Belle Epoxy

Has the new Las Vegas, with its mishmash collection of the world’s greatest cultural icons, raised the American love affair with the fake to the level of high art?

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Cover of May/June 2009

"You see right there," says Bob Hlusak, his finger outstretched and his head angled upward as he surveys the underside of the ornate porte-cochère. "See how the arches land on top of those little capitals? That's what I'm talking about. I mean, that little corner shouldn't be out there."

Why, yes, I do see. The corners of the arch do jut out several inches over the top of the capital. Hlusak grimaces, then turns and walks under the Rialto Bridge, entering St. Mark's Square as a dry desert wind horsetails through the dust. Pivoting and squinting, he points out other problems: The life-sized statues that line the balustrade atop St. Mark's Library are more age worn than the library itself. A pair of columns is missing from beneath another arch. The brutal summer heat has warped the rosette molding strip across the front of the Doge's Palace. The list goes on.

Hlusak and I are not standing in Venice, of course, but rather outside the Venetian, a new resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nev. He isn't, as you might suspect, your usual dour critic of faux America, bemoaning the loss of authenticity and quality craftsmanship in Theme Park America. He's vice president and executive design manager at Treadway Industries, Inc., which replicates architectural pieces out of cast gypsum, concrete, fiberglass, and foam sprayed with a thin layer of urethane hard coating. He was in charge of most of the architectural ornamentation for the Vene-tian, spending two years of his life overseeing the creation of 80,000 finials, cornices, corbels, pilasters, capitals, balusters, pediments, friezes, columns, and statues that were variously bolted, glued, and cemented into this prodigal homage to Venice. We agreed to meet at the Venetian so he could walk me through and show off his latest work, but the little problems and unfinished detailing seem to plague him still, seven months after it opened.

We wander atop a bridge that arches gracefully over a canal; below us idle gondolas jostle in the breeze. While Hlusak continues his commentary ("See the detail on those cornerstones? I don't know, it just doesn't quite work …"), I take a moment and look around. A volcano rises from a lagoon across the way; up the street a pirate ship battles a British frigate with much cannon fire and carnage. To the south, the Eiffel Tower soars into the sky, just across from Lake Como and a sandstone-colored hillside village. Beyond it, the Statue of Liberty overlooks a busy intersection that's also fronted by a storybook castle from King Arthur's court. A sphinx, larger than the one in Egypt, rises above a monorail track next door. Bells are clanging in the Campanile, exasperated drivers are honking their horns in snarled traffic, and large men wearing small fanny packs hurry over the bridge to attend a show starring two Germans and some white tigers. It boggles the mind—the Las Vegas Strip is like a walk-through what's-wrong-with-this-picture tableau, hell-bent to daze and disorient the visitor.

Yet the thing that I find myself marveling at most is this: Here I am, talking to a guy who can stand amid this grand train wreck of geography and cultures and epochs and notice a three-inch error 15 feet off the ground.

Since late 1998 four casinos costing a total of nearly $5 billion have opened on the southern end of the Strip. The Venetian evokes Renaissance Italy. The Bellagio recreates a fin-de-siècle lakeshore resort in the Italian Alps. Paris Las Vegas serves up its own twist on the Belle Epoque. Mandalay Bay conjures up a "mythical tropical paradise" (think: Bing Crosby goes to Burma) complete with outdoor lagoon and manmade waves big enough to surf. More is on the way: This summer will see the opening of the Aladdin, a desert-themed confection that according to press materials is "carefully crafted to create the sensation of travel through ancient and exotic worlds—India, Arabia, North Africa and southern Spain."

I've tried to suspend judgment while I'm here, and that's proven harder than I anticipated. It's not that I have to bite my tongue about how these artificial worlds reinforce the shallowest clichés about the world's most extraordinary places. Or how this plastic fantasy of cheap visual thrills is emblematic of an America gone wrong. Or how the experience of place has been replaced by the place of experience. Those thoughts occur to me only when I'm on my flight back home.

