The impossible dream
One man’s unlikely quest to transform the Strip
Thu, Feb 19, 2009 (midnight)
First things first: the Washington, D.C.-based architect Nir Buras hates modern architecture—with its structural expression and its steel and glass and concrete, with its chasing of the new, with its disregard for ornamentation, for tradition, for the built heritage of the human race. He hates its sterility. As in, “A modern urbanism can only create ugliness and alienation. It’s the only thing it’s able to do.” As in, modernism is a “monument to utter failure. All that metal and glass in the desert. I don’t get it.” As in, “This starts healing much of what modern urbanism has inflicted on people.”
The “this”—Buras’ so square-it’s-radical dream for Las Vegas, which we’ll come to shortly—is the opposite of space-age, envelope-pushing architecture, the bravura twisting of forms, the improvisation with light and volume that is the signature of glossy magazine covers across the globe, the instant icons that every city secretly hopes for when they commission a design from a celebrity architect. Buras is many things, but he is not one of those guys.
The architect’s vision for remaking our town’s most famous street is both breathtakingly audacious, more than a match for a new collection of glass-sheathed casinos that will offer the promise of the new but will almost assuredly deliver variations on the same old, same old—and yet at the same time rudimentary. Buras’ dream, then, is like anything you’ve ever seen. Only in a town such as Las Vegas does it gain the sheen of the improbable.
Buras, who is 57, may not be a starchitect, but he is something of a proselytizer, a believer in an anti-modern faith that he approaches with a nearly religious, though charming, intensity. As such, we’re not dealing in subtleties here, or qualifications, or the splitting of hairs. If we lose something in what follows because of that, we do gain the vitality that is unique to those who truly believe something—whose passion for their beloved object animates them, courses through their skin and, in the back of their minds, must make the nonbelievers dupes or fools or worse.
In the best of economies it would be a tough sell, flying in the face of the technocratic efficiencies of both the professional transportation planners and the profit-seeking casino czars. Buras wants to take you—and me, and Las Vegas, and who knows where else—back to the past, to tradition, which is not easy in a town with no past. And while Buras has a healthy opinion of himself—is there an architect who doesn’t?—his forays into the backroom wheeling and dealing that might make this plan fly have been, over the last few years, somewhat uncommitted, the architectural equivalent of doodling a design on an airplane napkin and shoving it away in your pocket.
Now, of course, as cities across the country bury their heads in the sand and try to weather the recession, realizing Buras’ dream may be impossible. Hell, they can’t even get casinos built. But this town has been known to pull off the impossible every now and again. And as Vegas wrestles with the same issues as other grown-up cities—dwindling land, dwindling resources, traffic, congestion—now is as good a time as any to imagine what other directions the city might take.
and so we come to this “this” of Buras’. It began a few years ago. As a visitor to the Strip he was struck by the enormous buildings and by the “contrast between casino theory, the idea was to keep people indoors, to have them disassociated, dislocated from time and space,” and the street.
He realized there were a lot of people outside. (Robert Dorgan, in the Weekly’s architecture roundtable puts the number at 180,000.)
“All of a sudden I was looking at the boulevard from a different perspective. That it was a pedestrian environment or an environment that wanted to be pedestrian, even though it had all the hallmarks of normal transportation planning.”
In other words, he saw the Strip as a street. It is a street, the one great, glorious, people-packed urban place in the city. And when you start thinking of the Strip as a street—on steroids, perhaps, of gargantuan scale unlike few places west of Dubai, but nonetheless, a street—you begin realizing that it could work as a much better street.
“For all practical purposes this is an urban environment,” Buras says. “And yet these buildings, every 20-30 years are knocked down and replaced with something else. So you have ostensibly a city … it has the attributes of a city, except that it doesn’t have urban memory.”
Urban memory, for Buras, means a kind of record, in the bricks and mortar of a place, of its historical continuity, of its existence through time. It means you courted your sweetheart at some casino, and got hitched in some kitsch-shack chapel, and 15 years later when you come back to show the kids these spots, they’re still there. They still matter. The “stories are oral, but [there’s] nothing in the fabric of that cityscape that speaks memory.”
Now it becomes easier to understand Buras’ vendetta with the modern city. One of the hallmarks of modernity in architecture is the way it tends to turn its back on the past—forever onward and upward, to a future where everyone might have lived in tall towers where, wrote mad Le Corbusier, “starting from the 14th floor you have absolute calm and the purest air.” In other words, a city that looks like a giant public housing complex.
It’s this break with the past that Buras wants to mend. For him, the city-building of the last 100 years has resulted in giant, incoherent places that are all the same. Las Vegas, he says, boldly, “looks exactly as the majority of cities built after 1900. Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Singapore, they kind of all look the same. Big roads, buildings stuck together that don’t create wonderful environments between then.” One may quibble with the broad stroke—Las Vegas and Los Angeles, at the least, really look nothing alike—but we can agree that Las Vegas (and America) is perpetually pitched toward the new. Buildings last for a season, are built for a season, then replaced. “Essentially we all live in refugee camps. You do have structures, but no one intends being there their whole life, and the environment is constantly changing or shifting with no permanent institutions that imply a civic life. It’s a fragmentation rather than something that demonstrates a cohesive society. That is part of the modern predicament.”
