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View from Atlantic City: in its heyday, Atlantic City used to be the 'Queen of the Coast'--now it is trying to bring some life back to its soulless heart. (View).

The transatlantic in-flight movie contrived to set the scene rather well. Ocean's Eleven, Steven Soderberg's knowing remake of the '60s Sinatra bratpack movie about a Las Vegas casino heist features a brief detour in Atlantic City (my final destination). Soderberg's vision of the high rolling life is undoubtedly seductive, conjuring up the edgy blare and glitter of casino halls, with fortunes and reputations turning on a single card. But this bit-part in a remake is not Atlantic City's first appearance in the movies. Louis Malle's eponymous 1980 film evinced a more gritty European verite, capturing a bittersweet sense of melancholic despair and a down-at-heel town living on past glories. (Burt Lancaster plays an ageing mobster and Susan Sarandon an aspiring blackjack dealer who wants out of the oyster bar.) In the background, the tottering remnants of the city's huge old Boardwalk hotels reluctantly yield to the wrecking ball to make way for the spanking new casino complexes that promise jobs, futures and soc io-economic uplift.

Seen from the approaching freeway, Atlantic City lives up to its celluloid reputation for both glamour and melancholy. After an hour's drive though the forests of New Jersey it appears as a triumphal shimmer of light on the distant horizon, a coruscating stage-set of winking, scintillating neon. Trump Plaza, Caesar's, Bally's, Trump Taj Mahal, Tropicana and the Hilton are luridly emblazoned across the night sky, like modern religious mantras. (It is said that one of the most memorable travel experiences is flying into Las Vegas at night and drowning in light; you get some sense of how surreal and captivating this might be on the approach to Atlantic City.) It's only when you get up close to this star-spangled siren marooned on the edge of the ocean that the cracks start to show.

Atlantic City started life sedately enough. Lying on Absecon Island, its first summer visitors were the local Absegami Indians. Early South Jersey settlers ignored it and there were few permanent residents. The only access was by boat across six miles of bay and salt marsh. Large dunes protected the beach and the place was heavily wooded. Local physician Jonathan Pitney had the notion of creating a 'bathing village and health resort' on the island and joined forces with a group of businessmen eager to develop South Jersey. Engineer Richard Osborne designed Atlantic City on a conventional nineteenth-century grid system. The patriotic nomenclature of the streets, most of which were originally named after US states (and were immortalized on the first Monopoly board) has been joined by more contemporary commemorations such as Bacharach Boulevard. In 1852 Osborne received a railway charter from Camden to Atlantic City (early train journeys took two hours) and in 1854 the city was incorporated with 18 voters electing the first mayor.

Atlantic City's proximity to population centres and its cheap, convenient train link encouraged the masses to flee the stifling cities of the eastern seaboard for summer pleasures by the ocean. The city grew rapidly to provide lodgings, eating places and entertainments. Attractions such as the Boardwalk, which runs for over four miles along the seafront, amusement piers and beauty pageants (the city still hosts Miss America; current incumbent Miss Oregon) were developed to cater for the growing seasonal influx.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, Atlantic City was the undisputed Queen of the Coast. Its population peaked at around 66 000 in the 1930s, when the city's beaches and amusements provided much-needed escapism from the Great Depression. But cheap air travel marked the end of its preeminence as a vacation resort and from the 1950s, Atlantic City went into decline. Its economy had always been seasonally dependent, so when summer visitors stopped coming, its population began to decrease (and is still decreasing). To stop the rot, gambling was legalized in 1976 as a means of attracting new visitors and providing resources for urban renewal and associated uplift. (This gambling-as-a-catalyst model is now being seriously contemplated by British planners as a means of revitalizing the UK's staid and declining seaside resorts.) It meant the end of the grand ocean-liner style hotels, razed to make way for flashy casino complexes, which are little more than huge sheds with even huger car parks attached. Alt hough there is the odd farcical moment (the solemn fibre-glass gladiators heroically adorning the car park at Caesar's, for instance), most of the architecture is irredeemably gross and banal.

