The Sphere



Photograph by Elena Saavedra Buckley.

Once when I was about twelve I was walking down the dead-end road in Albuquerque where I grew up, around twilight with a friend. Far beyond the end of the road was a mountain range, and at that time of evening it flattened into a matte indigo wash, like a mural. While kicking down the asphalt we saw a small bright light appear at the top of the peaks, near where we knew radio towers to occasionally emit flashes of red. But this glare, blinding and colorless, grew at an alarming rate. It looked like a single floodlight and then a tight swarm beginning to leak over the edge of the summit. My friend and I became frightened, and as the light poured from the crest, our murmurs turned into screams. We stood there, clutching our heads, screaming. I knew this was the thing that was going to come and get me. It was finally going to show me the horrifying wiring that lay just behind the visible universe and that was inside of me too. And then, a couple seconds later, when we realized the light was only the shining moon rising over the peaks, we began laughing so hard that my parents heard and stumbled out into the front yard. 

I thought of this memory a few weeks ago while in a Lyft in Las Vegas, also at twilight. A man named June was driving me to the Sphere, the giant 20,000-capacity arena built just off the Strip by the Madison Square Garden Company and designed by the firm Populous, which opened earlier in the fall. The Sphere is (mostly) its titular shape, 157 meters wide, and covered in what is reputedly the largest LED screen on earth, and inside is a smaller sphere, holding a lobby and an arena with a curved screen that bears down at and envelopes the audience, a massive take on a planetarium with 4D features. The globular animations on the outer surface are what first captivated the attention of online viewers; since the Sphere turned on, it has featured rotating basketballs, mercurial ripples, AI-generated washes of color, and advertisements that cost brands nearly half a million dollars per day to display. Its most iconic exterior images are all the kinds of things middle schoolers like to draw in the margins of their notebooks: an eyeball, an emoji face, and, yes, the moon. 

I first latched on to the Sphere in mid-2021, when architectural renderings had already been circulating for a few years. During the 2022 midterms, while election forecasters were waiting for late-breaking votes from Clark County, Nevada, where Las Vegas is the county seat, I remember thinking that the Sphere would be the right place on which to beam the same consequential results in the future. If the electoral college was always going to turn random populations into oracles, why not enhance the effect and ground the abstraction with the most cosmic of shapes? At that point, the structure was still a giant salad bowl of curved steel beams just off the Strip; Madison Square Garden had been building the thing since 2018, and inflation had pushed the projected cost to $2.2 billion, nearly double the original budget. By September of this year they finished it, and U2 started its forty-show residency. I booked a trip to Vegas and bought a ticket to Postcard from Earth, the Darren Aronofsky “movie” that had been made for the venue. (Cheaper than Bono’s show.) It was all I could think about for weeks. 

Then I began having dreams that punished me for my enthusiasm. In them the Sphere was a pathetic size, the circumference of a backyard trampoline, languishing in roadside parking lots like a sheepish dumpster with a vending machine’s tepid glow. People whizzed past it in their cars as they would highway billboards for personal injury lawyers. And I guess that was the outcome I was afraid of. For me, the question of the Sphere was not really about the subjects that other journalists had focused on—the state of live entertainment, or what screens do to our attention spans—but about whether a physical object could still truly excite us, siphon and sustain our normally starved collective passions. (For the majority of human history, this type of adulation was mostly aimed at entities that were sacred, cosmic, or both, like comets.) That the Sphere was owned and operated by sterilized companies didn’t really matter to me; perhaps this increased the effect of the thing as a smooth, vacuous singularity of the masses. Once I got there, and once I went inside it, would the energy I had generated thinking about it have anywhere to land? I was hoping—and this might have been the optimism that the Sphere was brazenly promoting at a time when everyone seemed to be shorting it—that if you tore away all the facts about its content, you would still be left with what moved me against all odds: the shape, and the light.

I arrived in Vegas on the final day of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, a Formula 1 event that was taking place on the Strip itself. Its construction had bottlenecked the city for months, and casino and hotel workers had been told to leave home three hours early during the event to make their shifts. (Tens of thousands of those workers, members of the Culinary Union, had just secured a historic contract after threatening the city with what would have been the largest hospitality strike of all time.) Roads were closed from 5 P.M. onward, so I decided to get to the Sphere just before. In the Lyft I was leaning forward, clinging to the empty passenger seat to get closer to the windshield, straining against the seat belt like a child. We turned right and it appeared before us, again at what looked to me to be the end of the road. Behind the shadowed cutouts of stoplights, telephone wires, and emphatic fronds of palm trees, and in front of the mealy, bruised residue of the completed sunset, sat the expectant thing, curling wildly with sky-blue light in mosaic. I realized that the animation was a disco ball in motion, the rows of mirrored shards twisting against one another with the glide of a Rubik’s Cube. June and I gasped and wowed repeatedly while he took videos to send to his wife. It became bigger as we approached Paradise Road and the parking structures that surrounded its nestled position beyond the thoroughfares. The disco ball by now had turned into a stack of quivering ice cubes. 