No, while I'm here I have to guard against being swept up by an utterly undignified enthusiasm for the place. Despite myself, I love Las Vegas. I love its goofy deco-Greco-Anglo-Egypto-Tahitian splendor. I love the unapologetic decadence of Caesars Palace and the Bellagio. I love the trippy, snow-globe architecture of New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas, and the Venetian. Everything seems at once familiar and unfamiliar, like a walk through my own addled imagination. Anyone who comes to Vegas and isn't just a little bit spoony over this city-sized trompe l'oeil is probably in immediate need of a defibrillator.

There's something ineffably pleasing about a good con, of being duped by a crafty counterfeit. "The pleasure of imitation, as the ancients knew, is one of the most innate in the human spirit," wrote Umberto Eco about Disneyland. "But here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it."

Finding pleasure in shrewd fakery runs deep in American history. From faux wood grain on early furniture to Disneyland's facsimile Main Street, Americans have always loved a convincing simulacrum, beholding it as both an object of wonder and a portal allowing escape from the ordinariness of everyday life. Cultural historian Miles Orvell has written of the rise of Victorian America's "culture of imitation," a time when the nation became enamored of lifelike reproductions and recreations—marble fruit and silk flowers and that marvelous predecessor to Caesars Palace, the plaster-and-fiber Imperial Rome of the White City at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

Our love affair with the faux has only grown more torrid. Ada Louise Huxtable notes that the American public today is "preoccupied as never before with fantasy, hooked on simulation, and satisfied with surrogate experience made possible by unprecedented advances in technology." Call it our Belle Epoxy. It's as if theme parks have o'erleapt the gates and are run amuck. Everything now strives to look like something else, to evoke a distant place or era. "Theming is expected now," says Hlusak (pronounced "LOO-sack"). "You go into any shop and it's expected to have a sense and a feel. It's the canvas; it's the background. And if it's just white, you recoil a little bit."

As theming comes of age, it's matured and grown, even adopting recherché buzz phrases. Architect Jon Jerde, who designed the Bellagio, has become a leading crusader of what he calls "placemaking." Authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore preach about the emergent "experience economy" in a recent book of the same name, subtitled "Work Is Theatre and Every Business a Stage." Services, like many goods, have become simple commodities, they write, and customers are quickly transferring loyalties based on value pricing. Businesses will thrive only if they are aggressive in creating the most engaging places of experience, where customers will line up to pay a premium.

Nowhere is that theory being tested more spiritedly than in Las Vegas, a city that reinvents itself every decade or two. The new Las Vegas has taken on the air of a Permanent Universal Exposition of Global Culture. Here visitors can tour a Top 40 of the world's greatest cultural icons (Great Pyramids, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building), all conveniently arrayed along a two-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. And as in past world expositions, where the public got its first glimpse of electricity and miracle plastics and 10-lane superhighways, here visitors can get an early look at the materials, technology, and concepts of theming likely to show up in a neighborhood near them. Maybe even in their own homes.

The Venetian opened in May 1999 at a cost of $1.5 billion. Viewed from the Strip, it looks like an architectural tag sale with Venice's treasures—Ca' d'Oro, Doge's Palace, and Bridge of Sighs among them—all heaped together curbside. Inside, between the gilded fountain at the hotel check-in counter and the Great Hall of the Doge's Palace, Bob Hlusak and I walk down an impressive arched hallway adorned with real and faux marble, gilded capitals, and hand-painted High Renaissance-style ceiling paintings. It's clotted with flâneurs aiming their video cameras upward as they shuffle along, providing commentary for their travelogues. "We are literally in Venice," says one 30-ish man in a nylon running suit as we navigate around him. "It's incredible!"

After ascending via escalator through the Great Hall, we enter a Venetian neighborhood that's all dentils and arches and thickly balustered balconies set along a twisting lane. The area consists of a canal flanked by two- and three-story buildings, with some of the upper floors compressed, as if designed for small children. It's eerily tidy and clean, the canal as aquamarine as a Hockney swimming pool, the walls richly hued in earthy shades. The mandate from Sheldon Adelson, the chairman of the company that built the resort, was to make the Venetian feel old but not shabby. "He wanted aging, but he didn't want weathering," Hlusak says. "He said, 'Let's strip a couple hundred years off the face of Venice.'" As a result, this Venice feels clean, comfortable, and welcoming, evoking that peculiarly potent yearning for a place and time that never existed.

