Viva Las Vegas; Architectre and the metaphysics of retail.

Preamble

Although within this present period of positivism and superficiality, fashion has been recast as a peremptory aspect of the economy it still harbors those aspects of the culture of capitalism which made it so reviled by those in the arts who wished for a cultural agenda with a well defined teleology or end cause. That which is fashionable is necessarily short-lived and fits itself to the machinations of market capitalism and to those aspects of commodity exchange which determine its duration.

What, if anything, can be relevant within fashion to architecture?

The question is an enduring one because there is something within the discipline, and to a large extent this is increasing, which lends itself to the fleeting and the diaphanous. Currently there is a trend away from formal preoccupations towards an interest in programmatics. A trend, which is, I have no doubt, a formalism of sorts, but which has nevertheless refocused the debate upon rudely commercial themes.

If we are to ask then, what is the link between fashion and architecture, it might be something like the current preoccupation with branding and with its possible architectural corollary.

Citing Vegas is pertinent in this regard because it is the predominant context in which branding has established its most significant architectural moment and the place in which trends in commercial retail design have been instigated and in a way tested. This was true of the commercial retail tendency that preceded branding, namely theme-ing.

Fear and Learning on the Campaign Trail

Although within this present period of positivism and superficiality, fashion has been recast as a peremptory aspect of the economy it still harbors those aspects of the culture of capitalism which made it so reviled by those in the arts who wished for a cultural agenda with a well defined teleology or end cause. That which is fashionable is necessary short-lived and fits itself to the machinations of market capitalism and to those aspects of commodity exchange which determine its duration.

What, if anything, can be relevant within fashion to architecture?

The question is an enduring one because there is something within the discipline, and to a large extent this is increasing, which lends itself to the fleeting and the diaphanous. Currently there is a trend away from formal preoccupations towards an interest in programmatics. A trend, which is, I have no doubt, a formalism of sorts, but which has nevertheless refocused the debate upon rudely commercial themes.

If we are to ask then, what is the link between fashion and architecture, it might be something like the current preoccupation with branding and with its possible architectural corollary. Citing Vegas is pertinent in this regard because it is the predominant context in which branding has established its most significant architectural moment and the place in which trends in commercial retail design have been instigated and, in a way, tested. Both Branding, the identification of a commodity product and product lines with a discrete set of designed conditions and Theme-ing, the identification of commodity products with a narrative or theme, are dramatically magnified within the Vegas context. Vegas is, consequently, an ideal vantage from which to reflect upon the relationship of fashion and architecture.

Vegas, Vegas.

Flying in from Los Angeles,
Bringin’ in a couple of ki’s,
Don’t open my bags if you please Mr. Business man.
….yeh….

What moderates my memory of Vegas most powerfully after the squalid demise of Elvis is probably, Hunter Thompson’s vile reflection ‘Fear and Loathing…’ a book of moderate depravity yet surgical precision that charts a magnified spirit of Vegas from the personal perspective of a febrile journalist and addict.

Two aspects of this account strike me as wholly true. Firstly that the inebriate impression of Thompson’s erstwhile anti-hero confronts a narcotic Vegas as a stage of appearances, a documentation or reportage of events, in which the spectacle of commodification is itself the primary object for sale and secondly that it offers very little in terms of substance in return. What is on sale is the event, either directly staged as in the case of Steve Wyn’s Disney-fic(a)tion of a book theme at the Hotel Treasure Island or as an affected or partial dispossession, the direct loss of money at the gaming tables. In both cases nothing is returned to the purchaser other than a sense of a thrilling loss that must, in order to be reinstated or re-experienced, be serially repeated. The point of Vegas is not to win a fortune or a night with Demi Moore as Robert Redford did in the movie Indecent Proposal but to lose in the process of attempting it and by doing so to aggravate a desire to continue. The movie illustrates one thing starkly that conventional values are suspended by an infatuation for loss.

Obsession and magnification were perhaps synonymous with the extra-urban image of Vegas as a place precedented on the glamorisation of the event as supreme commodity. From the time of the Sinatra ‘rat pack’, the leading establishments such as the Stardust and Caesar’s Place were multi-programmed buildings housing hotel, auditorium and casino facilities among others. The casino was the primary programme taking the largest margin of profit, but it was fronted by a major name show – Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Dean Martin and latterly Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, etc. The name show acted as a national draw for the casino. It performed as a national event-attractor.

