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August 1, 2014

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Vegas’ obsession with growth captured for others to see

When architect Ralph Stern moved to Las Vegas, he found us living in Italian villas, Mediterranean enclaves, New York high rises and beachfront properties. We had terraced our mountains, gated our communities and imported our landscaping.

It was a dazzling phenomenon for the urbanist, who specializes in the study of cities and their economic, political and architectural elements. Stern and his partner, Nicole Huber, spent years living in reunified Berlin studying its reclaiming and erasing of history.

In Las Vegas, not only do we erase the city's memory with each decade, we delete its sense of place. Our themed neighborhoods borrow from everywhere but here.

"Las Vegas is a city that displaces itself over and over again. It's always about someplace else," Stern says while viewing slides of an academic photo exhibit in his office at UNLV's School of Architecture.

"Where do you see the Mojave Desert? You don't."

Don't like a mountain? Terrace it. Turn it into a European hamlet. Trailer park in the way? Plow it over.

While displacement is no surprise to those of us who have lived in this tropical, European, pastoral, beachfront wonderland for years, it's a little jarring to see it portrayed in images by Stern and Huber.

Are we delusional or just imaginative?

The two architects file it all under the theme of displacement - fantasy of the Strip spreading into residential neighborhoods.

"Sites of Transition: Urbanizing the Mojave Desert" features their research and a photo essay of Las Vegas and its growth. It will be on display this fall at the national architecture center, Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, in Berlin.

The exhibit also will be at the University of Washington, Seattle in early 2008, but nothing is scheduled for Las Vegas.

The images capture a city growing beyond its means, gouging the land, building sprawling homes in themed communities. They portray neighborhoods in transition, dumping and the reshaping of topography through suburban development.

They've photographed buildings and ruins in artfully composed images that offer a profound narrative of life in Southern Nevada.

"It's amazing how the city is portrayed in the media as so glamorous and to come here see what everyday life is like, to see what the whole context is," says Huber, a German-trained architect who teaches at the University of Washington.

There are abstracts of industrial box buildings, ventilators, construction materials, landscapes of parking ramps and images of real estate signs promoting tropical living on desert lots .

A junk yard in North Las Vegas near a women's prison reflects "two different kinds of recycling," Stern says.

One image shows the top of the Luxor hotel, a big warehouse and a shopping cart, tent and old couch in the foreground, representing, Stern says, "the spectacular, the functional and transitory."

We see the drama that played out during the closing of local manufactured home parks for high-rise buildings in 2005, which sent seniors and low-income residents searching for affordable housing.

It looks like a war zone: trailers looted, sliced, cracked, trashed, prepped for relocation and the message of an active community dismembered. Trailers are marked for dumping or to ward off looters, such as "Home occupied, keep out." and "Will be available for looting Monday morning a.m. promptly."

"Something I found frightening here was the destruction of trailer parks , because those were cohesive social units," Stern says. "That's something where in a different cultural climate wouldn't happen."

Then there is the easy target of Lake Las Vegas: a 320-acre private lake, created in the desert and surrounded with homes, villas and hotels, many with Mediterranean and Italian themes.

"It's so out of place. It's one thing to have a fantasy world configured to the Strip. It's another to have it to the scale of Lake Las Vegas. What is interesting is this constant referencing of Italy in the desert," Stern says.

Stern and Huber's studies originated from a cinematic viewpoint and were part of a larger interest in the impact that film has in shaping perceptions of urban environments.

In Germany, Stern and Huber formed the Program for Urban Processes, a partnership between the Universitat der Kunste Berlin and the Southern California Institute of Architecture that looked at cinematic representations of Berlin and Los Angeles in terms of process, rather than form.

Despite early postwar rebuilding in Berlin, some groups resisted change in its urban core . In Los Angeles, the focus was on its underside and subcultures establishing turfs.

Referring to the images of Las Vegas, Stern said: "It's really powerful . There is a real price that is being paid in terms of places and spaces being created and places and spaces being destroyed. There doesn't seem to be anybody taking stock of anything.

"It tells a huge story."