The quarter-mile canal is plied by dapper gondoliers in straw boaters and red sashes who serenade paying passengers with sonorous renditions of "Volare." Overhead a faded blue sky with wispy painted clouds is frozen in a sort of pale and permanent twilight. You pass from one piazza to another, past trendy boutiques and shops, eventually arriving at a second St. Mark's Square, a haiku version of the one outside. The overall packaging of space by the architecture firms of The Stubbins Associates and Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo is well conceived and wrought; the designers have even manufactured a genuine sense of mystery here, with open spaces revealing themselves unexpectedly beyond erratic twists and turns, just like an ideal city. For a moment you believe you could wander down this little alley over here and find your way into a whole other neighborhood with more piazzas and canals and crooning gondoliers. But no: A few dozen yards later it dead-ends at a food court.

The Venetian's catalog of architectural wonders didn't spring full-blown from the creators' imaginations. Hlusak began research during a three-week trip to Venice with the project's art director, Joe McWilliams. (Two other trips were to follow.) "We tromped all over and got lost every which way you can," Hlusak says. "I just wandered around and sniffed the air, trying to drink in the spirit of the place." The pair also shot hundreds of rolls of film, which were winnowed down to a catalog of some 3,000 photos. Engineers converted these photos into usable blueprints and electronic files for the production department.

That spirit of Venice was translated into a visual vocabulary of mix-and-match window arches and balustrades and cornices. A number of sleights of hand were employed: The floors of the first floor hallway were made of real marble, which somehow makes the faux versions more convincing. The seams in the vaulted sky are hidden by bridges. And the famously individual capitals on the exterior of the real Doge's Palace here consist of just a handful of designs cleverly arrayed to make them appear unique. For instance, the upper arcade consists mostly of two capitals, each with four faces, that were rotated one-quarter turn when installed. "You have to walk past eight columns before you see the repetition," Hlusak says. "But the look and feel happens as you walk through. It seems like every one of these capitals is different."

A middle-aged woman dressed in black with a paisley scarf approaches us—she's been eavesdropping on our conversation—and compliments Hlusak on a job well done. "I've been to Venice," she announces, "and tacky as Las Vegas is, this is a lot nicer than the real one. It smells a lot better. It's so organic over there."

Treadway Industries occupies 150,000 square feet in a sprawling business park of low buildings crenelated with air conditioning units. It's set amid scrappy desert about 12 miles northeast of the Strip; vacant lots around the plant are abloom with snagged plastic shopping bags that billow in gusty winds. On the shop floor there's the usual stuff of industrial work: a punch clock, black-and-yellow tape on the floor warning of danger areas, an eyeball-washing machine, and the mildly intoxicating smell of volatile fluids.

The company was founded in 1984 when an entrepreneur named George Treadway bought a small Florida outfit that made foam packaging inserts for stereos and microwaves. Treadway was also involved in real estate, and he asked his engineers if it was possible to link the hot-wire foam cutting machines at his new plant with the computer-assisted design programs then coming on the market. In fact, it was not only possible but also feasible to use the product on building facades. The more complex shapes that resulted could be sprayed with a stuccolike waterproof coating and quickly installed, lending boxy buildings a more elegant air.

Treadway Industries at first manufactured simple exterior moldings. After linking up with the imagineers at Disney World, the firm began developing more intricate designs and more refined coatings. Seven years ago Treadway set up a second operation in Arizona to manufacture parts and pieces for clients in the West, including Hollywood mainstays like Universal Studios. Three years ago the plant moved to Las Vegas when it became clear that the city was developing a considerable hunger for themed environments. Treadway's Las Vegas plant today employs 180 people and anticipates $20 million in sales this year.