Since the fifties the nature of the organization of the Vegas casino has changed with the nature of its spending populations. At today’s prices an average visitor in the mid-fifties would expect to spend in the region of some seven thousand dollars (US) on a typical trip. Today the figure is closer to seven hundred; conversely the annual profit for the casino city has never been larger. Since the fifties fundamental changes have occurred in the marketing of the Vegas casino/hotel to meet this change in demographic patterns. The contraction of the amount individuals are prepared to spend has been associated with a change in the types of visitors themselves. The rise of post-permanent populations, of selective tourist economies, marked the nature of the Vegas economy from the first. Since the fifties however, the expansion of tourism has made a significant impact on the nature of retailing in major population centers. Vegas has witnessed major transformations in its demographic and socio-metric mix of visitors. More families and foreign tourists have ensured that the classic Vegas casino/hotel has moved into new and more adventurous programmatic experiments. Circus Circus extended the classic Vegas programmatic mix. The once detached event, a Cher concert or a Boxing world title for example, was no longer merely contiguous but was now integrated within the gaming plate itself. The event-attractor and the primary programme were now allied for the first time.

It was a traditional trait of the Vegas casino that the spectacle of gaming was remote and detached from the mundane city outside. The casino was a separate place, without windows, internal divisions, clocks or any other gauge of the outer city.

It was the labyrinth at the center of the complex through which all parties must pass in order to gain access to all other parts of the casino/hotel programme. Combining event-attractor and primary programme was a first step to the ubiquitous programming of the gaming floor.

The coincidence of architectural theory and Vegas.

Certain developments at the theoretical limits of architectural practice have recently come together. Firstly the wider acceptance of the ideas of Bernard Tschumi, most specifically concerning the reappraisal of an exclusive modernist programmatics, is of primary importance. Tschumi’s investigations into what is widely referred to as ‘cross-programming’, the juxtaposition of otherwise exclusive and antithetical programmes -sky diving in the elevator shaft, roller-skating in the Laundromat- provoked not only a reinvigorated interest in programme, per se, but the idea that distinct programmes might be juxtaposed in the same space rather than exclusively preserved in a cellular arrangement. The notion of a broad floor plate, which juxtaposed different programmatic types without separation, now became possible. Speculation concerning an architecture, which might contain this kind of programmatics, has lead to a number of developments that extend the floor slab as a deep plan facility and to its further development in section as a continuous ramped plate unencumbered by fixed vertical circulation.

The interest of practices such as OMA and MRVDV in this approach stems from a coincidence of these issues and has developed into a full blown topological or landscape paradigm in the work of FOA, Jesse Reiser, Stanley Allen and latterly Peter Eisenman and Zaha Hadid. What has driven this shift compositionally is a wish to rid the floor plate of all intervening objects, to make of it a flow space constructed from conditions of intra-programmatic flow rather than a space implied by the navigation of fixed objects or ranked cells. Its derivation owes a great deal to the nature of the Vegas casino/hotel and the development of a full-blown event/programme amalgamation. From this perspective architectural planning is no longer concerned with the division of space into discrete and discontinuous entities like eggs in a basket. Rather this space which we might call field space for the sake of this argument, has a continuous quality subtending flows, thickenings and areas of high density, more like a weather map than a traditional architectural plan.

Additionally field space embraces the homogeneity of globalisation as globalised extension through the figure of the continuous programmable plate. The Vegas casino is its quintessential paradigm. All probable programmes are simultaneously present in one deep space; a field of ubiquitous programmatic inclusions in which everything is simultaneously available on the same surface. The apparent limitlessness of this space, the lack of internal divisions, the remoteness and invisibility of the perimeter container reduces any opportunity to fashion architectural effects to the floor and the ceiling. While the ceiling remains the plane of major spectacle the floor is coded to exaggerate the total spend. In the contemporary Vegas hotel/casino, retail has been comprehensively introduced to the gaming plate. Navigation within the casino floor is now articulated by set piece retail structures offering not only food and refreshment but also branded goods. Within the gaming plate -organised increasingly on a landscape model- the most desirable branded commodities are distributed as brand islands. 

The architectural organisation of these spatialities has now passed beyond a familiar Modernist picturesque vocabulary. The organisation of the multi-programmed plate can no longer be achieved by neo-plastic or classical compositional devices, which have concentrated traditionally on the organisation of objects within an undifferentiated field of space. The organisation of objects as programmatic containers and dividers is now redundant. What this new architecture requires is the inversion of the traditional object/field relationship; moving away from an object-based architecture to one now dominated by field. The organisational vocabulary of architecture is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation. A new one is emerging having forsaken the articulation of ‘objects’ in favour of flows, densities, horizons, territories, concentrations, singularities, attractors and so on, a vocabulary which purposively avoids the discontinuities of an objectness and a containing space.

