Civil Liberties

Muerte a Las Vegas

Will fine art kill Sin City?


"The market economy," architect Rem Koolhaas recently told Wallpaper magazine, "has lobotomized political consciousness. We need to construct a place for this again." An admired writer on social and cultural issues as well as a superarchitect in the class of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, Koolhaas is playing a leading role in constructing politics out of design. Among his many projects is a retail tower in San Francisco for the edgy fashion chain, Prada. The building is made of foam, a project Koolhaas characterizes as "a deliberate metaphor for the state of architecture." He's also engaged in a Harvard study on communism, in which, in his words, "We will look at how communism, from 1922 to 1980, was able to organize itself relatively successfully, from the Elbe to the Pacific, while maintaining its idealism."

But his most publicized project involves a pair of art display spaces. Koolhaas has been chosen by the Guggenheim to design its new galleries…in Las Vegas. This extraordinary tableau-the elite Guggenheim and the political Koolhaas working together in the capital of kitsch -is a remarkable act by the art establishment.

In awarding the projects-a small gallery attached to the Venetian casino and a large, freestanding museum-to the 55-year-old Dutch designer, the Guggenheim has seemingly transformed its project. For years, the museum and its curators have been at the center of a roiling controversy over the changing role of such art institutions; specifically, whether in their zeal for bigger crowds of paying gawkers, such museums were abandoning their role as stewards of art and as uplifters of public taste.

According to some critics, the Guggenheim reached a nadir of pandering when it mounted its controversial "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit in 1998. That exhibit drew the biggest crowds in the museum's history, but detractors were disturbed both by the concept and by the fact that the show was underwritten by Harley-Davidson. (Curiously, no one wondered whether motorcycle design would be affected by an entombment in an elite gallery, as jazz has been undone by its entombment in elite concert spaces and its debilitating appropriation by elite tastemakers.)

But the Guggenheim has since en-joyed an enormous triumph, not so much with the artworks it displays as with the buildings in which it displays them. The Guggenheim structure in Bilbao, Spain, designed as a flowing mass by Frank Gehry, has drawn hordes of people who just want to see the building. And, after all, the original Guggenheim structure in Manhattan, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, established the institution's image in the first place. If you want to appreciate its founding audacity, try hanging art on a round wall.

The Guggenheim's plans to build in Las Vegas originally seemed like another effort to chase ticket-buyers; its plans were inspired by the spectacle of tourists lining up in 1998 to see the Picassos hanging over the slots in the new Bellagio casino. But the choice of Koolhaas changes the Vegas Guggenheims into something else: an act of architectural engagement.

"Engagement" is Koolhaas's central working concept; what he wants to engage with is the commercial world that he regards as politically and socially lobotomizing. Architects, he has argued in his writings, are guilty of retreating before an onslaught of commercialism. He accuses them of working in an "architectural ghetto" of universities and a few elite clients, when they should be out challenging and rebuild-ing the real world where everyone else lives.

Of course, the conceit that art has the power not merely to reflect, but actually to transform the world it addresses was a fundamental idea of the modernist avant-garde. The notion has thus far proved to be a ghetto of its own, and may have much to answer for. Some critics have charged that the urge to transform is ultimately a totalitarian aesthetic. But what is going on in Vegas is not the totalization of kitsch so much as its opposite.

Las Vegas, as architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour argued 25 years ago in Learning From Las Vegas, is actually a case study in the lessons of pleasure. The city is a display of enticement and illusion; its recent reinvention as a series of hotel theme parks only heightens those basic appeals. Whatever Koolhaas and the Guggenheim may think they are creating, they will have to find a way to make their art spaces work within this context of pleasure.

The Guggenheim may very well know this. The opening exhibit in the smaller of Koolhaas' galleries, when it opens late next year, will be a reprise of "The Art of the Motorcycle."