As with most American cities, the car predominates, so any sense of human scale is lost. Walking is seen at best a mild inconvenience; at worst, highly dangerous. Apart from the trippers on the Boardwalk, no one walks anywhere, so the cosy European notion of a public realm with streets, shops, squares, cafes and human animation is a non-starter. Hulking hotels are interspersed with featureless parking lots, carious fragments of terraced houses and the odd convenience store. Respectable follks have long since skipped to the suburbs, leaving what passes for the centre to the mad, the marginalized and the dispossessed, while hordes of bussed-in tourists play the slot machines day and night safely insulated in their glitzy casino hotels.

Atlantic City does have a version of public life, but it tales place in the seafront piers (now converted into kitschy, claustrophobic shopping malls), and underneath the vast hotel porte-cocheres, which accommodate 24 hour comings and goings choreographed by squads of parking valets, bellhops, taxi drivers doormen, and tour guides.

To the casual visitor, there seems little tangible evidence of uplift, despite the rivers of money sluicing round the casino tables. However, the presence of Donald Trump et al has had a conspicuous effect on the city's real estate values. In 1976 when the casino referendum was passed, Atlantic City's real estate was estimated at just over $3l6 million. By the early '90s this had risen to $6 billion. Trump is a mogul's mogul and his current Atlantic City empire encompasses the Trump Marina, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza and Trump World's Fair (there is even a Trump brand of mineral water). With Las Vegas now embracing high culture through its Guggenheim franchise (AR June 2002), can a Trump Guggenheim be far behind?

Some recent public projects do stand out - a sturdy PoMo bus station brings a bit of dignity to the dreary business of bus travel. The gargantuan Atlantic City Conference Center, completed in the mid '90s, is an attempt to rebrand the city as a serious business centre as opposed to a seaside gambling den. Set five blocks back from the Boardwalk strip, the Convention Center is linked to a new rail terminus and is also served by a recently completed Sheraton Hotel. Plans are being developed to link this emerging civic node with the seafront Boardwalk to create an east-west pedestrian axis. Designed by Carter Burgess Architects, The Walk is a low-rise conglomeration of shops, restaurants, and cafes arranged around a series of public squares. Spread over eight city blocks, it is intended to bring a suggestion of al fresco street life to the currently petrified centre. But the casino hotel model still exerts an powerful grip on the collective imagination. Atlantic City's other main mega development is The Borgata by Marnell Corrao Associates, a mammoth new casino hotel rising up on the north-west side of the city, near the Trump Marina. Opening in 2003, it will have over 2000 guest rooms, 11 restaurants and 135 000 sq ft of gaming. Billed as a 'place to interact, play, indulge and escape', its vaguely jazz moderne streamlining and flashy gold mirror cladding fail to mitigate its breathtaking bulk. In Atlantic City, nothing succeeds like excess - and the house always wins.


This issue of the AR is devoted to Bigness. The next, September, is about small buildings: the crucibles in which architecture is so often refined. We range from the sensuous delights of the small works for the Swiss Expo by architects as different as Jean Nouvel, Diller + Scofidlo and Co-op Himmelb(l)au to a micro skyscraper in New York by Raimund Abraham. Jarmund Vigsnaes show how to add to an existing house with invention and their usual immaculate detailing. Dirk van Postel's Temple d'Amour shows how stone and glass can combine to concentrate experience, while Toyo Ito working with Arup's Cecil Balmond dissolves his pavilion in London's Hyde Park into air and nature. Have this and II other issues delivered to your door at a discount by using the subscription form in this issue or get in touch through our excellent website at
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Previous Article:Letters.
Next Article:New approach: new landscaping and gardens around Tate Britain pull the disparate buildings of the site together, constitute a new public space and...

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