 

From Vegas to the new leisure/retail plate.

Market oriented western governments keen to embrace a ‘third-way’ deregulatory policy have abdicated their prior responsibility for directing urban redevelopment wholly to the private sector. Although traditionally resting on commercial developer control the creation of new hyper-monopolies with unprecedented access to global markets through the web threatens to shift responsibility away from the commercial developer directly into the hands of brand conglomerates. Competitive attempts to dictate global markets have lead to the establishment of major sub-urban developments in pursuit of substantial brand identification.

Associating the urban regeneration of sectors of the hyper-city urban core may well only be feasible, certainly on a grand scale,, by these market players. The reason for doing it is to associate the full spectrum of leisure programmes from participatory sports and low-key entertainments to spectator sports facilities, even some form of public gaming, within a continuous retail plate.

Much has been made of the iconography of some of the more recent Vegas casino/hotels such as New York New York, Paris, the Bellagio, The Mirage, and Treasure Island. Theme-ing of the object has been taken to be the most significant aspect of the architecture of these commodity palaces. Such a view is misleading to the extent that it overlooks the more important programmatic transformations that have shaped them.

ki’s is an abbreviation of kilogram.
Arlo Guthrie some time in the early seventies, I forget precisely when.
‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, Hunter S. Thompson.
Aspects of a continuous loss characterise the state of contemporary capitalism in which commodity spend attempts to recover
this loss  by means of an empty signifier. The image of the commodity -the image-commodity- promises more, much more than it can possibly supply in terms of satisfaction or recompense. 
City populations are composed increasingly from both permanent and transitory populations. The expansion of tourism in recent decades has seriously affected the populations of major cities influencing and distorting their peculiar economies. Contemporary urban economics is based in part on these phenomena.
Circus Circus featured trapeze circus acts performing above the heads of the gamblers over the casino floor.
See Tschumi’s ‘Architecture and Disjunction’, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
The web has created a dramatic transformation in the nature of commerce, most especially and most importantly for architecture in the area of retail. The nature of urban retail outlets, the way they are organised and the way they present commodities for sale is undergoing a number of dramatic transformations. The appearance of web retail has constituted a reorganisation of traditional divisions within the global marketplace and forced their reorganisation. The most dramatic is the association of the retail and leisure industries. The recent Time, Warner, AOL, EMI concurrent mergers has seen the creation of the first global, retail/entertainment conglomerate which has the facility to provide publishing, cinema and popular music to a huge number of Internet users. At a current market value of $2,000 billion US it has a capitalisation of twice the size of the UK’s current GDP (gross domestic product). The purchasing power of such a capital rich leviathan and its interest in pressing home a global brand image behind its ubiquitous web presence makes large sections of the world’s hyper-cities Paris, London, New York, Tokyo vulnerable to its territorialisation. Not only is it entirely possible for such a commercial phenomenon to territorialise large areas of the central districts of these cities but it is also and already underway. Nike Town is a branded neighbourhood, a kind of forerunner of a comprehensive branded district in which tens of blocks of mid-town Manhattan for example, could be assimilated and dedicated to the retail of a single conglomerate brand.
The predominant compositional paradigm of twentieth century Modernism depends upon the association of abstract objects or figures displaced against and contrasted with a neutral, non-figured, empty background. It is a play of the presence and absence of graphical objects within the perimeter of the drawing plane or the canvas. a juxtaposition of the configured object constructed in contradistinction to an undifferentiated and receding background; what has come to be known as a figure/ground, or object/field opposition.
OBJECT is defined as a form, or collection of forms that sustains identifiable figuration in contrast to an undifferentiated, formless background. This back-ground, the FIELD, surrounds and delimits distinct objects with a continuous and, most importantly, a non-perspectival space. The difference between object and field is one of relative quality and extension. A field remains a field only insofar as it can be clearly discerned as that which is not the object and vice-versa. But within the limits of the drawing plane- objects and fields maintain a degree of interchangeability, which is both telescopic and hierarchical, connoting primary, secondary and tertiary (&c) strategraphical levels of complexity. Objects, which have significant extensions within a primary field, constitute secondary fields when smaller objects are superimposed upon them. They act as fields to these smaller groupings in the same way as the drawing plane- constitutes an ultimate field within which the most extended objects of the composition are delineated. Clearly this hierarchical interchange is infinitely extendable.

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