The solution, on a street where everything is private property, was to look to the public domain. There was only the Strip’s public domain. And so Buras began to trace sketches over a Google Maps image of the Strip. “When you start drawing things and you’re doing the right thing, a lot of things start to materialize by [themselves].” What materialized was the solution to the problem of urban memory, along the Las Vegas Strip and, by implication, throughout the Valley: Turn the Strip itself into a giant green space, 60 feet wide and five miles long. The median, so to speak, is the message.
Buras wants to widen the median of the Strip to at least 60 feet, from Russell to Fremont, and stud it with a series of outdoor gardens and fountains, as well as indoor pavilions that are perhaps 100 or more feet long and filled with markets, shops and cafes. Block by block the design of this ribbon-like parkway would mirror the look of the casinos nearby—Egyptian near the Luxor, Venetian near the Venetian (yes, even modern in front of CityCenter)—and so whatever happens to the casinos, an echo of them remains.
“Essentially this is a linear park in which you have pavilions,” he says. “It will have benches. It will have misters, so people can walk in great comfort through all this. The pavilions are actually a point of sale. They can be operated by the casinos adjacent.” (No slot machines, though, to ensure the park is a more “normal” environment.)
Many places on the Strip already give some idea of a parklike environment. The winding path over the lake at Wynn. The expansive, grass-laden landscape surrounding the volcano at the Mirage. The fountains outside the Forum Shops. But the place that gave me the clearest idea of what Buras has in mind was at the entrance to the otherwise lamentable Bally’s: Steps off the Strip sidewalk there is a nice little park, filled with topiary and tall trees. It is, I imagine, about the width of the median Buras has in mind. With fountains along its north end it cuts the sound of traffic from the Strip, though the roadway is very close by. While there’s no trail running through the trees—in fact much of the Strip’s landscape areas are bench-free and have a distinct, Look But Do Not Touch/Stop/Linger feeling—one can imagine a bit of shade and respite and pause from the energy of the street. It’s a great space, and it may be instructive to note that in my 10 minutes of contemplating its calm, it was virtually empty.
No doubt the most impressive parts of the Strip feature ample landscaping. When the median is a lush grove of palm trees, buttressed by shrubs and flowers, the Strip gains a dimension. When the median is just a bed of gravel, the street looks cheaper. Of course, that may be part of the Strip’s charm, its ability to transition from the lush spaces of the Mirage to the asphalt tackiness of the Harley-Davidson shop. It is not particularly refined top to bottom, but it is democratic. Buras’ plan promises urban memory—but it also promises urban order. When I look at the renderings, I’m struck by the consistent elegance they could bring to the entire street. But are we ready for that? We put up a fake Eiffel Tower because the joke amuses us—are we ready for a pastiche that cuts a little closer to the real thing, a place striving for civility and beauty?
And then there’s the small matter of the 100,000 cars that would be running by either side of Buras’ park. Widening the median means narrowing the road. Right now it’s not uncommon for the Strip to have 10 or more lanes in both directions. Just north of Tropicana I counted 15—including (heading south), one right turn lane, four through lanes and three left turn lanes to head east toward McCarran; the north side of the street added another seven lanes.
In reclaiming the street for people, Buras would increase the sidewalks to an average of 15 feet. The number of lanes would be reduced to three each way, and each lane would be narrowed to 11 feet. But there’s more. Under Buras’ plan, the signage would go. “That has to do with the fact that driving is a right-side-of-the-brain process. Reading is a left-side. … You don’t want people doing the same thing while they’re operating a vehicle.
“These things seem counterintuitive to the standard problem-solving approach of most engineers, but they’re based on how the brain operates while driving.”
Oh, and I did I mention left turn lanes would be gone, replaced by those roundabouts that everyone who drives through Summerlin loves so much? And roundabouts mean no traffic lights. Yeah ... imagine that.
“The traffic will organize itself in a safe way.” As for the right-turn lanes—and bus stops—he proposes narrow 8-foot lanes that would cut into the enlarged sidewalks. Crosswalks would have different paving material—stone or brick—to help drivers and pedestrians identify them. That is, if you want to take your chances crossing the street, because there are no stop lights.
“We’re designing for real people, not for idiots,” he says. “This is not about being idiot-proof but something that works.”
Buras’ larger point is that the Strip is meant to be congested. “When it’s jammed, let it be jammed, people want to be in that experience,” he says.
The most important thing, Buras says, is “recognizing the boulevard as pedestrian space.” Maybe this makes sense. One of Vegas’ more common truisms is that residents travel to the Strip only when friends are in town. In some ways, then, we consider the Strip not ours, and often when we’re bragging to friends about the quality of life in Southern Nevada we’re talking about the weather, or the mountains, or cheap homes. Buras’ proposal would give the Strip back to us, as citizens. After all, he believes his park will last for 100 years.