Most of the Venetian's interior work is of cast concrete or glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum—nonflammable materials mandated by Clark County building inspectors. They are produced in the pattern shop using time-honed techniques. The workers are young, and many are Latino. Hlusak says several of the pattern shop workers come from families where parents or grandparents worked in moldmaking or casting in a centuries-old tradition. "It can look pretty medieval in here when we're casting a big, sweeping arch," Hlusak says. "You wonder where the horses are."

Many of the splashier exterior elements, like the 12-foot-high gilded statue of the archangel Gabriel atop the Campanile, are made of blocks of foam glazed with a urethane hard coat. This is the most economical way to produce one or two variants of an object. (If more are needed, it's better to make a mold.) The foam shop is uncommonly fascinating to outsiders, who can only marvel as blocks of expanded polystyrene foam—as uniform and bland as angel food cake—are converted into elegant marble statues and stout columns that look as if they could hold up the Parthenon.

The process still starts with a hot-wire machine: basically a colossal cheese slicer driven by computers. Each machine (there are four) carves slowly, almost imperceptibly, through blocks of foam with a heated filament as thin as a fishing leader. The foam is cut on two axes, then usually rotated 90 degrees and cut again on a third axis. Sometimes the blocks are further refined on a hot-wire lathe. The roughed-out foam blanks then go to the adjacent art studio, where the artists take over, using blueprints, photos, and a practiced eye to finish the job.

"I always wanted to be a stone carver, but there was no outlet for it," says Marilyn Phillips, a sculptor flecked with snowlike foam flakes. "They weren't teaching stone carving in schools, and there was no place to learn." Phillips is working on an intricate arch with gracefully tapering finials that will eventually be bolted into a Disney project in Asia. She notes that foam carving requires a singular precision: The detailing needs to be deep enough that it will stand out under the hard coat, yet not so deep that the coating pools up and fills it in. As she works she talks about finding the grain of the foam, of the superiority of the denser expanded polystyrene over the coarser foam used by other shops, and of her array of tools. "Exactos are very important," she says. "We use Exacto knives to get the shape, and we use a lot of files, sandpaper, and sanding pads," along with Dremels, dentists' instruments, and horse combs. If she slips and makes a mistake? She shrugs. "I just glue another piece on and carve it. It's the easiest thing in the world to fix."

Once carved, the foam pieces are placed in a trailer-sized steel box on the far side of the shop, where workers in space suits spray the pieces by hand. The coating is a trademarked product called Polygarde, a two-part urethane coating developed by Treadway with a roofing products firm. It creates a coat the thickness of a credit card, which can expand and contract with the weather and is remarkably rigid, durable, and quick drying. By the time the workers turn around and hang up their hoses, the piece is dry and ready for faux finishing.

Over in the finishing workshop, I pick up a segment of egg-and-dart crown molding, about six inches high and two feet long. It's faux ceramic glazed a delft blue and looks as if it should weigh 20 pounds or more. It weighs about two. The finish is remarkably realistic, even at close range, and it even feels like ceramic when you tap it with your fingernail. "The finish really comes from the smoke-and-mirror world of set design," says Hlusak, who also came from that world. (His first screen credit was for Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.) "You can make it look like whatever you need it to look like."

Given a choice, Hlusak says he'd much rather be working with marble and wood and brick, but economics just don't allow one to make cities, even faux cities, that way any more. His intent, he insists, is precisely the same as that of builders in centuries past: to build structures that inspire and amaze. "Six hundred years ago the Italians who built their towns had to build it out of Istrian stone, handmade bricks, and marble because those were the building materials they had at hand," he says. "We just have new materials to deal with."

David Layton, another foam sculptor, tells me earnestly that he believes Michelangelo would work in foam if he were alive today. And who's to say he wouldn't have found his way here, dazzling the world with his foam sculptures? Perhaps his genius would eventually compel him to break away from copying the works of others, taking foam sculpture to unimagined heights. But there's not much doubt that the Treadway factory is one of the master workshops of the Belle Epoxy, and the Venetian may be our Sistine Chapel. Ours is an age that reveres the convincing illusion, much the way Renaissance Italy celebrated its sculptors' ability to coax perfect forms out of marble. Getting the illusion nailed down perfectly is what seems to drive Hlusak and his team of artists and why they seem so intent on getting every rosette snug in its place.

