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Lego Arcology

Sunday, 27th May, 2001

I remember the concept well from science fiction. I just never expected to spend time in one. I'm talking about an arcology, a self-contained (or almost self-contained) building.

Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven wrote in 'Oath of Fealty' about an arcology, a huge building that is home to a quarter of a million people. Within the building these people live, work and play, in perfect safety. Privacy is the price they pay for total security.

The blocks in the Judge Dredd series work on the same lines. If you don't want to leave your block, you don't have to. It has everything you could possibly need to exist, all within one building.

So does Sam's Town. Nah, this one's not science fiction. I've just spent a weekend there. It's situated a little way out of town in Las Vegas, Sin City, gambling capital of the world.

It crept up on me a little. When I first arrived and wandered into the lobby, I imagined being lost in a forest densely packed with trees. On each tree was a woodpecker, rap-rap-rapping away like a thousand metronomes just slightly out of sync. The foliage swept up to the sky, spreading out all around, almost subsuming us. But the woodpeckers were gamblers, from every possible walk of life. Their trees were slot machines and the sound was the sound of coins in perpetual motion.

The elevators were glass backed and as we headed up to the ninth floor, we could look out at the inside of a hollow cube, furnished with real trees, walkways and waterways. At the far end was a mountain of rocks pleasantly decorated with a waterfall, and a wolf in a cave on top to preside over the proceedings.

When we reached our floor, we walked round the perimeter of the square to our room, past door after door after door. I was aware that Sam's Town was a big place but the full reality of it didn't materialise until later. I just saw seven floors of rooms and two floors of casino. That was just the background.

As the weekend progressed I started to see just how much was packed into this space. It was a busy few days, so busy that I almost didn't notice that we hadn't left the building until the Sunday night. We'd bowled at the fifty plus lane bowling alley; attended a prizegiving in one of the meeting rooms; wandered through the arcade. We'd watched the light show in the inner gardens, bought gifts at the store, eaten at a variety of restaurants and the ice cream parlour. And of course, we'd frittered away a little cash in the forest of slots. We were living in a self-contained world, or at least the illusion of one.

It isn't quite that self-contained in reality, of course. There's no shopping facility of any depth, so that we had to wander down the road to find Dr Pepper in any size larger than a can. A facility without two litre bottles of Dr Pepper is not self-contained. But I started wondering.

Plenty of my fellow guests would probably arrive at Sam's Town and spend their entire holiday without ever leaving the building. Airport, taxi, Sam's Town, taxi, airport. I did something vaguely similar way back when I was a kid; my family spent an entire week literally confined to a caravan by the vaguaries of Filey weather. The difference is that we knew we were confined back then because the only entertainment we had was conversation and a pack of cards. I wouldn't like to imagine how many packs of cards Sam's Town gets through in an average week. It's confinement on such a scale that it ceases to be confinement.

Why not take it all a step further. After all, this is America, land of the shopping mall. 'Dawn of the Dead' had it absolutely right - gore flick it may have been, but it was also a very astute sideswipe at American life and culture. The few survivors of the human race hid out at a mall, where they could find almost anything they could need; but the zombies kept coming too. As they were drawn there in life, so they were in death.

In England, a shopping mall is somewhere to go to buy something; we don't have too many of the creatures anyway as most of our shopping is done in town centres. In the States, a mall is a centre of community. It's much more than just shops; it's the location for everything a person could need, the supermarket taken to the extreme and beyond. There are malls with movie theatres, but Sam's Town has one too; malls with full sized amusement parks, but then so does the MGM Grand. Las Vegas goes a step further still - it even has the attractions of the world. Right there on the Strip you can see the Eiffel Tower, the Luxor Pyramid, the Statue of Liberty. Who needs to travel when you live in Vegas?

My idea was to merge the two, plug them together like gigantic pieces of Lego. Sam's Town would remain just as it is, an entertainment paradise with something to cater to every taste; but plugged into the side would be a means to acquire that bottle of Dr Pepper without having to venture out into the 108 degree heat of Las Vegas and the catcalls of the youths on the corner.

Suddenly it becomes less a stay and more an existence. Work in the mall; earn wages to pump back into the system in a hundred and one ways. You don't even have to feed the ravenous slots that bunch in armies everywhere you look, even at the airport. Just do what you would do normally: go see a movie, eat ice cream, buy clothes. At the end of the day, head back to your room that you don't even have to clean because the maid has already been there, done that. Time starts to mutate in this microcosm of civilisation at large. Life becomes a working holiday.

I'm surprised it hasn't been done already. Las Vegas is a city in perpetual flux: if Manhattan's skyline changed this often, it wouldn't be on so many postcards. Building a shopping mall next to a casino/hotel doesn't sound like much of a big deal to me, and it would be yet another incentive for brand loyalty.

I'd like to take credit for these ideas, but they're merely observations on what I saw around me, extrapolated from all sorts of stuff hiding away in my subconscious. Niven and Pournelle's arcology in 'Oath of Fealty' is probably the biggest catalyst for me, but they didn't invent the idea either, merely a fiction to throw around it. Arcologies were invented by Paolo Soleri in his book, 'Arcology: The City in the Image of Man'. The word itself is a portmanteau of 'architecture' and 'ecology', suggesting that the building can function as an organism itself.

Sam's Town felt safe, easy and flexible. I can now actually imagine living, at least for a while, keeping my world within one single building - and that surprises me. I'm such a fan of the outdoors that I would never think twice about leaving all that behind; but now I realise that, for most people at least, you can bring the outside inside.

More than anything, if people are happy about the concept, then it makes incredible sense. Soleri's main aims were environmental and an arcology would make such a difference that it's almost unimaginable. Take away a large, sprawling city with its frantic maze of transport links and replace it with a huge single building. You'll be able to reclaim massive amounts of land and revert them to nature. Transport would be much easier, much cleaner and much safer. After all, the car is probably the worst single polluter on the planet.

Soleri also wanted to reduce the distance between people socially as well as physically. In an arcology, it would be easy for everyone to get to libraries, concert halls or art galleries. People of differing opinions and differing social classes would be able to communicate much more simply, thus opening the way forward.

The more I think about, the more it makes total sense, and I'm amazed at thinking that. After all, my dream is to live in a converted lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. Isolation and privacy are very important to me; and the only way to find those in an arcology must surely to be lost in the crowd. In an environment keyed to push inviduality, that may not even be possible.

So, I may have to revisit Las Vegas, in a few years' time. Maybe the high and mighty town planners that mould and remould Las Vegas like so much silly putty will try plugging a Lego shopping mall into a Lego casino and watch the results. I have a thousand possibilities flooding my brain. I'm intrigued as to which one is the reality.

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