And then, rotating clockwise on the equator of the Sphere from the far side, it arrived: the Heineken logo, a green and red neon icon rendered in LED. June and I laughed, much harder than I think either of us expected. This whole time, while we gawked, it had been waiting to show us that it was something familiar, something of this world. And this amazed us too. 

* * *

The story the Madison Square Garden PR machine uses to illustrate the Vitruvian genius of its chief executive, James Dolan, is that the Sphere started as a simple drawing he made seven years ago in a notebook: a circle with a stick person standing inside of it. (This has now been framed.) And it’s true that Dolan understood something primal: we are, whether from the womb, or the firmament, or the telos of the atom, or the pleasure of throwing a ball into the air, innately pulled toward the form of the sphere. “The globe is, mathematically, the form that encloses the maximum interior volume with the least external skin,” Rem Koolhaas wrote in Delirious New York. “It has a promiscuous capacity to absorb objects, people, iconographies, symbolisms; it relates them through the mere fact of their coexistence in its interior.” Domes are some of our oldest structures; in 1965, a farmer in Ukraine dug up in his backyard remains from at least four domed huts, constructed from mammoth bones, that could date as far back as 12,000 BC. Then came the basilicas. There were igloos; pueblo ovens; wigwams; maybe some sort of outhouses, all halfway spherical. But tugging the full shape out of the ground, and dedicating whole edifices to its isolated drama, suited a more secular, industrial age. “In most cases,” the urban historian Ernestyna Szpakowska-Loranc has written of spheres, “they remain within the realm of utopian projects.” Naturally, many never happened, like Étienne-Louis Boullée’s planned globular monument to Isaac Newton from the 1780s, which was only ever sketched in ink. After World War I, spheres were erected more triumphantly and deflated more spectacularly than their predecessors.  

There was, for instance, the Perisphere at the World’s Fair in 1939 in Queens, a gleaming white sphere with a plaster facade, eighteen stories high, and next to it a spindly pyramidic tower named Trylon. Visitors entered the Perisphere on an escalator and rode a moving walkway around its interior circumference while looking down at “Democracity”—a model of a harmonious, anonymous American settlement set in 2039, in which workers spend their days in factories and live in satellite towns surrounding a cultural center, all connected by broad and efficient highways. This vision of the World of Tomorrow, the fair’s motto, was nonspecific, despite all the effort; E. B. White described struggling to remember more than “only a fragment” after he visited the exhibit. (But tomorrow always arrives in some form, and in 1941, the Perisphere was destroyed, its materials used for armaments in the war.) As we know now, the real cities of the future would sprawl not by design but by demand, much like Vegas, which initially grew to satisfy the gambling laborers who built the nearby Hoover Dam. It was never a town of austere white structures but one of ornament. By the sixties you could look down the Strip and see a montage of layered neon casino signs, meant to be looked at through a moving windshield. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, the architects who in 1972 published Learning from Las Vegas, one of the most influential urban theory books of the twentieth century, wanted more architects to embrace the lessons of the city’s signage, its “roadside eclecticism,” which they thought representative of the chaos, improvisation, and consumption of the real world—and therefore a more exciting and inclusive way of imagining what could be truly new. 

These are the contradictory ancestries of the Sphere: the modernist utopia imagined by its shape, and the vernacular idioms of its advertisements and screens. When videos of it began going viral, people scrambled to defend it, though I was never sure against whom exactly. Perhaps it felt hard to believe that anything it might project or hold would live up to its own ambition, that the dream of galvanizing mass culture is dead. In later writings, which fewer people read, Venturi offered naive enthusiasm for the democratizing possibilities of technology, for an “electronic age when computerized images can change over time, information can be infinitely varied rather than dogmatically universal, and communication can accommodate diversities of cultures and vocabularies.” Yet in 1994, he and Scott Brown returned to Vegas and found the city, which had once projected a “wickedness or vulgarity” that seemed instructional, to now be enclosed like a theme park. Parking lots had become parking structures; errant lots were landscaped; the hotels were bigger and only ballooning. “This promotes expanded markets and bigger profits, but will its wholesome scenography end up as ‘blandly homogenized good taste,’ ” they wrote, “ ‘boring as only paradise can be’?” 

