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Las Vegas meets Venice by Alex MacLean

[THIS WEEK] A new book tackles both Las Vegas and Venice in one go, writes James Pallister

At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale I shared a vaporetto with an elderly American couple. How, I asked, did they like Venice? It was ‘okay’ but ‘We much prefer the version back home.’ They were talking about Las Vegas’ Venetian resort.

As well as its own Great Sphinx of Giza, Las Vegas has canals, a Rialto Bridge and a campanile. Clark County’s version is cleaner, more compact and well – more friendly.

For decades, Las Vegas and Venice have drawn architects to them as objects of study, critique and inspiration, almost to the point of tedium. They’re both deeply weird, fascinating cities, tied by the problem of water – too much and too little.

Alex MacLean’s new book, Las Vegas/Venedig, Fragile Mythen brings the two cities together. Architect-trained MacLean is a photographer equipped, handily, with a pilot’s licence. His range is wide: pictures of neat suburban developments carved out of the desert nod to Andreas Gursky; others focus on details, like land defences to the south of the Venice lido, which recall Richard Long’s land sculptures.

In one picture, lines of virgin building plots surround a real estate visitor centre and (unfilled) swimming pool – a strange and unwelcome new typology born from the US subprime mortgage crisis. Elsewhere an estate backs onto the slipway of an empty reservoir, capturing the spectre of water (or lack of it) that haunts both cities.

It’s an interesting time to put Vegas alongside Venice. Last year the USA’s National Register of Historic Places added its famous ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign to its list: Sin City has entered a phase of having to engage with conservation and, for the first time in a century, is shedding jobs and its population is dropping. Venice’s has halved since 1966. A study in scale, vulnerability and threat, MacLean’s book is worth adding to the Christmas list – whichever Venice you prefer.

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