Special: Adaptive Façades
Good illumination
Moran Lev | Feb 6, 2014
The Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas is once again the center of the entertainment industry. Photo © Flickr/planetc1

In recent years LED applications have increased the luminosity of façades and buildings are boasting ever more lighting installations. All this has a purpose: to get your attention. Yet it is not only us that individualization repeatedly pushes in the direction of self-staging; now and again architecture seeks to be unique too – or at least attractive.

Showmen are aware of the alluring effect of light; indeed, their fairground rides and stalls have always been glowing and flashing. Later it was places such as Piccadilly Circus in London and Times Square in New York City that symbolized the ever-enticing city of modern times. Even in Jacques Tati’s film “Playtime” the rhythmically illuminating lights of the office towers visualize the hectic pace of city life. The media façade – or rather, the façade with media projections or displays – stands more for emotional events than a spatial experience. Thus New Year is welcomed on the digital clock on Times Square and Piccadilly Circus provides the perfect illuminated backdrop for snaps of your London trip. Here architecture plays no significant role; only its outer skin is used for two-dimensional representation. Moreover critics note that media façades serve only to stage advertising at prominent spots. So can the flashing, kitschy screens, which adorn spaces and conceal architecture, also be a form of “good illumination”?

The historic Las Vegas

Some architects may find it highly questionable that precisely a media presentation in the urban space can inject new life into a district. Yet that is exactly what happened in Las Vegas. This may initially seem confusing, after all, the city already symbolizes raucous illumination, a single wild orgy of neon lights. Fremont Street was once also part of this. Located in downtown Las Vegas, until the 1980s it was the center of the entertainment industry. The first hotel in Las Vegas, Hotel Nevada, opened in 1906 on Fremont Street. It was the first paved street in the city and in 1907 allegedly boasted the first public telephone. The Golden Nugget hotel, opened in 1946, was the prototypical building project where the hotel was planned around a casino – and thus set the example for all other hotel concepts in Las Vegas. However, with the construction of the so-called megaresorts in the early 1980s the once so popular Fremont Street lost its appeal. As early as 1992 almost 80 percent of the entire casino market was to be found on the famous “Strip”. The old days of Fremont Street, also known as “Glitter Gulch”, were over.

The sky above Fremont Street

In the mid-1990s the hotel and casino operators on Fremont Street came together to invest in the revitalization of “their” district. You can’t compare downtown Las Vegas with a European old town, but the small-scale structure (comparatively for the United States) and independence of the individual buildings are elements that differ significantly from those on the Strip. And just as in Europe charming old towns have typically become “temples of consumerism”, the proposal by Los Angeles-based architecture studio Jerde is equally logical. The studio, bearing the slogan “Placemaking since 1977”, suggested a 140-meter-long roof spanning Fremont Street and bringing together the heterogeneous building structure without altering its charm.

The street itself was closed to traffic; now only pedestrians can wander along the road. This represents a real novelty for Las Vegas, where people primarily get from A to B cruising in their cars and pedestrians are only found in the air-conditioned rooms of the mega-casinos. However, the most important element of the roof conceived by Jerde Architects is not the delicate load-bearing structure, but the 2.1 million lights, which can be controlled individually. Thus at night the roof transforms into a glowing canopy, which with its alternating light shows once again makes Fremont Street attractive for visitors looking for a thrill. Moreover, the companies have the option of using the roof as advertising space, to draw attention to their shows and services. The light canopy spares the buildings on Fremont Street the otherwise ubiquitous façade-mounted advertising screens – and consequently preserves the area’s character. Namely the small-scale light-scape consisting of neon signs and symbols, which gave “Glitter Gulch” its name.

The postcard from the 50s shows the Neon Light Cowboy, a symbol of the "old" Las Vegas. Photo © Flickr/1950sUnlimited
Today the cowboy lights up again - just like all the others, small-scale neon light symbols. Photo © Flickr/Caitlyn Willows
"Golden Nugget", opened in 1946. Photo © Flickr/JoeDuck
If the roof is not set in light, then the individual light installation of the casinos and shops is even better seen. Photo © Flickr/matze_ott
Different light shows attract visitors. Photos © Flickr/rustler2x4_ts
The structure of the roof with a 30 meter wingspan looks quite delicate. Photo © Flickr/Dougtone
The individual stores advertise on the skylight. Photo © Flickr/Caitlyn Willows
On the Fremont Street you will find plenty of kitschy beautiful neon signs. Photo © Flickr/matze_ott
The Fremont Street with the small-scale structure of casinos, hotels and bars. Photo © Flickr / matze_ott