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The Strip: Las Vegas and the Symbolic Destruction of Spectacle


Over the past 70 years, various actors have dramatically reconfigured the Las Vegas Strip in many forms. I claim that behind the Strip's "reinventions" lies a process of symbolic destruction. Since resorts distinguish themselves symbolically, each new round of capital accumulation relies on the destruction of symbolic capital of existing resorts. A new resort either ups the language within a paradigm, or causes a paradigm shift, which devalues the previous resorts even further. This is why, in the context of the Strip, buildings have such a short lifespan.

This dissertation is chronologically structured around the four building booms of new resort construction that occurred on the Strip. Historically, there are periodic waves of new casino resort constructions with continuous upgrades and renovation projects in between. They have been successively theorized as suburbanization, corporatization, Disneyfication, and global branding. Each building boom either conforms to a single paradigm or witnesses a paradigm shift halfway: these paradigms have been theorized as Wild West, Los Angeles Cool, Pop City, Corporate Modern, Disneyland, Sim City, and Starchitecture.

During the first building boom on the Las Vegas Strip, a dusty little road suburbanized into a neon vernacular landscape of low-rise, solipsistic casino resorts that had taken over downtown Las Vegas as the new suburban center of the city. The Strip managed to take over downtown because suburbanization was used an effective technology of separation and isolation of people beneficial to the gambling industry, plus the suburban form gambling took on the Strip provided better images to disseminate at a time when suburbanization was a phenomenon that occurred across the United States. During the second building boom, the Strip morphed stylistically from pop to modern, and typologically from low-rise bungalow with tall, eccentric neon signage to high-rise megaresort, fronted by a sea of whiteboard corporate logos. Underneath this change lay a transformation of the financial structure: Teamster pensions had found a commensurate architectural expression in the spectacle of pop, until corporate financing took over, and the spectacle of corporatism prevailed. Resorts appropriate a corporate model derived from Walt Disney Company during the third building boom, the "Disneyfication" of the Strip. Resorts had taken over Disney-like qualities, providing urban theme park attractions and symbolized imaginary places first and real places later. During the fourth building boom resorts appropriate a contemporary style of architecture that lays a claim on authenticity, devaluing the themed resorts. At a time when corporations appropriate elite architecture as part of their global brand identity, so adopts the Strip star architecture as the new fetish.

The historicization of "spectacle" of the Las Vegas Strip fills the gap between theories of spectacle that are low on the specifics of history, and the histories of Las Vegas that are low on theory. Moreover, it situates Las Vegas in a discussion of other places, as a postmodern and neoliberal city avant la lettre, which is important, since the Las Vegas Strip is increasingly regarded as a planning model for cities around the world, for better or worse.

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