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March 28, 2015

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Developing the desert: At what cost to Mojave?


Tiffany Brown / FILE

Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern began their Las Vegas research project in 2005. Their book, “Urbanizing the Mojave Desert: Las Vegas,” contains dozens of photographs designed to show the desert against the backdrop of development.

It’s difficult to reconcile a lush golf course carpeting the desert floor.

But the discordant landscape makes a fitting cover image for “Urbanizing the Mojave Desert: Las Vegas,” a compact book that examines, in words and photographs, the radical transformation of the Mojave Desert.

Released this year by Jovis Verlag, a Berlin publishing house that specializes in art, architecture, photography and design, “Urbanizing” is not so much about water conservation as it is a documentary on how waterfront Mediterranean villas and seas of subdivisions have redefined the desert landscape in ways both daring and contrary.

The 192-page, bilingual book (English and German) transcends the oft-targeted Strip, instead focusing on the daily milieu. Its authors, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, don’t engage in a finger-pointing shame-and-blame game with development.

They are urbanists and architects who have observed how development has obscured cultural and physical history. Their objective, they say, is to open dialogue.

“It’s one of those books you need to take into account when you’re trying to understand the phenomenon of Las Vegas,” says Mark Hall-Patton of the Clark County Museum, where the images will be featured in April 2010.

Hall-Patton says the book allows residents, inured to the growth around them, a chance to step back and consider how growth and development has altered the desert environment.

The book features 150 color photographs of terraced mountains, abandoned trailer parks, urban signage, subdivisions juxtaposed against the mountains, rabid construction, power plants and other energy infrastructure.

The project has received international attention, beginning in 2005 when the Journal of the Architectural Association London published early images from the research.

Huber and Stern had been living in Berlin and formed the Program for Urban Processes to focus on urban transformation, before moving to the states and beginning the Las Vegas project in 2005. (Stern taught in the architecture program at UNLV. Huber teaches at the University of Washington.) Images from the book have been exhibited at the German Architecture Center Berlin and more recently at the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory at Arizona State University’s College of Design. Its director, Nancy Levinson, was intrigued by similarities between Phoenix’s relationship with the Sonoran desert and Las Vegas’ relationship with the Mojave.

Levinson, who says biodiversity and water issues in Phoenix weren’t adequately considered, saw the exhibit and accompanying symposium as a way to start a conversation on the implications of fast-growing, low-density residential areas in the desert.

“Phoenix, like Las Vegas, is not a city that people make a commitment to,” Levinson says. “It’s a pretty generic place, mass produced housing. It’s what happens when you have market-based decisions by big developers. If you are making a commitment to a place, you build in a different way.”

Stern acknowledges that so much of history has been about Manifest Destiny and “taming the wilderness, coming to a land and bringing it under the yoke and plow.”

But Las Vegas, he says, is an aberration, a place to create a fantastical world regardless of resources and environment. Part of the problem, Stern says, is the perception that the Mojave is such vast and empty “ugly” space. “But if you bulldoze a road through the desert, that stays there for a century even if you never use it. How many acres have been flattened in anticipation of development that may or may not happen?”

In the book’s essay, Huber and Stern address the chain of similarly ruinous relationships in the Mojave Desert: military use, mining and recreational use with off-road vehicles.

“Urbanizing” doesn’t present a new view of Las Vegas. Instead, it forces readers to reexamine the prosaic from a different perspective, to gain a new sense of awareness, if not alarm. As writer and art critic Dave Hickey predicts of readers who open the book: “They’re going to see what they’re used to seeing, but they’re not going to see what they’re used to looking at.”

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