That Old Feeling: Casino Culture

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My wife, the famous Mary Corliss, enjoys gambling. She will rarely go out of her way to visit a casino, but if we’re traveling, and one is near, she’ll play the slots for a few hours. For me, that’s not entertainment; I sit before a machine and feel I’m on an assembly line. Stop the whirl, I don’t want to go broke.

But I love casinos. I love the spectacle — the free show — of thousands of other people spending money that isn’t mine. I’m impressed by the solitary intensity of the gamblers, and the way these solipsists at the slots form a community of obsession. They are a very 21st-century phenomenon, for what expresses electronic media more succinctly than a slot machine? More than that, the gamblers show an intensity, devoutness and expectation of doom that makes them celebrants in the Church of Dice. And the casino is their Cathedral of Commerce.

We’ve been to Atlantic City, which is two-and-a-half hours south from our Manhattan home, and to the Indian-reservation casinos Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, two-and-a-half hours northeast of New York. We vacation on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, which has a casino across the street from our time-share. Every two years we take a cruise, called the Floating Film Festival, on a ship with a casino. And by designating myself the official Cirque du Soleil correspondent of TIME Magazine and, I’ve gotten us to Las Vegas every year or so for the past decade. The other casino stops are wayside chapels of the gambling culture. Las Vegas is Vatican City.

In his indispensible history, “In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance,” David Thomson describes the burgeoning of Las Vegas to big-city status — a big city that collects, collates and giganticizes the contradictory traits of other metropolises: “It has some of the most daring and innovative architecture in the world — and the Liberace Museum. At the same time, Las Vegas has the highest suicide rate in the nation, a rising problem of teenage gangs involved in drugs, a Yellow Pages telephone directory in which nearly one hundred pages are given over to the ‘Adult Entertainment’ section ... and the unhindered success of a business that can destroy lives and families. It has parking and traffic problems, the onset of air pollution, a constant worry about where the water will come from. It has some of the more grotesque and depressed architecture ever seen in the world (your nightmare in concrete) — and the Liberace Museum.”

Daring and innovative; grotesque and depressed. That is simply to say that Las Vegas contains multitudes. It is its own contradiction, parody and apotheosis, especially in its architecture. Perhaps no city has been so defined by its buildings since New York in its early 20th-century rise to glory.


A hundred years ago, almost everyone in America was poor. But the few who were rich were fabulously rich. Moreover, they were not ashamed to flaunt their wealth in ways that could allow ego to blend with civic pride. It was their duty and their pleasure to commission edifices so grand that the rabble from whose sweat they made their millions would gaze on these structures and feel not envy but awe — gratitude, even, that their slavery had financed such wonders.

And wonders they were, beginning with New York’s Penn Station, built by McKim, Mead & White in 1910 and modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in imperial Rome. The Woolworth Building — the Cathedral of Commerce — followed three years later. At the cusp of the Depression the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings went up. Rockefeller Center, a magnificent family of skyscrapers, had as its brightest child the Radio City Music Hall, which rivaled the Roxy and other movie palaces for outsize splendor. These were edifices that defined, for New Yorkers and all the world, the city’s majesty and ambition; they created the vertical profile, the dreamscape silhouette, of New York. No building since has made us nearly so proud or awed. What modern skyscraper is the city known for? The architecturally indifferent World Trade Center, which acquired its identity and poignancy, its heroism, only when it collapsed.

Few large buildings today even aspire to aspects of grace and power that came naturally to the old ones. I live in a loft building, erected in 1890 by McKim, Mead & White. This was one of their unheralded projects: the American Express Shipping Warehouse in lower Manhattan (today, Tribeca). It was not designed to be chic; it was designed to be inhabited only by crates. Yet the red-brick façade has a stolid elegance. Each flat boasts 10- or 12-foot vaulted ceilings, and concrete walls so thick that the Osbournes could be playing or screaming in the next apartment and you’d think your neighbors were monks or mutes. Form plus function — what a radical idea! A shame it hasn’t occurred to architects in decades.

I don’t want to blame everything on Modernism (yes, I do, or else what’s this column about?), but the acceptance of that no-frills orthodoxy, coupled with a building boom in the 50s and 60s, gave midtown Manhattan the longest and densest concentration of drab slabs — oversize real estate bereft of imagination or heroism, and as gray, miserly, miserable as the accountants who were their true auteurs. Every structural innovation derived from the need to save a buck here, a million there. I sit on the 24th floor of one of these monotonous monoliths and stare out at another one; I’d call it ugly, if only it had a personality. We are trapped behind steel strips, unvaried except for the weather stains, separated by strips of plate glass — windows that never open, that never allow a breath of air, or a “network” scream, or a romantic suicide. These buildings are our minimum-security, maximum-depressing prisons.

To put an exclamation point on the death sentence of architecture grandeur, the executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad — who lacked the rapacity of the old robber barons but also their soaring civic vision — tore down McKim, Mead & White’s masterpiece in 1963. In its place is a building with as much style as a sidewalk.


If we wanted to find architecture extravagance — now not majestic so much as gaudy and giddy — we go to Las Vegas. People have for a half-century. As Modernism spread through the official culture, Vegas (and Disney) created an architecture that spoke to America’s need to enjoy itself, to relax in environments so posh and outré they were both startlingly fresh and immediately relaxing. Consider that Vegas had a big hand in liberating late 20th century architecture from the stolid (and very European) sameness of modernism. Modernism was the sterile warren where you worked; Vegas was a colorful carnival. It restored the notion of a building as entertainment, as exclamation; it put the fun back in function. From the early hacienda hotels to Bugsy Siegel’s bolder Flamingo to the jutting lines of the Sands and the Dunes, Vegas could be a vibrant museum of eccentric architecture.

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