When I first arrived in Las Vegas, the soaring replica of the Eiffel Tower struck me as a fitting symbol for the age of illusion, just as the original tower is an enduring symbol for the age of steel. But I found a more pointed symbol while wandering the casinos later that evening: a hulking and headless statue of Lenin in front of Red Square, a Russian-themed restaurant at Mandalay Bay. What caught my attention wasn't the impressive bronze bulk of the 16-foot-high statue, but the extraordinary job someone had done replicating the pigeon droppings that streaked Lenin's shoulders and jacket down to his pedestal. That I lived in a time when someone labored to recreate exacting and flawless dung … well, I felt a bit of vertigo come over me, and I moved on.

A couple of days later, back at the Venetian, I cross the Rialto Bridge on a moving walkway as a recorded announcement overhead exhorts visitors to "ride their own authentic Italian gondola." I let out a little chuckle: Hadn't I just seen a dozen spare gondola shells sitting in a Treadway warehouse? Anyway, they're 10 feet shorter than the traditional gondolas in Venice, and they have little trolling motors and hidden foot controls. Gondoliers wear earpieces, like Secret Service agents. How authentic is that?

The word authentic is thrown around in Las Vegas like one-dollar chips. There's an "authentic cantina" at a restaurant in Mandalay Bay, an "authentic pirate sea battle" at Treasure Island, an "authentic Italian ice cream parlor" at the Bellagio. "Our team's goal is to achieve museum-quality authenticity," says Hlusak. Sheldon Adelson even crowed to The Wall Street Journal about his casino's prospects, insisting, "When you have something authentic, you have longevity." Wasn't this once the other way around?

I realize, of course, that there's no call to be self-righteous about those who describe obvious fakes as authentic. As words are wont to do, "authentic" has evolved and changed. The dictionary definition of "real, actual, genuine (as opposed to imaginary, pretended)" now seems quaintly old-fashioned, like "cellular" defined only as a term of biology. The new meaning? Something authentic is simply something that looks as you imagine it might, based on a lifetime of movies and television and glossy advertisements in magazines. How well the placemakers can deliver those images back to us determines how authentic their creations are. In this context, Paris Las Vegas can boast of its "authentic replicas of famous French landmarks" and not be accused of being oxymoronic. If you've never actually seen the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, these structures are exactly as you imagined them. It's uncanny. They're definitely authentic.

Bob Hlusak and I meet for lunch at a bustling Mexican restaurant on a terrace along the canal. He's a bit more relaxed now and for the moment has stopped obsessing about the unfinished details. He dispenses compliments to the architects and the faux finishers and Adelson, whom he credits for inviting Treadway to join the process early on to help shape the design, rather than step in at the last minute to supply parts. He has to admit, he says, that the place turned out quite well, all things considered.

"I caught myself one day outside when the clouds were rolling through and a little wisp of wind came across and the gondolas were bobbing, and I went, 'Whoa!'" he recalls. "Just for that instant, I was back in Venice."

Except, well, if only those late budget cuts hadn't trimmed the splashier stuff: the suspended clouds that would have seemingly moved as you walked beneath them, some of the detailing on the smaller St. Mark's Square. "People are now really educated to the idea of theming," Hlusak says. "The whole level of the experience has been elevated. It's everywhere. Restaurants, stores, you name it. We're inundated with it. Now you have to do it really well to get any notice whatsoever."

What must the manufacturers of place do in the coming years to remain on the public's radar? Hlusak mulls it over as our conversation is momentarily drowned out by a passing gondolier. ("Can-tar-e, whoa-oh-oh-oh …") "We're going to have to stay on the cutting edge," he says. "Meaning, next time, everybody in this place speaks Italian and they have kids coming through singing and they've got the pigeons and they pipe in music and sounds. The walls are going to drip, and there are going to be the smells. That's going to be the next level."

In other words, Bob Hlusak has seen the future. And the future, it's safe to say, is going to be even more authentic.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.