Blast From the Past
In a city that grows warmer every year, there’s nothing unusual anymore about the Vdara death ray
“We booked a suite with a fountain view room,” TripAdvisor user Sarahd8119 wrote in a 2018 review of the Vdara Hotel & Spa. She went on to describe the blackout curtains, the mini bar, the kitchen. “The pool was okay,” she concluded. “The death ray was intense but manageable.”
There are 76 TripAdvisor reviews of the Vdara containing the words “death ray.” The hotel, for its part, prefers the term “solar convergence phenomenon.”
But let’s back up.
In December 2009, the 57-story Vdara Hotel & Spa opened on the Las Vegas Strip. It was, and still is, a beautiful property, free of gimmicks. There are no rides, no half-size replicas of iconic landmarks from other places. There’s no casino, no theme, no smoking. It is sleek and shiny. Standing outside of it, you get the feeling you could be in any city, going to work in a high-rise or returning home to an apartment on the 30th floor. I’ve stayed at the Vdara three times, always in a room facing west, away from the Strip with a view of the swirling stretch of I-15 below, the twinkling lights of the neighborhoods, the Spring Mountains bordering the west valley. The rooms have parlors and kitchens, which makes it easy to indulge in the fantasy that I live there, that this is the sophisticated metropolitan existence I’ve always secretly longed for. Whenever I’m trying to convey a sense of yes I am a real person and this is a real city to someone, I take them to the Vdara’s lobby bar for gin and tonics with rose petals and ribbons of cucumbers. Approve of me, I command silently as we sip. Approve of Las Vegas. And they do.
I love the Vdara. And loving the Vdara means loving the Vdara death ray.
The Vdara death ray entered the public consciousness shortly after the hotel opened. Pool-goers were experiencing something unsettling: singed hair, melting plastic cups, sunburns that felt like chemical burns. The reason? On certain hot days, the sun would hit the concave glass of the hotel and reflect down onto a 10- by 15-foot space by the pool in a highly concentrated wave (or to put it in middle school terms, the magnifying glass-and-ants effect). Staff nicknamed it the Vdara death ray.
An obvious question: Who could have seen this coming? Well, everyone kind of did. The hotel reportedly had been aware of the design flaw before the property opened and had installed non-reflective film on the glass to reduce the death ray’s power by 70 percent. Big blue umbrellas were brought in to shade pool-goers. But people were still burned. Vacationers awakened from poolside daydreams to wildfire heat. Like a laser beam, the white-hot light from the Vdara found them. And here’s the really weird thing: The building’s architect, Rafael Viñoly, went on to design a similar structure in London in 2013. The solar convergence created by Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street project, nicknamed the Fryscraper, melted plastic panels on a nearby parked car and scorched the carpet of a hair salon across the street. When asked about that project, Viñoly told the Guardian, “We made a lot of mistakes with this building, and we will take care of it,” but he also suggested global warming might be a factor. When asked about the Vdara’s problem, however, he suggested that corporate indifference overruled his concerns: “We pointed out that (focused sunlight) would be an issue too, but who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?”
The “who cares?” sentiment is cruel in the way tourist depictions of Las Vegas often are. It reminds me of a group of men at the Flamingo pool who asked where I was from and then mocked the response. “Who would actually want to live here?” they asked over the rushing of an artificial waterfall one of them would later vomit into. Bored of me, they moved on to sexually harassing a cocktail waitress and demanding free shots of Fireball from a bartender.
Who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, indeed.
Viñoly has a point. You wouldn’t anticipate getting burned by light reflecting off a building in foggy London, but if it happens in a desert city, well, what did you really expect?
A few years ago, I met up with a friend in San Diego. Even when I’m away for a short time, I miss Las Vegas desperately, like a high school girl misses her boyfriend. I said something to that effect on this night, and my friend turned to me and said, “I hate that you live there. No one should have built a city in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It’s a waste of water, and it’s too hot.”
I drank my beer and leaned against the railing of the rooftop bar, tasting the salt of the Pacific in the air, longing for the creosote of home. I shrugged. “It’s not that bad.”
Whenever someone speaks of the Vegas heat, my answer is the same: It’s not that bad. It’s easy for me to say that it’s not that bad because I once spent a summer in the hottest place on earth. Death Valley, located 120 miles west of Las Vegas, recorded the hottest temperature in on Earth — 134 degrees — in 1913. Since then, it’s set other heat-related records — the greatest number of consecutive days with a temperature above 100 degrees, the hottest ground temperature ever (201 degrees), long stretches of days over 110 degrees, even longer stretches of days over 120 degrees. The summer I spent there, during which I worked at the front desk of a hotel, came close to breaking the all-time record. Every day for a week, reporters called and asked if I thought it was going to happen. It doesn’t matter, I kept telling them; once it gets above 117, it’s all the same. At 117, jewelry burns your skin, your car overheats as you flee to the mountains, your air conditioner wheezes as it fights to keep the room at 90. Every day you are aware that the environment itself is actively trying to kill you. Doing anything outside is stupid. Even after midnight, it’s still over 100 degrees, the dry earth pulsing with heat, the black sky above you, indifferent. Above 117 degrees is when people really lose it. Minor disagreements turn into fistfights turn into broken whiskey bottles used as weapons. The summer I lived in Death Valley, people died. Some from what the heat did to their bodies — hikers lost in canyons without water. Others from what the heat did to their minds — a coworker who drank himself to death.
So no, I don’t think it’s that bad in Las Vegas.
At least I didn’t until June 30, 2013, when Las Vegas hit 117. And then again on June 20, 2017. And again on July 10, 2021. The record high of 117 was set in 1942, but it was a freak occurrence back then. Now it’s happened three times in less than a decade. In fact, Las Vegas is one of the fastest-warming cities in the United States. According to Climate Central, the temperature rose 5.76 degrees between 1970 and 2018. And it keeps getting hotter.
I used to think summers in Las Vegas were magic. In June, the sun is white, the air charged. In July, monsoons turn cliffs into waterfalls. Summer means floating in the lazy river at Mandalay Bay. Summer means putting on something skimpy and sparkly and hitting a rooftop bar at night. Summer means climbing Mt. Charleston, paddling the Colorado River, exiting a dark movie theater, and feeling the warm air on your skin, the desert embracing you, holding you. In a way, the Vdara death ray is a part of that magic —this fleeting specter that only visits in the summer. It’s a ritual. A story people tell each other that sounds too strange to be true. Solar convergence phenomenon. The term is mystical, celestial.
And it’s funny. Very funny.
Every summer on the internet, people in Las Vegas share the same memes. An image of a man engulfed in flames: Summer in Vegas be like. Two skeletons in pool chairs: But it’s a dry heat. Tourists in Death Valley make these jokes too, but the locals stopped laughing a long time ago. At what point will we stop laughing in Las Vegas?
The Vdara death ray is unbelievable and real. Humorous and cruel. Seasonal and eternal. But as the temperature continues to rise in Las Vegas, it is becoming something else too: ordinary. As you recline beneath your blue umbrella on the Vdara pool deck, the sunlight might shift, might hit the glass wall of the building, might burn you. But other things will burn you too. The handle of your car door. The sidewalk outside of your house. The sandstone in the desert. Every part of the place you call home. Who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas? After all, to live in Las Vegas is to burn. Φ