Electric Blue Oasis: The Las Vegas Pool as Sign

Tourists en masse pause to photograph the Bellagio’s outdoor courtyard from a stylized, concrete balcony designed to evoke Northern Italy. Below them, five pool courtyards cover the landscaped expanse in a set of varietals: ambient fountains, lap pools with floors covered in contrasting tiles, hidden jacuzzis walled away behind the foliage. Guards eyeball the key card of all pool entrants, leaving the balcony-only visitors to the wishful thinking the Bellagio’s romanticized imagery is designed to inspire.

Pool at the Bellagio, Las Vegas

Emblematic of relaxation and luxury, swimming pools across America dress-to-impress with waterfalls, floating bars and palm tree clusters. The Las Vegas swimming pool goes farther, embodying a highly constructed destination, attitude or theme: replicated Greek and Roman statuary surround “The Garden of the Gods” at Caesars Palace; the Southeast Asian-themed Mandalay Bay’s “The Beach,” offers sand and a wave pool; lush landscaping, faux grottos and cascading waterfalls line the Mirage’s oasis-like space. The city’s known excess sets expectations high for architectural elements, but almost every “pool experience” now goes beyond the standard hotel pool, creating a total environment.

Despite Las Vegas’s penchant for relentless change, a consistent set of elements persevere throughout the Strip’s structural history: casino, hotel, retail, sign, grounds, porte-cochere, parking and pool; Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s 1972 Learning from Las Vegas incorporates an extensive categorization of such features, all of which continue to be found in Las Vegas today. The most notable component to change from definitive to inconsequential is the property sign. LED lights and digital screens extinguished the neon sign’s artistry and impact; themes previously realized through multi-story signs shaped into pink, atomic clouds, stylized minarets and billowing plumes now manifested as sculptural architecture across the Las Vegas skyline, dwarfing the signs that never grew to the Strip’s new scale.

Stardust sign and casino, Las Vegas. Image from playle.com

In contrast, the Las Vegas pool amplified its size and function since the neon era. When casinos began opening along Las Vegas Boulevard South in the 1940s and 50s, the property’s sign was the dominant promotional outlet.  Taking the lead from the classic motel structure, Strip casinos targeting drivers on US Highway 91 used the sign to represent their contents and themes, while the modest, postage stamp pools offered the tempting contrast of glimmering water against the stark desert. Some hotels, such as the El Rancho, positioned their pools as secondary billboards, supporting the property sign out front: the classic desert mirage materialized for drivers as they emerged from the empty desert.

El Rancho sign and swimming pool, Las Vegas. Image from unlv.edu

Although this oasis effect reflects a promotional aspect of the early Las Vegas pool experience, thirty years later, that role transitioned from architectural element to complete representation. A shift in visual cues occurred as the pool’s value to the overall casino image increased and the outdoor sign diminished. The opening of the Mirage in 1989 initiated the trend of entertainment as a significantly more prominent aspect of casino revenues, largely realized through amplification of the casino’s theme; the “mirage” literally became Steve Wynn’s entire, 3,000+ room resort.  The keystone of this tangible fantasy is the pool,  a winding lagoon of electric blue, surrounded by lavish landscaping, a tiki-themed bar and splashing waterfalls. By adopting the iconic desert oasis as its theme, the Mirage built an image with the pool at its core.

Mirage pool., Las Vegas. Image from thedubaipie.wordpress.com

The immersive pool trend initiated by the Mirage spread quickly throughout the 1990s, the pool’s role as sign increasingly strengthened while hotel themes proliferated and expanded; the Excalibur’s fairytale castle, the Luxor’s glass pyramid and Treasure Island’s pirate ships replaced the standard “tropical” and “old west” iconography historically dominant on the Strip. Exterior and interior architecture reflected the new themes at maximum volume, yet little innovation was put towards the property sign, its promotional power diminished by the shift in vistors’ arrival method, from the road to the airplane.

Booking a hotel upon arrival in Las Vegas is a ritual of the past; instead, travel search engines such as Orbitz and Kayak.com represent the new drive-by. Following a series of clicks, the Las Vegas-bound traveler finds the Strip in digital form; here, the property sign is insignificant. Rather, price, availability, and desirable amenities exert comparable power over the internet searcher’s desire to stop. In order to compete in this marketplace, a casino needs a virtual edge that fulfills the old role of the sign. As a component of the casino well served by glossy imagery and barely-clothed sex appeal, the pool became a natural solution.

The new “destination”  theme common throughout the Strip by the late 1990s effectively translated into matching pool environments. In 1998, Steve Wynn transformed an image of the Italian Bellagio resort into drizzling fountains and “historic” two-story building facades, while in 1999, Circus Circus Corporation realized the Mandalay Bay’s Southeast Asian theme by bringing in 2700 tons of a sand. While the more resort-friendly pools instigate total immersion in the “resort experience” as much as they represent the casinos’ themes, the 1997 New York New York casino’s “Park Avenue Poolside” demonstrates one of the most complete embodiments of its place.

Small, grassy mounds, scattered trees and a yellow volleyball net stretched across the NY NY pool visually cue a condensed Central Park encircled by a line of brick restaurant facades; this is standard Las Vegas pool themeing.  Beyond the constructed details, standard chaises cover concrete pool deck, so densely packed that in the absence of aisles, loungers awkwardly crawl across the chairs to place their towels, Offering space for 840 pool-goers in a hotel that houses over 2000 rooms, the chairs are at a premium reminiscent of New York apartments; once finally situated, the New York New York guests find themselves crammed into the claustrophobic, Manhattan lifestyle, as close to the “New York experience” as many Americans from less occupied areas of the country may get.  The pool, in this respect, offers more immersion in the resort’s theme than the hotel’s purple, art deco-inspired bedspreads or the beer guzzling Lady Liberty sign could ever hope to instigate.

New York, New York pool, Las Vegas

“Park Avenue Poolside” offers little of the traditional experience affiliated with resort swimming pools; relaxation ultimately is not its purpose.  Rather, the Las Vegas pool has become a representation of the hotel in the way the property sign once was, to the point that it inherently embodies the casino’s essence.  In a landscape where every business is selling the same thing, for extreme profits, convincing an audience of business individuality is difficult, and ultimately a deception.  The pool effectively played the role of the sign during the 1990s and early 2000s, becoming a place for immersive signification within the hotel premises. As the most current casinos begin to de-theme their approaches, the next signifier of choice is still unclear but can be expected to create an equally elaborate spectacle.