Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

My recent trip allowed me the opportunity to compare and contrast. Like an electronics store with dozens of TVs running side-by-side, my visit to Nevada gave me the chance to consider contrasts in STEAMD … that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics, and Design. As the sights were filtered through my personal paradigms, I pondered on their existence, timelessness, context, and purpose. What did these artifacts tell me about human kind and our progress on this planet? How did I react to these visions?

My visit to Las Vegas and nearby Boulder City provided two contrasts of construction and purpose, as well as a comparison of the different eras these structures were created. Boulder City is a town created for the purpose of the construction of what was originally called the Boulder Dam. At a location in a narrow river valley about thirty miles from Las Vegas, a dam was constructed which is considered one of the engineering miracles of our age. The dam was named at dedication “Hoover Dam” in honor of the former president, although he wasn’t invited to the ceremony.

At that time the United States and the world was immersed in a deep economic depression, and large public works projects such as this tallest dam attracted workers from all over the country. The work was difficult and dangerous – over one hundred workers died in the construction, but it was a proud achievement of modern technology.

The engineering that went into the dam was beyond the state-of-the-art and included new ideas for pouring and curing the massive amounts of concrete required for a dam of this size. Such a combination of art and design with engineering and technology, it stands today as a model of how man can change the world he lives in with a positive intent. The dam provides electrical power for nearby Las Vegas as well as much of southern California. The water storage and flood control provided by Lake Mead, as well as the recreational opportunities of the body of water have brought bloom to the desert.

The dam, completed in 1935, continues to provide service to the area and is the destination of 9 million visitors a year. The art of Hoover dam matches the strength and power of the structure, and all that this modern wonder of the world represents to the citizens of a great nation. Although dams are not without environmental damage, they are examples of renewable power production with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

If you follow the power lines from Hoover dam to the north and west, you will arrive at Las Vegas. It was a town of less than 10,000 residents upon completion of the dam, but today it boasts over half a million permanent residents and about 40 million visitors every year.

Las Vegas has become home to some of the most impressive and downright unusual architecture short of Disneyland. The various hotels range from massively modern constructions of glass and steel to themed amusement parks with the style of ancient Rome, Venice, Egypt, and the cities of Europe. Inside these giant structures you will find much art … some fine and some rather crass. The painted ceilings of Michelangelo are reproduced along with Italian canals and faux blue sky in the Venetian. Caesars Palace boasts spiral escalators rising amongst great fountains while the Bellagio does a fountain one turn better turning the former site of the Dunes hotel into an 8-acre lake that dances as a giant fountain on the quarter hour.

The amount of energy, both human and physical, that went into the creation of these structures and the maintenance of their air-conditioned atmosphere is staggering. These symbols of gambling, fun, and decadence are truly awe inspiring. As I enjoyed the spectacle, I could not forget the fact that buildings accounted for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.

Although 75 percent of that energy consumption is in homes, commercial buildings use the remainder. That is not all together a bad thing, but it is something to consider as energy sources and uses become more critical to our politics and well-being. While we consider gas gulping V-8 engines a bad thing for the environment, there may be no greater example of conspicuous consumption of energy than Las Vegas.

Odd to see so much dedicated in a city that advertises that what happens there, stays there. Vegas truly is sin city in so many ways. Although the STEAMD aspect of the construction is not lost on me, I did not find it as impressive and nurturing to my soul as the much simpler and more functional Hoover dam.

My stay in Vegas was interesting and exciting, and I had a nice time, but my impressions seemed to always include a negative reaction to the environment. The streets were filled with people that, if they didn’t have one bottle of beer in their hands, they had two. Loud music and party hardy was the theme, and I doubt that too many of the visitors were there to view the art … although there was a nice display of fine art at the Bellagio. It is a city that enjoys its night life with little worry about the hang-over the next day. YOLO is the motto, but it is more like live for the moment, with little thought of tomorrow and what this lifestyle will ensue.

The long lasting structure of Hoover dam is contrasted with the rapid demolition of old hotels to make room for newer and grandeur and gaudier construction. The landmark Sahara hotel is now closed and marked for destruction. This is not a city of timelessness and history, but a city that is constantly reinventing itself.

This is not a city to relax in. You can lie by the pool enjoying the sun and the palm trees, but even that simple pleasure seemed interrupted by the vibration of a city that never sleeps.

It just didn’t fit my need, and I was glad when the visit was over. It was a fun and hectic ten days, but I didn’t feel relaxed and renewed. Vegas is more like too many cups of coffee, leaving you feeling buzzed and awake.

Our next destination was a natural work of nature … a true wonder of the world. After ten days in Vegas, we relaxed for two days at the Grand Canyon. Here the works of man are meant to be unnoticed so that nature’s beauty could be focused upon. Instead of glittering lights and giant video screens, I got to enjoy the faint light of the Milky Way … a sight normally drowned out by the bright lights of civilization.

It is in this peaceful and pastoral location that I found the greatest peace. There were few STEAMD artifacts to enjoy, unless you count the science of geology. But rather it was quiet and respectful enjoyment of the God given wonders that stirred my soul the greatest.

Contemplation of the forces that formed the canyon, consideration of the wild life that make this place home, and thoughts of how the park represents man coexisting with nature in a … well … natural way. More examples of architecture and art from the 1930’s, like Hoover dam, little changed in the nearly one hundred years since construction. The timeless link to the near-past of quaint lodges and watchtowers augments my joy at the million years of earthly creation that this great canyon represents. The quaint transportation of the railroad rather than the zooming noise of the airport. The simpler times hinted at by rustic settings and natural views fit my worldview much better than the crazy celebration of Las Vegas.

I think the example of the Hoover dam with its engineering and art, and even the example of Las Vegas, which has taken creation of a recreational and entertainment environment to the peak of its science, are all well and good. These structures stand as examples of the brilliance of human endeavor and the power of our economic system. But when contrasted and compared to the simple beauty of nature, the crassness of even the greatest of human efforts becomes obvious.

Such a study of contrasts has strengthened my resolve. I plan to continue my study and path of discovery. However, my plans for the next adventure will be a return to Grand Canyon or possibly Yellowstone Park. It is among the power, art, and beauty of nature that I find my inspiration for science and technology, art and design.

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