I saw all of this on the Strip during F1 weekend, where people without high-dollar tickets to the event, including me, had to strain to see the racecars beyond the privacy screens and barriers that had been put up along the roads and pedestrian bridges. I killed time before the final race started by hanging out with a group of lanky boys in jagged chrome helmets, their many dirt bikes leaning up against the doors of an establishment offering IV therapy. One of them, Landon, told me that they were all fifteen years old and had driven in on those bikes from Henderson, a suburb thirty minutes to the east. Usually they meet under the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and ride the Strip, or they go down to areas on the outskirts of town to use dirt jumps they’ve built. Like everyone else on the sidewalk, they had tried to evade the race barricades. “We were originally going to climb a roof and watch it. We’d been planning it,” Landon said. “I’ve gotten to the top of the Aria”—he pointed in the direction of one of the Strip’s tallest hotels—“because I know about the latches and the fire stairs.” But the extra security had made this impossible. Instead someone had brought a pocketknife and sliced through the vinyl mesh screen covering the fence. When the cars zipped past every few minutes, the whole group would hurry toward the window of their own making to meet them. 

I asked him over the roar if he liked it in Vegas. “It’s too much,” he said, gesturing at the throngs. “A lot of times my friends and I will drive out to the lakebed and have bonfires, and we’ll look at the sky.” He’d decided that he wanted to become a wildland firefighter in Colorado or Utah. 

“Well, I’m here for the Sphere,” I said. “Do you care about that?” 

Landon thought for a second and nodded. “I do think the Sphere is cool,” he said, looking me in the eye. “But it means more light pollution. I’m trying to see the stars.”

* * *

I was standing on top of a parking garage the morning after F1, a cloudless moment in high desert winds. Across the street, crews were disassembling the racetrack boundaries and grandstands while private jets gained altitude overhead. The Sphere, looming just above, was showing one of the first animations since I arrived that wasn’t purely an advertisement: a collage of blinking retro neon patterns on a black background, the Welcome to Las Vegas sign in the center. Later that weekend I would visit the Neon Museum, where these kinds of iconic Strip signs of yore, which have mostly been replaced with screens, are displayed in a dirt lot. In this way the Sphere seemed to be doing a land acknowledgement for all the displaced iconography. 

I had just visited a dispensary called NuLeaf, a block down the road, where the manager, Daniel, told me that they’ve had a steady influx of customers since the Sphere opened. “It’s my understanding that they want to have their minds blown,” he explained. Daniel thought the Sphere was great, as did many other people I spoke to who live in Vegas and see it as often in real life as on their phones. It wasn’t changing the logic of the Strip, really; it certainly didn’t make it worse. It mostly drew more focused attention to the area, and that seemed like a net good for the status quo. That being: the Vegas metro area as home to nearly two million people and counting. More of its residents live below the poverty line than the national average. At least 6,500 of them are homeless, and hundreds of that group live in 600 miles of tunnels underneath the city, which can flood, causing mass drownings. (Otherwise, there isn’t enough water.) And a smaller number live in Siegel Suites, a chain of dreary flexible-lease apartment complexes, one of which is also in the immediate halo of the Sphere. This was the home of a man named John Penley, one of the few militantly anti-Sphere voices I heard about. He’s a Vietnam veteran who spent his early life as an anti-war activist, but while living at the Suites, the Sphere became a talisman for his worsening quality of life—his rent was apparently raised four times in a year, and the pool at his complex had been closed for months. As it was being built, he was afraid of becoming homeless. “I can throw a rock and hit the fucking thing,” Penley told the Village Sun, a small newspaper in Manhattan, about living in the penumbra. “I don’t feel safe here anymore. I’m the only one here yelling about it.” He packed up a U-Haul and left for Arizona a few weeks before I got there.  

My other conversations with friends, and friends of friends, were more circuitous. I spent time in the backyard of a house talking to an artist named Nima and a writer named Clement, who live in Vegas and can see the Sphere from their neighborhood. They had recently both been to the Aronofsky movie I was going to see there. “What’s cool about the Sphere is not that it’s a giant screen,” Nima said. “What is cool is that, for everything that they display, the whole world is watching.” He thought that should be taken seriously, and also that the best use of it would be to show us genuinely new images, things we would never think of ourselves. 

Maybe, we thought, taking a human decision-maker out of the process entirely would be the most compelling way to do this. I suggested a chance operation global experiment, where normal people all over the world are given cameras that beam their lives into the venue and onto the exterior at random intervals. There were always long-term projects; maybe it could continually live stream a full year in the life of a nesting albatross. It could advertise something more pedestrian but impactful, like proposals for neighborhood improvement projects resident audiences could vote on with handheld devices. Or maybe it should peddle in material that doesn’t even exist, Nima offered, like AI-generated philanthropic pitches about fake orphans, just to see how many people would donate money. He thought there should still be advertisements, especially for any supposedly good cause. “I want the advertisements to disturb it,” Nima said. “People would feel horrible—that I can guarantee.” 

