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Liz Benston

Building wraps: Art or schlock ?

5 November 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Along one stretch of the Strip, high-rise condos and hotels are rising from the drafting boards of some of the world's leading architects, catapulting Las Vegas toward cosmopolitan chic.

Down the street, a gargantuan banner is draped over the sloping side of the landmark Luxor, showing a 40-foot-tall bottle of vodka.

So where is Vegas headed - toward architectural sophistication or marketing schlock?

UNLV art professor Pasha Rafat, who teaches a course on art in public places, fears the latter.

"I like the Luxor - it's probably the most interesting piece of architecture on the Strip. Why cover it up?"

Banners on buildings might make sense to advertisers and the hotels that can make $1 million or more by giving up a side of their structures, but they detract from Las Vegas' impressive array of iconic buildings, Rafat said.

And San Jose Mercury News architecture critic Alan Hess, author of "Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture," thinks Las Vegas could do better than building wraps, especially since it already has such striking marquees.

"Las Vegas has had so much of its own tradition and confidence about how to sell things to people. To see it import a solution that's already been created in Times Square is seeing it lose some of that quality. They don't compare to the quality and artistic creativity of the great neon signs."

Indeed, the draped booze ad signals a conflicted Vegas, displaying a new elegance while still embracing the endearing tackiness of old. We've always been a town of extremes, known for architecture both ridiculous and sublime and which, many thought, was finally being gentrified.

The bold advertising campaigns, which spring from Los Angeles and New York, should be welcomed in a town where, aesthetically, anything goes, says one school of thought.

"There are plenty of other places where you'd never get away with putting an ad on a building. But Las Vegas has a different culture and a different mind - set," said Roger Lewis, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a columnist for the Washington Post. "Most people are not offended by the glitzy ostentatiousness of Las Vegas.

"I would resist temptation to try to turn Las Vegas into an aesthetically regulated environment. It's a place that can absorb almost anything, stylistically."

Indeed, arbiters of aesthetics say the brazen use of Strip architecture as advertising props is healthy, because Las Vegas already is appreciated for its eclectic jumble of highbrow and lowbrow culture unorganized by district , as it is in other major cities.

Having said that, it's less likely these ads will turn up on the sides of the most luxurious hotels, including those now under construction at CityCenter.

MGM Mirage spokeswoman Jenn Michaels said banners such as the Absolut vodka ad atop the Luxor probably wouldn't be allowed on the side of Bellagio because "it's elegant and luxurious," but is fitting for a pyramid boasting its nightlife.

The Luxor is prime advertising real estate for another reason: The Strip-facing, slanted side of the pyramid is easily viewed from airplanes carrying more than 46 million visitors annually to Las Vegas.

Banner ads have also been draped on hotels to promote participants at conventions - such as Motorola and Oracle banners adorning the Luxor during technology conventions - and to promote hotel shows such as Prince at the Rio, Toni Braxton at Flamingo and "Love," the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show at Mirage.

Resort companies say they are showing restraint in not selling more banner ads.

"We don't want to sell the buildings for the sake of selling the buildings," Michaels said.

There can be a fine line between appropriate and not, and the Absolut ad - a bold ad with an equally dramatic backdrop - passed the test for tastefulness, she said. "You have to be smart about how you do these things. It has to flow with the building."

Steve Wynn says the use of large, draped banners is a matter of taste - and that while there may be plenty of opportunities elsewhere on the Strip for them, he has shown no inclination to use them.

"There's lots of room for different levels of taste," he said.

Las Vegas architect Joel Bergman applauds the banner ads for their business and spectator value - the same reasons they appear in New York's Times Square.

"With the increase in pedestrians and slower-moving traffic on the Strip, you can entertain with your signage," said Bergman, who had a hand in designing Caesars Palace, Paris Las Vegas and Treasure Island.

Outdoor advertising, including billboards and "wraps" made from a vinyl mesh that can be seen through from behind, is among the fastest -growing forms of advertising in the country.

Building wraps, once reserved for special events, are now being adopted for general, year-round use.

More advertisers are turning to big outdoor ads because video recorders allow consumers to fast-forward through TV commercials, said Todd Wasserman, an editor with Brandweek, a marketing publication in New York.

Las Vegas offers spectacular advertising locations from which to reach a broad audience, Wasserman said.

A building wrap "can cheapen a building but it can also add luster. It depends on the building and it's a decision each company has to make," he said.

Advertisers especially lust for exposure in Las Vegas because of its massive and constantly revolving volume of tourists, offering more fresh eyes every week than anywhere else in the country.

And they pay off.

During the NBA All-Star Game in April, adidas spent millions of dollars on multiple banner ads and oversized basketball jerseys that adorned the lion in front of MGM Grand and the Statue of Liberty in front of New York-New York.

The goal was to concentrate the signage around the high-traffic intersection of Tropicana Avenue and the Strip , which also is close to one of adidas' handful of national flagship stores.

It was the biggest outdoor ad blitz for adidas in the United States and it yielded results: The company's retail store had, for two consecutive days, the biggest sales for any location worldwide.

"People (in the basketball industry) are still talking about the ads to this day," said Travis Gonzoles, who head s basketball public relations at adidas.

"The NBA is using it as a model for other advertisers."

Architect Arnold Stalk, a former planner for Los Angeles who has taught at UNLV and UCLA, says banner ads are a modern take on an old tradition.

"It's fabulous because it's a statement about who we are," Stalk said. "We're the entertainment capital of the world. Do we get honest about who we are or do we pretend we're something else?"

Robert Venturi, who co-wrote the seminal architecture book on the Strip , "Learning from Las Vegas , " with partner Denise Scott Brown, calls the banner ads a newer and bolder art form.

"The idea of banners as the next big billboard sign is terrific," Venturi said. "We Americans are commercial. Some of our greatest art is pop art. The billboards of the 20th century will be hanging next to patchwork quilts from American folk museums in the next century."