The $2 Billion Land Art Paradox

Las Vegas’ vulnerability to flooding takes on an eerie, infrastructural guise in a Center for Land Use Interpretation exhibit.

By Zach Mortice

A basin and spillway near Las Vegas. Image courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation Photo Archive.

On the outskirts of the parched city of Las Vegas are dozens of basins dug into the earth, connected to hundreds of miles of arterial concrete channels that weave through the city to Lake Mead, some 30 miles to the east. Begun in the mid-1980s, this $2 billion land works infrastructure project is now 80 percent complete. The full plan calls for 121 basins and 800 miles of channel.

What’s the purpose of all this megascaled trench work? Las Vegas, plopped arbitrarily in the Mojave Desert with no permanent source of surface water and annual average rainfall of four inches, is prone to flash floods. These basins, spillways, and channels collect rainwater and whisk it away just every so often.

This paradox is the subject of Desert Ramparts: Defending Las Vegas from the Flood, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Los Angeles. Up through mid-September, its eerily steady gaze highlights this surreal and mostly unused infrastructure.

From its position in a riverless valley, Las Vegas can be flooded by heavy rainfall from all sides, hence its patchwork of detention basins and channels. It’s a perfect fit for the CLUI, which specializes in documenting the drama and curiosity of land use, broadly defined—fixed locations that work as “cultural inscriptions, either incidentally or intently,” says CLUI program manager and exhibit curator Matthew Coolidge.

This spillway prevents floodwaters from overtopping the basin in the event of a flood. Image courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation Photo Archive.

The exhibit, spread across seven monitors, first seems to be a series of still aerial photos of these nearly crystalline, alien interventions in the rocky scrubland. But look closer—and notice the flutter of a bird, or the movement of an excavator or car—and it becomes apparent that these are two-minute video loops. The frame never shifts a millimeter. The videos were shot via a stationary, hovering drone by CLUI staff to “give a sense of waiting,” Coolidge says. “It’s about waiting on this flood that may or may not come.” It’s anticipation without resolution, an open question echoing across the desert horizon.

Channels whisk water away from the basins and toward Lake Mead, 30 miles to the east of Las Vegas. Image courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation Photo Archive.

More and more, these horizons are filling up with houses and neighborhoods as the city keeps expanding, dramatically changing the relationship this formerly remote flooding infrastructure has to Las Vegas. “The detention basins have been absorbed into the city,” Coolidge says. In some of the images, verdant, green, and likely irrigated lawns and trees are visible just beyond the basins, where (in the event of a torrential downpour) canal tendrils will sweep water away from the thirsty plants.

As Las Vegas grows, it inches closer and closer to this formerly exurban infrastructure. Image courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation Photo Archive.

Desert Ramparts (curated with help from CLUI’s Aurora Tang) untangles several layers of irony hidden under thousands of anonymous tons of concrete that so wow us with their heft that we don’t question them. Most obviously, it confronts Las Vegas’s status as a desert city with no permanent source of surface water that must yet be protected from flooding. And what has Las Vegas done to stoke this paradoxical threat from the desert? Plenty, as everyone knows. “Las Vegas is often considered a sinful city, so there’s a sort of biblical flood, in a way, that is looming over it,” Coolidge says. “A cleansing deluge, a purge, like Taxi Driver.”

Second, this flood control system exists in a nation that is generally starved for quality infrastructure, yet it sits there mostly unused. Because it’s often idle, it’s easy to aestheticize as some sort of constructed ruins, or land art installation. And the closer you look, it’s harder and harder to prove it’s not land art. The abstract shapes and asymmetrical mass beg for a close, formalistic read. It’s located in a western milieu fertile for this artistic tradition. And rarely do waters surge through its spillways. From this perspective, even when it’s divorced of function, it still has something to offer.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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