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Culture

Mid-mod marvels

Mitchell’s photos flash back to Vegas’ architectural past

Image
The Sahara Rancho Medical Center
Photo: Jay Florian Mitchell

Las Vegas is a wild child whose accelerated adolescence is innocently chronicled like a home movie in television and film. She grew up fast thanks to freeways and media, forever linked to martinis, Googie and tail fins. The '50s and '60s tint the rose-colored glasses through which the world often sees Las Vegas, a reverie styled in mid-century modern design. Fifty years on, the retro modern, ice-clinking, free-wheeling fantasy still tugs at the cultural subconscious, directly responsible for more than one misguided (if altruistic) adventurer's brave arrival and heartbroken retreat.

Jay Florian Mitchell was one of the first, trailblazing into Las Vegas in the late 1940s at the dawn of a most glorious phase in the architectural history of the city. A commercial photographer, Mitchell spent the next several decades lovingly documenting the dynamic skyline of his chosen home.

The Details

Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas
Four stars
Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $4. Nevada State Museum, 700 Twin Lakes Drive (inside Lorenzi Park), 486-5205.
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Someone Get This Hero the Best Medicine, new work by Shan Michael Evans, the Funkhouse, June 2-July 30.
Reign of Glass, new work by Erin Stellmon, Contemporary Arts Center, June 3-July 24.

And thank goodness. While the Nevada State Museum's Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas features some fascinating photographic documentation by J. Montrose and Cliff Segerblom, it's Mitchell's enamored lens that magically captures the imagination. Mid-Century's collection of mostly black & white architectural photographs, renderings and decorative artifacts chronicles a window of time from the early 1950s to the late '60s, when a city and an age perfectly synchronized, so much so that it's hard to imagine one without the other.

Mid-century modern design is a perfect union of Frank Lloyd Wright, Sputnik and industrial fabrication materials. The use of biomorphic shapes, notable in the period's decorative arts, was a nod to the atomic age, while picture windows and carports reveal much about the emerging dominance of the family car. Modern architecture for modern living needed space and, much like Palm Springs, Vegas had plenty of it. How else could you ensure sunshine streaming through trademark clerestory windows? Or locate a limitless rugged vista that more dramatically maximized the elegant arch of a Googie curve or the sharp angle of post and beam construction? It was a time of possibility and progress, and Vegas its perfect canvas.

Several of Mitchell's photos are riveting, pinpointing the naively optimistic exuberance of the era's more decadent structures. Often taken at dusk (or is it dawn?), their haunting light seizes that witching in-between hour when neon flickers against a still glimmering sky. Two portraits of the McCarran International Airport Terminal define Mid-Century, with its sweeping promenade and luminous arced rooftop glowing from within, otherworldly, space-age and strange.

Mitchell's fabulous interior/exterior images of the much-mourned Sahara Rancho Medical Center document one of the more exceptional examples of ultra-modern form and rugged material in harmony with the desert landscape. Documentation of early apartment complexes reveals a friction between elegant design and raw, undeveloped landscape. Multiple religious, government and bank buildings incorporate construction elements into the façade of the building, a mid-mod element that allowed for geometric shadow play and light fall across the building and its immediate environment.

Inside McCarran

Inside McCarran

Innovative architecture is occasionally surpassed by the jarring expanse of unobstructed vistas. Montrose's photos in particular have a moonscape quality, where the geodesic-domed Cinerama Theater and the curved face of the Southern Nevada Health District building are sandwiched by ribbons of bare earth and endless sky.

Hovering between wide-eyed awe and shameless scrutiny, many photos blur the boundaries of portraiture and landscape. Glimpses of an undeveloped Valley are part of the lure of Mid-Century, a taste of heady times in a not-so-distant past when a young, vibrant city was just taking shape.

A selection of decorative arts from the period and a sampling of architect's renderings give a nice depth and scope to the mid-mod aesthetic. A conceptual rendering for the never-realized Biltmore is so jazzy and cool you want to snap your fingers in appreciation. And who can deny the satisfying precision of nested Pyrex bowls in a pinky-melon hue?

The only criticism is that no architects are listed, eliminating significant background information.

Las Vegas is fantasy. And while most of Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas' buildings are long gone, driving home can still be a treasure hunt: Mason Manor in the McNeil Estates, the La Concha Motel lobby and the Clark County Courthouse give a taste of the mid-mod style so characteristic of the wildly populist architecture that once defined Las Vegas. Compare that with the fantastical hodgepodge of CityCenter, the giddy curves of the Lou Ruvo Clinic and the menacing science fiction of the World Market building, and nostalgia for the past might be replaced by a glimmer of satisfaction that some things never change.

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Danielle Kelly

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