“The Machu Picchu of Las Vegas” sounds about right. If MGM Resorts announced that as a new project tomorrow, you’d think it was the return to the tragically gone-by era of themed Las Vegas properties. But the city’s Incan splendor isn’t on the Strip. It’s Ascaya, a virgin development, terraced into foothills of Black Mountain, south of MacDonald Ranch and MacDonald Highlands. Its tangle of roads snake around perfectly empty lots, electrical boxes spaced out, mailboxes waiting for the Post Office to have a reason to come calling.
“I wanted to be able to capture Ascaya in a way that it may never be seen again,” said Aaron Mayes, curator for visual materials for UNLV Special Collections and Archives, and curator of Built. “Even if the valley is dead and gone, this land will be this way. It’s so heavy, as far as man's hands are.”
Built, currently on display on the first floor of Lied Library, is a photographic survey of development in the Las Vegas Valley, from the way Las Vegas is organized around cars, to the unexpected consequences of growth, to a far-and-wide trek from one end of Sahara Avenue to the other. Mayes documents with an archaeological feel the transformation and stagnation of the street through the years.
Slated to run through the end of the semester, Built is part of the larger Building Las Vegas documenting the growth of Las Vegas from 1970 to 2010 through photos, archival material, and oral histories.
Mayes had already shot some of the photos for Built before the exhibit started coming together about a year ago, but as the project coalesced, a metacommentary about the nature of how cities grow started to develop.
A sprawling compound with a luxe pool was surrounded by empty desert, used by off-road drivers to turn doughnuts. Las Vegas wash, cutting through a golf course in one part of town, and washing away a homeless man’s belongings in another. Wetlands forever altered by the consequences of development.
“One of the things I noticed in our development cycle is that we're stuck with certain things. We're stuck with economics, we're stuck with environments, and we're stuck with that battle between. And what's left over after that battle, this is what I called unnatural consequences.”
The steps of Ascaya and the snarl of highways that bound Las Vegas are notable, but Built hinges on its installation about Sahara Avenue, which Mayes chronicles in a series of individual photos set against a map, from Red Rock Country Club in the west a Sunrise Manor desert lot in the east.
It shows both master planned communities in full bloom and decades of development that has sat, untouched, since the ground was raised.
“Sahara Avenue is to me just this fascinating time machine because you start with railroad tracks laid in 1905 and, as you go out, it’s development in great fits and spurts,” Mayes said. “You end up with areas like this that feel very 1980s, and it will give researchers a chance to come sit back and they can look at time flying. It's hit on exactly what I think is missing from our collection, that Las Vegas is more than just that little piece of Strip. That there are communities that are built, and how those communities are built are a little different than in St. Louis or New York City.”
As a companion piece, Special Collections curator Peter Michel has organized Unbuilt Las Vegas: Imagining Failed Dreams on the third floor of the library, chronicling projects from architects like Martin Stern, Homer Rissman and Gary Guy Wilson that never took their place on the Strip.
Stern’s Xanadu project, which was planned for the site on which Excalibur currently sits, would have been a behemoth constructed around a massive atrium, the echoes of which can be felt in projects like Luxor and The Mirage. Unbuilt looks not only at that project, but in the ways other architects kept trying to appropriate and revise it, as well as plans for an arena (imagine that) and the western-revival Bonanza Hotel and Casino.