UNLV’s new digital archive of casino architecture reveals the evolution of the modern all-in-one megaresort
Las Vegas’ casino architecture has been called a lot of things — kitschy, iconic, gorgeous, outrageous. Now add “historic” to the list. It’s getting its long-overdue design props thanks to a new digital archive celebrating the city’s imaginative and influential architectural history. The project, dubbed “Dreaming the Skyline: Resort Architecture and the New Urban Space,” is composed of 2,000 artifacts documenting Vegas’s evolution from sleepy desert rest-stop to extravagant neon metropolis. UNLV led the 12-month archival collecting and digitizing effort, aided by an $80,000 federal grant. Now it lives at digital.library.unlv.edu/skyline.
The archive charts the city’s metamorphosis from the 1950s to 1980s through photographs, drawings and proposals from two key players: architects Martin Stern, Jr. and Homer Rissman. The pair pioneered the template for the modern all-in-one megaresort. (The archive also includes examples from Reno and Lake Tahoe, as well as Atlantic City.)
“Homer Rissman and Martin Stern were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of resort architecture in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s,” says assistant UNLV architecture professor Glenn NP Nowak. “Their creation and re-creation of an archetype made the Las Vegas experience simultaneously more accessible and more exotic.”
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Indeed, the dynamic duo helped reinvent the local landscape — literally. Rissman and Stern forged the blueprint for destination resorts by integrating multiple amenities into a single location, including gaming, theater, dining, pools and shops.
Stern, for example, designed the groundbreaking International Hotel for Kirk Kerkorian. The $60 million, 1,519-room International was the largest and most lavish resort of its day in 1969. The 30-floor complex had white marble floors, chandeliers and a 2,000-seat showroom with opening acts such as Barbra Streisand and Peggy Lee. The tri-wing International eventually became the progenitor of the modern Strip megaresort, serving as a model for the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Mirage and Mandalay Bay, among others.
“The International was a landmark at the time. It was the largest hotel resort built, and it was Stern’s first major project,” says UNLV’s Library Special Collection Director Peter Michel. “It was also off the Strip, which allowed for a different design scheme. It gave Stern the opportunity to build from scratch, integrating a big casino with restaurants, venues, and theaters.”
Consolidating disparate attractions into a single location was practical and convenient; it also kept visitors on the property longer. Rissman and Stern used lighting and floor plans to subtly manipulate where patrons would walk — basically, these guys are the reason finding an exit in a casino can be a tricky navigation feat. The pair interlaced entertainment attractions throughout the resort for constant enticement and distraction. In short: the longer they stay, the more money they’re likely to spend. It’s a winning recipe that Strip and off-Strip developers have used ever since.
“These resorts were not randomly thrown together,” says architecture critic Alan Hess, author of “Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture.” “Stern and Rissman very consciously used the elements of design — space, color, sound, circulation and sequences — to optimize the visitor experience and optimize owner profits. These designs were intended to keep visitors inside and keep them interested.”
Architecturally, the work of Stern and Rissman was only meant to last a short while. Las Vegas, after all, prides itself on invention and re-invention. The commercial nature of entertainment architecture requires as much.
“The architecture of the Strip is more of a performance art than a static sculpture,” says Nowak, who coordinates UNLV’s hospitality design program. “You can tell that most kitsch was designed to last only a short while.”
Rissman and Stern consequently concocted work that embraced the freedom, whimsy and kitsch of car culture with over-sized, sculptural neon displays signs that Tom Wolfe once called a “staple design of the American landscape.” Families were embracing a new sense of liberation and adventure made possible by the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, which had begun construction in 1956. Travel fueled urban sprawl and the birth of the suburb. It also spurred new roadside development. (Rissman designed most of Primm, Nevada, including Whiskey Pete’s, the Primadonna, and Buffalo Bill’s.) Car travel was cheap and easy, and fueled bigger resorts that served more visitors.
“Roadside America changed the nature of the Strip. More attention was paid to traffic patterns, vehicle access, parking garages, and how buildings were oriented on the site,” Michel says. “The style of automobile culture influenced resort façades and their appearance.”
Both architects embraced the mercurial, ephemeral nature of Las Vegas, with a design aesthetic that characterizes modern urban entertainment and recreational space. Rissman, for instance, designed the Flamingo Hilton Hotel’s white-and-pink-glass concrete towers, built over several phases from 1976 to 1993 for Kerkorian, who was a patron to both men. Rissman, in fact, added room wings to Stern’s original International Hotel.
“Both men were constantly tearing down and rebuilding each other’s work,” Hess says. “Renovating and redesigning existing work was their bread and butter.”
The city’s rapid transformation and renewal is famously chronicled in Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s “Learning From Las Vegas.” The landmark 1972 book calls Vegas “the archetype of the commercial strip … at its purest and most intense”; it champions the city’s sociological responsiveness to common tastes and values, while simultaneously eschewing heroic, self-aggrandizing architectural monuments.
Although most of Rissman and Stern’s work has been razed and built anew, their influence remains. Both men died in 2001. The pair trained the next generation of Las Vegas architects, including Joel Bergman (Mirage, Trump Las Vegas) who got his start in Stern’s office. Stern and Rissman’s imagination and creative process still resonate anew through UNLV’s free digital archive. Perhaps best of all? You can’t implode jpegs.