Places

About
Foundation
Partner Schools
Places Wire
Print Archive
Peer Review
Submissions
Donate
Contact


Departments

Critique
Essays
Gallery
Interviews
Multimedia
Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction
Projects


Topics

Architecture
Art
Books
Cities / Places
Community
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Infrastructure
Landscape
Literature
Photography
Planning
Politics / Policy
Preservation
Public / Private
Reputations
Sustainability
Technology
Transportation
Urbanism
Water



Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact




Gallery: Michael Light & Aaron Rothman

Above Lake Las Vegas



Gated “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010). [Photo by Michael Light] Click image to enlarge.

In 2006, in the midst of the building boom, I moved back to Phoenix, Arizona, after being away for several years. Along with Las Vegas and the other Sunbelt capitals, Phoenix was exploding into the future. Everyone seemed to have big plans for how to will it into being a great city. Around that time I had a conversation with a skeptical architect who saw the land development as the next wave in the region’s mining history, a way of extracting value from the land without regard for community or human needs. Soon enough the housing industry collapsed, and, like mines stripped of their ore, vast swaths of the Sunbelt metros were left as wastelands.




Photographer Michael Light has spent the past decade exploring the development of the American West from the perspective of helicopters and light airplanes. On recent flights above half-built resort communities outside Las Vegas, he observed a more literal connection between mining and land development:
[This was] something I’d long suspected abstractly: that the extraction industries and the habitation industries are two sides of the same coin. Seeing entire mountains graded into building pads for gated luxury homes and ‘purpose-built communities,’ only to be left to slowly revert to sagebrush in bankruptcy, was the most naked and skeletal revelation of the speculative habitation machine I’d yet seen.
Indeed, in his photographs of these sites it is sometimes difficult to discern whether you are looking at an abandoned mining operation or an aborted housing development. Only the iconic shape of a cul-de-sac tips you off.



Future Homesites of “The Falls” at Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, Nevada (2011). [Photo by Michael Light] Click image to enlarge.

In this slideshow we present Light’s project on Lake Las Vegas Resort, a partially built luxury community 20 miles east of The Strip, surrounding an artificial lake created by the damming of the Las Vegas Wash, which channels wastewater and run-off from the Las Vegas Valley, past the suburb of Henderson, to Lake Mead. Light’s account is unsparing:
Comprising 21 Mediterranean-themed communities ... three golf courses, a casino, two destination resort hotels and ... a replica of the Ponte Vecchio, this shining Lake Como amidst the sewage-filled Henderson swamp began its literally-dammed life in 1991. Home sales began in 1992, and by 2002 its most famous resident, Celine Dion, had moved in, with luxurious Italianate skies seeming the limit. By 2008, however, the entire 1,600-home resort was in foreclosure, as its primary developer, Transcontinental Corporation, funded by the Bass Brothers of Forth Worth, Texas, defaulted on between $500 million and $1 billion in debt, primarily in speculative loans from Swiss and foreign banks.
From their aerial perspective, Light’s images show a startling disconnect between the constructed oasis of the Lake Las Vegas developments and the reality of the land they occupy. A complete transformation of place has been enacted to materialize what Light refers to as a “particularly American domestic dream,” and not just in the vast amounts of earth moved to accommodate so many palatial residences. It is as if some distant and fantastical land has been collaged onto the stark geology of the Mojave Desert — even the light surrounding the houses seems different, softer. The vast space and clear light of the desert, seemingly free from the weight of history, have somehow made anything seem possible here.

When Light began this project in 2010, the oasis had been exposed as a mirage. The golf courses had gone brown, homes had lost three-quarters of their value, and the resort’s premier hotel and status symbol, the Ritz-Carlton, had closed its doors. Soon enough, though, the lure of a bargain started drawing in speculative investors. In 2012, two of the three golf courses are green again, homebuilders are slowly restarting construction, and the Ritz-Carlton has reopened as a Westin resort. (In an interesting twist, it was at this Westin where President Obama prepared for his first, ill-fated debate with Mitt Romney.) The razed hillsides still stand as material reminders of a period of hubris and folly that ended in catastrophic failure. But the fantasy embodied in the opulent developments adjacent to those hillsides — a vision of wealth rising from a virgin landscape — has proven hard to shake.

— Aaron Rothman




Editors’ Note

Private Frontiers,” an exhibition of photography by Michael Light and painting by Chris Ballantyne, runs December 15 – January 26, 2013, at the Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco.

