901 book, The Desert, is another important book that talks about the beauty of the Mojave Desert. By and large, the Mojave is alive with land-use issues. A large percentage of lands in Nevada that are held by the government in the Cold War era were being used for the toxic tests site, such as the Nellis AFB bombing range and Area 51. If there is an expendable desert, it seems to be the Mojave.

Learning from Las Vegas is a celebration of Las Vegas, and almost anything by Reyner Banham, a British writer who was fascinated with America, was critical but always had an underlying celebratory feeling to it. Is your book celebratory or critical?

NH: I think it’s rather critical. It’s about looking at what’s happening to the desert. Las Vegas presents a seamless vision of success to the outside world, and so it buys into its own hype, even though most of the people who live there never really intersect with the Strip.

RS: There is an incredible psychological and emotional commitment to just presenting this vision of success, glamour, and glitz, even thought it’s the last refuge. We wanted to avoid how photography is typically presented in books–as single image on the righthand side with the lefthand side being left blank. We wanted these images to be in dialogue with one another–sometimes it’s humorous, sometimes it’s caustic, and sometimes it’s simply an architectural commentary. The reception to our work within Las Vegas has been interesting because we have some real local supporters, like the Las Vegas Sun and the Clark County Museum (which is mounting an exhibition of the photographs in April 2010). The Parks and Recreation Department has seen what’s happening to the city for the past twenty-five years and how the environment is being rapidly consumed and destroyed. On the other hand, there are others who just simply are resistant.

And what are they so upset about?

RS: It disturbs this view of seamless success. They want the glamour, the gorgeous, and the nightlife. We tried to be very careful in the book and wanted to avoid this German term which means “lecturing with a raised forefinger,” and so we basically let the images speak for themselves.

NH: Venturi/Scott Brown claim that Las Vegas is an inclusivist city and that it might be a model of the all-American city. We found it not only excludes a certain social strata–for example, the northern part of the city–but also the environment. Nature is basically banned from the city in terms of discussions between how we actually make sense of the city, understand it, and what challenges might it have to face. And if you look at its scale, it has become a global city of entertainment and is no longer the all-American city.

You don’t offer solutions to these social and environmental problems as part of the book.

NH: No, the book is part of the analysis, and now we are working on the photo project, which exactly then tries to suggest possible ways in which you can actually respond on a more positive or constructive level.

In terms of development, who are the biggest culprits in the transformation of the desert? Which projects from your photographs stood out?

NH: I think that there are two: One is the Lake Las Vegas development which has a completely artificial topography of an artificial lake that sits on top of two pipelines that channel the Las Vegas Wash. The other one is Coyote Springs–a development in the northern Las Vegas which is also connected to two pipelines that are part of a bigger project of water reclamation essentially from the northern part of the state. Coyote Springs is the photograph on the cover of the book.

RS: I would add the Crystal Ridge project which has an endless piling up of retaining walls because they’re completely reshaping 450 acres of hillsides and ridgelines for a total of 250 high-end residences, if they’re ever built. And the project is being described as sustainable because it’s such low density. There is a complete developer-friendliness on the part of various city councils, and as the book comes out at the cusp of this subprime implosion, it will be interesting to read what the blogs and local papers write as one development after another goes bankrupt. The master developer and a number of sub-developers from the Lake Las Vegas project, for example, have gone into bankruptcy. There are a number of homeowners who are in foreclosure. And recently, just before one of the golf courses declared bankruptcy, its owners were all still busy leveling land for future development, simply stripping it bare. You are getting a lot of anger now that’s surfacing, where bloggers are asking why the county or city officials allowed this to happen.

The subprime implosion has put a full stop on development, resulting in some incredibly bizarre situations around the periphery of the city where development has started and then literally stopped within a two-week period. There are almost surreal locations where streetlights, stop signs, and fire hydrants are in place, and everything is completely desolate. But the standstill will hopefully allow for a pause for reconsideration and buy some time for Las Vegas to figure out its land and water-use issues. The downside is that there’s a real desperation, so some of the planning that was approved a few years back with an eye toward more public amenities and more infrastructure, is now being redesigned, and re-value-engineered with those amenities being stripped back. The fundamental issue of density hasn’t been addressed properly in Las Vegas, resulting in weird housing types that are being developed, like three-story houses that fit four to six feet apart from one another as a way of increasing density per acre, but in the end, still being a single family residence–something that doesn’t work in such an extremely hot climate.

Are there any developers that you see who are maybe trying to address that?

RS: There are a couple that are developing interesting typologies where you’re talking about a greater density with a certain amount of architectural precision, and we included one Modernist multi-family development toward the end of the book, but it’s in bankruptcy right now, ever since their bank went under. One project that was supposed to be a green community development has also now simply stopped. One green master planned community to the north of Las Vegas on a brownfield site, although it involves all this commuting, has stopped. And green development in Las Vegas still carries with it a casino, and a big box shopping center and everything else.

For many people who come from the Midwest, Las Vegas is the most urban experience they have, walking and taking taxis, but that’s not what the city proper is about. Those who move to Las Vegas end up buying a single-family residence somewhere on the fringe of the valley, away from the Strip. And even though it is celebrated as one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities, the Las Vegas and Clark County officials try to play down the number of pedestrian traffic fatalities.

How does this relate to your studios?

RS: We’ve done some successful studios on underused urban spaces in Berlin. So one of the things were talking about recently was if we do another studio–and were we are planning on doing one next year in Las Vegas–and would like to get a space like a house in Lake Las Vegas and just squat it or something subversive like that. Las Vegas interests us because of the phenomena of why various things don’t work or how they work differently. There was an article in the local paper about the new wave of homelessness and it will be interesting to see how that is accommodated in the city where the homeless have never been a big problem before, and if there is any creative or productive ways of dealing with those who have lost their homes because of the mortgage crisis. The attitude of someone like Oscar Goodman—the current mayor of Las Vegas–is to more or less get the “bums” out of town.

NH: And when you read the local news right now, it’s also more about leaving Las Vegas than coping with the problems in the city itself.

What are you working on next?

RS: There’s some discussion with a filmmaker about transforming the book into a documentary.

There’s a seductive quality to Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs, which are beautiful and sublimely terrifying. His Manufactured Landscapes project does a great job of connecting his book and documentary.

RS: We’ve been confronted a number of times with just that. When the exhibit opened in Berlin, I remember one person in the very front of the assembled people there asked what cameras we used? We’ve had an interesting discussion with galleries as to the sensibility that an architect and urbanist can bring to this? Photographers still have a different goal in mind. Nicole and I still have this sensibility that’s particular and specific to architecture and urbanism.

And in the end, you still have hope for Las Vegas.

RS: Absolutely. We wanted to address where Las Vegas was and what it has become and dealing with that in a productive way. I grew up in Colorado, and spent a lot of time in Utah as a kid, so I’m familiar with the American West. It took me awhile to figure the Mojave out too because it is a very stark environment, but it’s one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever seen—just stunning. Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown said that architects need to learn from Las Vegas. We’d like to say at this time that Las Vegas needs to learn from the Mojave. In an era of scarcity, Vegas is a city that’s known for excess, and I think it needs to pay attention how the environment of scarcity can actually be a stunningly beautiful one.

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