Desert Companion

Love your strip mall

Don't dismiss Vegas' classic urban form. You'll love strip malls after this tour that traces the DNA of an emerging new city

The pearly glitz of the Las Vegas Strip should not cause us to neglect all of Las Vegas' other strips. Our sprawling shopping centers, parking lots, chain restaurants and gas stations are the basic building blocks of Las Vegas urbanism. People who like pearls should keep an eye on these oyster beds, too. They contain the DNA of a new type of city.

Hal Rothman, the late UNLV professor, documented how Las Vegans fashion urban life out of such oft-criticized faux-environments on the edge of sun-blasted parking lots. As he told in his book Neon Metropolis, he sat one day at an anonymous Starbucks near an anonymous shopping center at Wigwam Avenue and Pecos Road. He discovered that it was actually an oasis of diverse, co-existing humanity going about the business of living: Carpool moms taking the kids to school, retired ladies gathering to chat in the sunshine, businesspeople catching up on their accounts on laptops and so on - just like any traditional city. Go figure.

When budding restaurateurs looked at the corner of West Sahara Avenue and South Valley View Boulevard, they saw something more than an asphalt parking lot and a nondescript mini-mart encrusted with signs. They saw a place where people would gather in the cool evenings to dine on tacos al fresco. All it required was the simplest of architecture: a metal-sided trailer with a mobile kitchen and flip-up sides, and a few picnic tables. The proverbial bumblebee, according to the laws of physics, cannot fly; this desolate, cacophonous corner, according to the laws of urbanism, cannot sustain human habitation. And yet there it is.

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Such creative architectural improvisation should not be surprising to Las Vegans. Long ago, that spirit turned ordinary neon-lit motels into the glamorous Las Vegas Strip itself.

Mid-Century Modern bankLas Vegas' shopping centers come in all shapes and styles. There's the venerable Huntridge Plaza with its fine Moderne architecture; the efficient 1960s Mid-Century Modernism of Westgate Shopping Center on West Charleston Boulevard at Hinson Street; the populist palace of Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet at Decatur and West Oakey boulevards, with its colossally classy mansard roof; Village Square in Commercial Center, at East Sahara Avenue and State Street, a vast shopping center 1,000 feet on a side, with a central parking parterre on a scale that equaled the original Caesars Palace.

These strip malls often boast architectural gems, such as the Bank of America on the corner of West Charleston and Decatur boulevards, designed by local Modernists Walter Zick and Harris Sharp. Or the many exotic, Asian-inspired shopping centers (check out 5395 West Sahara Ave. near Lindell Road) with green-tiled temple rooflines. Or the classic Liberty Square at 4209 West Sahara Ave., with its replica Statue of Liberty, home to a mix of jewelry and ammo stores, and boutiques catering to the striptease industry.

Nowhere does the Las Vegas' strip mall prove its versatility more brilliantly than at the corner of East Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street. It's a typical mall. An L-shaped row of one-story buildings, framing two sides of a parking lot, exhibit the stylized arches of Modernized Spanish architecture. An outrigger building designed for a restaurant sits on the corner to grab the eye of passing motorists.

This mundane strip mall raised the bar by housing an unexpected center of culture: a museum with studios for artists, musicians and students, all under the wing of the Liberace Museum. Frank Gehry could have designed a custom building here, but how much more fitting was this re-use of an indigenous Las Vegas building? It's more sublime than anything he might have imagined. The Liberace Museum closed in October, but there's no reason this strip mall can't attract another cultural or commercial anchor.

The ordinary shopping center quite easily becomes the extraordinary: a seedbed of the future, the spark for untold ideas to enrich the future. Didn't the architect Louis Kahn say, "A city is a place where a small boy, when he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do with his whole life"?

Here you are.

Alan Hess is a writer and architect. His latest book is Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House.
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