“And none of this is going to happen,” Clement said. We paused. The ambient sadness in the air was reaching condensation point, as it does in conversations about what is possible. 

“But, also, the great thing about leaving the Sphere was being like, this is much better,” Clement said, gesturing around vaguely at the yard, the sprawling city beyond it, the unenclosed world. “There are smells here, I can talk to that guy over there. Here’s this shitty area with traffic cones, a parking lot. It’s all very immersive.” 

* * *

My turn. What did I see inside? The soft blue glow and the sense of sound controlled, absorbed by the walls and piped in through hidden speakers. There is facial recognition technology at the entrances; drinks were thirty dollars. It’s a cashless place, so there are “reverse ATMs” tucked awkwardly against walls, where you feed money into a machine that spits out a plastic card. Even there, in a two-billion-dollar venue, you have to swipe your hand under the automatic soap dispensers in the bathroom three to five times to get them to work. The lobby is tented by mighty escalators and ornamented with obscure dangling rings, which I thought looked like something you could buy at Target, just supersize. There are five robots programmed with a single AI named Aura scattered in the main space, and you can push through the crowds and ask their handlers to direct her attention toward you so that you can ask a question. I met a boy around the age of ten standing in line to see her, and he told me that he wanted to ask her who would win in a fight: Bart Simpson or Young Sheldon. When he made it to the front, I found it touching that he specified Young Sheldon “from CBS’s Young Sheldon,” just to make sure she understood. (Her answer was awful: Young Sheldon, because he’s a real person and Bart is a cartoon. This, coming from her!) 

My seat was on the left side of the Sphere’s main arena, which I entered through a small hallway separating it from the lobby, one of the most silent stretches of space I’ve been in in recent memory. Like with cathedrals or caves, the first thing I noticed when I got to the main space was not exactly the structure itself, but all the air it held above my head, empty space I could feel and hear. And then, immediately beyond that, the structure: seamless gray that stretched from the floor to back behind my head, and a small phalanx of bullet-shaped fans aimed at the audience nestled near the floor; maybe someday they’ll figure out how to hide the 4D tools. They packed us into a dense cluster in the middle of the available seating, either to improve sight lines or to make sure the videos people took would make the venue look more crowded than it really was. While we waited for the show to start, people looked at their phones. Two separate groups were checking up on the Eagles playing the Chiefs in Kansas City; one older couple repeatedly watched a short video of what must have been their young grandchild babbling on a wooden porch at sunset. When the lights dimmed and everything began, the opening scenes took place on a limited rectangle of the Sphere’s skin in front of us—and when the entire interior turned on at once, with shots gliding over snowy mountain ranges, people cried out in awe.

In Aronofsky’s movie, two astronauts wake up in a lush and brandless spaceship from cryogenic sleep, and before full consciousness is resumed, they are shown a narration of what happened on Earth: humans existed on the planet among other organisms, found religion, did art (once—only one scene of that), then spread all over the globe and industrialized in urban Koyaanisqatsi timelapses. We (all?) took too much, we (all?) didn’t listen to the warnings, and the Earth died. While we couldn’t figure out how to stop climate change, we did engineer long-range spaceships and organize mass departures, and a scene shows many rockets taking off at once, depositing Adams and Eves on habitable zone areas around the universe and giving them magic little kernels that, when placed on the desiccated land, turn the planets into verdant Edens. 

After I left Las Vegas, I initially told people as shorthand that I found the outside of the Sphere more compelling than the inside, which quickly began to feel like any other performance venue as my eyes adjusted. Everyone seemed to understand this intuitively; I didn’t have to explain why entering the bubble might burst it. But at some point I decided that I wasn’t really telling the truth. 

Grasslands, animals, brewing storms, oil fields, hordes of moving people, they washed over me and the other viewers, and of course there were moments that stunned me as they were meant to, even though the movie is basically a screen saver. But I found myself looking to my right, across to the other side of the seating, where the screen ends and is flush with the wall, and the dull materials that do not glow trace a jagged border up the globe. There the images had velocity. They slammed into the dividing line and disappeared, and I could not look away. This was the place that I feel to be the center of the Sphere—where what was imagined, directed, and awesome met the stuff of our world, concrete and plastic and trudging through time. This was where how things might be and how they really are collided, and it let me see that each charge the other with a thin and hot current. They are so close together that there is only a painful space between them. You have to zero in on this glittering edge. You have to look at where the light begins and ends.


Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editor of Harper’s and The Drift.