But in such a transient place, do we really want it?
Buras was born in Israel. his father was a water engineer who helped draw up national water plans for Mexico, China and India, and was also the onetime head of the hydrology department at the University of Arizona. His mother was a biologist. Buras grew up in Israel, though he spent five years as a kid in Los Angeles.
He started off in civil engineering, but dropped the field because it wasn’t creative enough. He finished his architecture studies at Technion, Israel’s science and technology university, in 1975, then served five years in the Israeli Army, building military bases in the desert. He finally returned to the United States in 1980 and went to work for blue-chip firms such as Gensler (the master architect at CityCenter) and SOM, which was America’s pre-eminent postwar firm building (and inspiring others to build) the glass boxes that line virtually every downtown in the country. Along the way he picked up a master’s degree from UCLA and studied under famous postmodern architect Charles Moore. Then a long hiatus, he says, as a single parent. But something was not right with his view of the world, with his training, with his practice of architecture. “I was always interested in why things look the way they did,” he says. “I was dissatisfied with the modern education, because the words didn’t fit the music.”
So he returned to Technion in 1994 to work on his Ph.D., to try to get to the root of his dissatisfaction. He entered a modernist, and when he graduated in 2000 was reborn a classicist. The short story of where architecture culture went wrong, Buras concluded, dates back to the middle of the 18th century. Prior to 1750, he says, all architecture was predicated on creating beauty and pleasure. But thinkers gradually began to give expression to “other kinds of romantic experience.” The chief villain here is Edmund Burke, father of conservatism, whose book on the sublime and the beautiful led us down the path to an aesthetic that was rooted in awe and terror—and pain. Architectural modernists turned their back on the harmony and beauty of Greek and Roman models and committed us to a path of cold, dazzlingly austere buildings that reach a suitable climax in buildings such as those at CityCenter, sleek and soulless.
I asked him whether he thought the new casinos would literally be a painful experience for people. “People will hate it,” he predicted, “the same way that they hate modern downtowns.”
Buras’ touchstone buildings, on the other hand, are a who’s-who of America’s turn-of-the-century City Beautiful movement, a revival of the classical style: Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the New York Public Library, San Francisco’s City Hall and probably the most tragic building in the United States in the last century (maybe ever), the magnificent Pennsylvania Station in New York, demolished in 1963.
It’s easy to bash soulless modernists; how about the great proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan, inventor of the skyscraper and creator of some of the most insanely fabulous ornamentation ever seen in the U.S.? Or what about Sullivan’s greatest protégé, the genius Frank Lloyd Wright—the grandiose ego behind some of America’s greatest 20th-century buildings, from the swirling Guggenheim in New York to the pastoral masterpiece outside Pittsburgh, Fallingwater?
They are “interesting, minor 19th-century designers in the big scheme of things,” Buras allows, with the same nonchalant disinterest of a man pulling a pebble from the tread of his shoe, “with the exception of Fallingwater, which is a modern icon.”
I asked Buras, who started his own firm in D.C. last year, dedicated to large-scale classical projects, how much he thought retrofitting the Strip might run. He asked if I had a calculator and had me enter various figures and then came up with a total that was between $50 million and $100 million.
Buras has a healthy opinion of the merits of his plan, but he doesn’t seem a born lobbyist. In the summer of 2007 he made some forays to the city to try to hobnob with city leaders. He did manage to meet with Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, who told him he would need to solicit casino owners. Buras balked. “I told him this was his city, not mine. Why should I bring in sponsors for the best thing to ever happen to your city?”
He also met with some officials from NDOT. One of them “got it, because he knows a little about traffic planning. The other guy looked like I was from another planet.” He met Mayor Goodman with reference to another proposal he had for Vegas—a city hall—but never spoke with him about the Strip median.
If the county response was vaguely positive—hell, it was a response—in the city proper he says there was “absolutely no positive response. People look at me as an outsider with an idea. I don’t have this hubris,” he says. “I really couldn’t care less. If they want to use it, great, If they don’t want to use it, I don’t care. It’s not my city.”
I asked MGM Mirage VP Alan Feldman what he thought of the idea. Bereft of renderings he wasn’t eager to pronounce a negative judgment. He didn’t like the idea of more shops. He thought any ideas for improving traffic flow were worth considering. “But to try to create an attraction outside the practical issues of trying to move people around may seem to be more of a solution than what’s required under these circumstances …”
But this really isn’t about traffic flow … but about a city that should be talking about where its future lies, about how to reclaim beauty in an often drab world.
Buras wants to retire at 95, and continue to work until 105. “I want to see a century.” Plenty of time for Las Vegas to come around to his view. “[I have] no bitterness with regard to this. I’m well aware that a vision takes a while. I have all the patience in the world.”