For related content on Places, see Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, “Urbanizing the Mojave,” which thoroughly discusses the relation between the extraction and construction industries in Las Vegas, and William L. Fox’s review, “Las Vegas.”
Share This Story

RELATED POSTS


20 Years Later: Legacies of the Los Angeles Riots


Head of the Dragon: The Rise of New Shanghai


Storm Season


Lost Rivers


The Blue Corvette



RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (2)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

The atrocity of creating Lake Las Vegas and building super-palaces there is a story with no end. The super-rich seek to 'get away from it all,' living in this out-of-the-way artificial enclave. THEN - they demand a road be built for them, because it's so hard to get into town...!!! Celine Dion doesn't want to use her helicopter to go grocery shopping or to doctor visits, I guess.
Jane Feldman
12.06.12 at 06:51

Thank you for bringing this story to our attention and presenting Light's perspective on the atrocious treatment of the landscape. I drove through Lake Las Vegas in 2009 and was so appalled by how the developers were carving up whole mountainsides there to add an extra lot or two for another energy-guzzling McMansion. Amazing how an entire peak is left as a picturesque backdrop while the rest of the context is marred or obliterated for more and more lots to build upon. Lake Las Vegas should be the poster project for all things wrong with development that goes unchecked. Amazing how they got it wrong on every level and have irrevocably destroyed what was likely a beautiful valley. Why are people buying into this instead of seeing it for what it is? Las Vegas holds a lot of believers captive in its mirage of opulence and the opportunists who abuse land and resources to make a living.
T Hayduk
12.08.12 at 08:36



LOG IN TO POST A COMMENT
Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.

Email


Password




Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible



ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

Aerial photographs of Lake Las Vegas, by Michael Light.
View Slideshow >>

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Rothman’s photographs, video and installation artwork explore perceptual experience of space in both natural and built environments.
More Bio >>

Michael Light is a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker focused on the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









MORE ON American West


800 Miles: Photographing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Peter Bo Rappmund, who has documented nearly every mile of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Heavy Metal
On Places, photographer Dennis DeHart traces the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes through one of the world's largest and most contaminated historic mining districts.

Look Only at the Movement
On Places, a documentary project by Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio, focusing on the materiality of nuclear waste transport.

Walking the Darkness Home
On Places, Adelheid Fischer recounts a journey to the Grand Canyon — to a dangerous and redemptive place that by turns epitomizes and defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

Resurveying the West
On Places, a slideshow of images of the American West by the New York-based photographer Victoria Sambunaris and the 19th-century pioneer William Henry Jackson, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Camino del Diablo
On Places, photographer Mark Klett journeys along the Camino del Diablo in the Sonoran Desert, much of which is now a bombing range, and finds a landscape of forbidding danger and compelling beauty.

Nowhere and Everywhere: The Landscape of the Colorado Delta
On Places, planner Armando Carbonell explores, in aerial photographs, the fragile yet resilient landscapes of the Colorado River Delta.

We Are in a Western Town
On Places, Aaron Rothman explores the enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams, and what they reveal about the paradoxical landscape of the American West.

Drylands: Water and the West
On Places, an essay and slideshow by Peter Arnold and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, on what they call "the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century."

If There Be Such Space
On Places, a slideshow drawn from a collaborative exhibition by two photographers who share an interest in the perception and representation of natural landscapes.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

The Hills Are Alive
On Places, Michael Branch reflects on how deeply photography and film shape our landscape aesthetics (and how much he detests the Alpine-worshipping The Sound of Music).

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City
On Places, Andrew Ross analyzes the contradictory political and economic forces that once made Phoenix the fastest-growing city in the U.S. — and today a prime casualty of the crash.

Water in the West
On Places, a slideshow from the collaborative photography project Water in the West, with an introduction by Mark Klett.

The Half-Life of History
On Places, writer William Fox and photographer Mark Klett document the semi-ruin of the WW II military airfield at Wendover, Utah, where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Views Across Time
On Places, an interview with photographer Mark Klett and a slideshow from his ongoing rephotography project, with views across time of the American West.

The Edge of Light: Wendover
On Places, photographs by Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder document the nighttime mysteries of Wendover, where military history, land-speed racing and the casino industry make for unexpected juxtapositions.

Soundscapes: Burning Man
On Places, a selection of soundscapes — ranging from dust storms to diesel generators — recorded by architect Nick Sowers at the latest Burning Man.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Land, Speed and Bonneville
On Places — coinciding with Speed Week at Bonneville — a gallery created by architect Martin Hogue documents decades of land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah.

Las Vegas
Writer and critic William L. Fox reviews Las Vegas, by Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, probing the improbable success of the gambling-entertainment world-city constructed in the midst of the Mojave.

Urbanizing the Mojave
America's greatest boomtown has gone bust. Architects Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the cultural and environmental consequences of the rapid expansion of Las Vegas into the Mojave Desert, tracing a troubled history of mining, militarization, tourism, and water politics.